NASHVILLE - Though Democrats on the Senate Education Committee fought it, Gov. Bill Haslam's bill to allow any student to attend a charter school cleared its first hurdle today when it was approved on a largely partisan 7-2 vote.
The bill's sponsor, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, said charter schools promote innovation and choice and are simply one "tool" in efforts to transform Tennessee schools.
But critics such as Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, worried about "skimming the cream" of students from traditional public schools.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said he has supported charter school expansion in the past. But he said he is "troubled" the focus may be shifting from making all schools "excellent" to a "debate between great schools and schools you want to leave behind."
He questioned how well some charters, including two in Chattanooga, are actually doing on standardized tests. Berke later cited a 2009 study of 16 states by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University showing that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools.
The study found 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts. Forty-six percent of charter schools demonstrated no significant difference.
Those findings have been disputed by another Stanford University study which used a different methodology to examine New York City students. It found charter schools were making a positive difference.
The bill is scheduled to come up later today in the House Education Subcommittee.