published Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Tennessee for-profit charter schools bill fails in House panel

  • photo
    House Speaker Beth Harwell presides over a floor session in Nashville in this file photo.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — A proposal to allow charter schools in Tennessee to be operated by for-profit groups failed in its final committee vote Thursday before reaching the House floor for debate.

The Calendar and Rules Committee voted 10-7 against the bill after House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville raised what she called "grave reservations" about it.

"We are in our infancy with public charters in this state, and I don't want the financial aspect of for-profits to enter into what our ultimate goal is: To provide quality public schooling for our children," the Nashville Republican said.

"I would ask us to be cautious of taxing our citizens to turn around and give a profit to an out-of-state company," she said.

Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville agreed.

"The bottom line is educating our kids — not the bottom line," Mitchell said. "We're putting another hand in the cookie jar to take money away from our children's education."

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, said the bill was aimed at helping to improve the administration of charter schools largely located in areas with chronically failing public schools

"We have given a blank check for bad administrators, bad superintendents to come in and waste millions of dollars and produce a bad product," he said after the vote. "All I tried to do was to bring management to those folks."

Harwell cited a letter from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a fellow charter school proponent, that expressed opposition to the bill. The Speaker said the Democratic mayor "has probably done more for the public charters school movement than anyone else in my estimation — at least the in the city of Nashville."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he's disappointed the measure failed this session, but doesn't believe that's the end of it.

"It was an issue I would have voted for," said the Blountville Republican. "I'm sure it will come back next year."

Charter schools are funded with state and local tax dollars that are exempt from some of the state regulations that traditional public schools do as they try to find different ways to improve student learning.

According to the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, there were about 20 in the state in 2012. That number has since grown to 69. That increase has been the subject of heavy school board debate, especially in Nashville.

The state Department of Education in 2012 withheld $3.4 million in state funding to Nashville's public schools after its board refused to accept the application of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies — despite being ordered to do so by the state Board of Education.

It rejected Great Hearts plans over fears that it would cater to affluent, white families who live near its proposed western Nashville location.

That fight has prompted Republican lawmakers led by Harwell to seek the creation of a statewide charter authorizer that could overrule local decisions. That measure is awaiting a final vote in the House.

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