For-profit charter schools bill fails in Tennessee House

For-profit charter schools bill fails in Tennessee House

April 4th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.

Photo by The Tennessean /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Efforts to let for-profit companies run public charter schools failed Thursday morning in a House panel after Republican Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, a long-time champion of charters, spoke against it.

Harwell told the Republican-controlled Calendar and Rules Committee that she had kept out of the debate until then but was "taking off my hat as speaker" because it was her last opportunity to voice her concerns before the bill hit the House floor.

"I have some grave reservations about this legislation," Harwell said. "We are still in our infancy in public charters in this state and I don't want the financial aspects of for-profits to enter into what I think our ultimate goal is, to provide quality public schools for our children."

She read a letter from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, also a proponent of charter schools, expressing concern about the legislation.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, failed on a 10-7 vote with one member abstaining.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded but privately run public schools that are free of many of the rules and regulations of traditional public schools. Current law restricts them to being run by nonprofit entities.

Court collection fee

Lawmakers Thursday gave final approval to a bill that permits local court officials across the state to add an additional fee if they have to use an outside collection agency to pursue unpaid criminal court fines and fees.

The House passed the bill 94-0. Senators approved the bill earlier.

"What this does is it passes the cost of that on to the defendant," said Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, a co-sponsor of the legislation.

For example, if a convicted criminal defendant has a $100 fine, an outside collection agency currently keeps a percentage of that, say 20 percent, Dean said.

"They keep $20 and send $80" to the Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk's office, Dean noted.

But under the bill, the fine would rise to $120, with the county keeping $100 and an outside collection agency getting $20.

Dean is running for Hamilton County Criminal Court clerk against Democratic incumbent Gwen Tidwell.

Last December, Hamilton County commissioners acted on a request from Tidwell to contract with two outside collection agencies to go after an estimated $50 million in outstanding fines or court costs that have built up over the past 20 years.

Many criminal defendants pay their court fees, but not all. Some flee, some go to jail -- and that's why, Tidwell said in December, the office has little chance of collecting more than one-tenth of the money.

In a news release, Dean said that "under this legislation, court clerks will have the authority they need to enforce court rulings and close loopholes in our legal system."

The House bill's primary sponsor was Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown.

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