NASHVILLE - Like a teacher punishing the entire class after one student acts up, Tennessee lawmakers edged a step closer Thursday to creating a statewide "authorizer" for some public charter schools in five school systems, including Hamilton County.
Senators approved the bill on a 20-13 vote. The House passed the bill last year with active support from Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, of Nashville, following a 2012 dustup among Metro Nashville schools, a charter operator and the Haslam administration.
Charter schools are privately operated public schools paid for with taxpayer dollars and free of many rules applying to traditional schools. The three charter schools in Hamilton County have more than 600 charter students enrolled this year, according to the Tennessee Charter School Center, an advocacy group.
The Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, now goes back to the House because of minor amendments.
It has the support of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. His education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, withheld $3.4 million from Nashville in 2012 after it refused a State Board of Education directive to allow charter operator Great Hearts Academies to open schools.
No other system has defied the state.
The bill would give the State Board of Education power to overrule local school boards' rejections of charter applications in districts where at least one school falls into the state's bottom 5 percent.
That currently affects Hamilton, Nashville-Davidson, Knox and Shelby schools as well as Hardeman County in West Tennessee.
Charters would still have to apply to local boards. If rejected, they could appeal to the State Board of Education.
Gresham said the bill would enhance the charter authorization process and argued that local school systems are still involved to the "very end."
Local systems "have demonstrated those schools deserve our efforts," Gresham said.
But Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, questioned why the bill affects only five of the state's 90 counties.
"I stand and ask each and every member of the Senate: Why are you putting that on my [local system] ... and not your own?" Kyle said.
Kyle, an attorney, questioned the "rational basis" for the legislation, a legal term of art that often figures prominently in litigation.
And he warned that lawmakers representing other areas will be affected if they have just one failing school. Currently, 83 schools in the five districts, including six in Hamilton County, are on the state's high-priority list.
Republican lawmakers in 2011 greatly expanded rules governing charter schools, including allowing students from all income brackets to qualify, not just poor children in low-performing schools.
The original dispute in Nashville involved the school board's rejection of Great Hearts Academies' application to operate several schools. School board members objected that Great Hearts was "cherry picking" affluent students, mostly from white suburban areas, with no transportation plan.
The State Board of Education directed Great Hearts' application be tweaked and told school board members to approve it. They refused, and Huffman yanked some state funding.
But in Nashville, the issue has evolved into concern that charter schools are staging a raid on traditional public schools' budgets. There is a pending bill to allow charter schools to be run by for-profit companies.
In response to the charter push and other issues majority Republican lawmakers are pursuing, the state's Big Four systems banded together to form the Coalition of Large School Systems to fight back.
David Testerman, a Hamilton County school board member, has called Nashville's financial problems "unbelievable" and "out of control."
Gresham said on the floor Thursday that her bill would still allow the five affected systems to reject a charter application based on financial concerns. If the rejection is appealed to the State Board of Education, she said, the state could look at the issue with the aid of the state comptroller's office.
Some Republicans wanted no part of the bill.
"I do have reservations about giving the State School Board so much power," said Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, whose bill to make the board an elected body instead of being appointed by the governor had failed the day before in Gresham's committee.
One no vote on the charter authorizer bill was Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who has his own legislation to bar the State Board of Education from linking teacher licensure with value-added test scores. Also voting no was Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, voted yes.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.