NASHVILLE - Hamilton County and 134 other local education systems Tuesday were abruptly dragged into a bill that sets up a special, nonelected state panel to authorize charter school startups rejected by school boards.
The Republican-backed legislation, which passed the House Education Committee on a 9-3 vote, had previously applied only to the state's two largest counties, Davidson and Shelby.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville charged the special board amounts to a "death panel" because it removes ultimate control from locally elected school boards and puts it into the hands of a state-appointed entity.
"This law amounts to nothing more than an unfunded mandate which will blow a hole in local budgets, potentially forcing tax increases to pay for charter schools that weren't good enough to pass local scrutiny," he charged.
Charter schools are free from many state regulations.
Proponents say the bill is necessary to rein in school boards that have in some instances refused to approve charter school applications. The major example is Davidson County school board members' repeated refusal to approve a charter application despite the State Board of Education's directive they do so.
Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said something is needed to rein in politics that prevent charter school authorizations.
"Our underlying principle is quality in the authorizing process," Throckmorton said. "And for the last several years, I've noticed that our authorization process is becoming more political."
The move to include all school districts was seen by some as an effort to ensure the legislation would not be struck down for singling out Davidson and Shelby counties.
Under the bill, charter school applicants could appeal to a nine-member state panel if dissatisfied with a local school board's decision.
The governor and the House and Senate speakers would each have three appointments to the panel.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, along with his education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, were embarrassed and angered by Davidson County's action. Haslam has signaled he supports a statewide panel to approve applications.
During the committee debate, Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, a former school director, was unconvinced a state panel was necessary.
"Education decisions should be relegated to those 136 boards of education in the state of Tennessee that are elected to make those decisions, good or bad," he argued.