published Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Most in Tennessee races say keep charter school decisions in 'local hands'

GEORGIA CHARTER FIGHT

In Georgia, state law allows local school boards to rule on applications for independent school charters. A proposed constitutional change before voters Nov. 6 would let the state set up a separate panel of political appointees to issue charters to private operators. Prospective statewide charter operators would apply to that panel. Local operators would apply first to their own school boards, but effectively have two paths for appeal. Opponents argue a new panel isn't necessary, in part because Georgia already has more than 200 charter schools. Proponents say more educational options would benefit everyone.

The Associated Press

NASHVILLE -- Most Southeast Tennessee legislative candidates are giving a thumbs down to the possibility of cutting local school boards out of the decision-making process when it comes to approving public charter school applications.

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and Democratic opponent Sandy Smith don't see eye to eye on many things, but both said they don't like making the state the sole authority when it comes to approving charter schools.

"I don't like taking all the decision making out of the local hands," Dean said. "Naturally, the ultimate power should be given to the state, [but] I'd like some balance with the local school boards having input on it."

Smith, a retired teacher, said she thinks approval "still needs to come through the local school board first. I think our local school board is more knowledgeable about the needs of our children -- or at least I hope they would be."

Charter schools receive taxpayer funds but are privately operated and don't have to follow some rules and regulations followed by regular public schools. In Tennessee, state and local dollars follow students who attend charter schools.

Some charter school advocates are calling for giving the state more authority on charter school approval in the wake of a fight involving Metro Nashville Public Schools, Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies and the State Board of Education.

Under current law, local school boards decide whether to grant a charter school's application. If denied locally, applicants can appeal to the State Board of Education, which reviews the matter and can tell the local board to approve the application.

After being rejected by Nashville's board in part because of concerns that Great Hearts was using a 2011 law pushed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to skim off higher income and better-performing students from the city system's traditional rules, the charter school group appealed to the state.

State board members sought to address the diversity issue and sent the application back to the Nashville board for approval. Members there rejected it three times, leading Haslam's education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, to punish the system last month by withholding $3.4 million in state funding for the district's administrative expenses.

In another local legislative contest in House District 28, Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said last week she opposes charter schools, period.

"I have not supported charter schools because Tennessee is one of the states that does not have adequate funding," she said at a candidates' forum. "We should always prioritize our public school systems."

Her Republican opponent, Johnny Horne, said "charter schools and public schools need to exist side by side ... there's room for both."

In Senate District 10, Republican Todd Gardenhire, of Chattanooga, said his "basic philosophy, unless someone can show me different, is keep it as local as possible."

But Gardenhire said he firmly supports charter schools, noting "I'm going to have six failing [traditional public] schools in my district. How anybody can say, 'OK, this is working?'"

Efforts to reach his opponent, Democrat AndraƩ McGary were unsuccessful.

In the House District 27 contest, which includes Red Bank, Signal Mountain and parts of Chattanooga, Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said he thinks "our local government and local school board need to be in the loop on this stuff. I don't think we should sit back on the state level and tell them what to do."

Floyd's Democratic opponent, Frank Eaton, said he believes "the local school system needs to have a major role in making decisions like that. You can't always make a one-size fits all decision at the state level."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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