NASHVILLE - Legislative efforts to expand the pool of students eligible to attend charter schools stumbled Wednesday after surviving two earlier attempts by foes to attach "poison pill."
In the House Education Committee, House Bill 2146 was put off until next week on an 11-10 vote with one lawmaker abstaining. The bill, which recently passed the Senate, would open Tennessee's charter schools to poorer children who qualify for free or reduced-cost school lunches in systems with at least 12,000 students.
Emotions ran high in debate with Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, accusing charter school proponents of cynically using children to push the bill to lawmakers.
"I got a stack of letters from a group of children from Nashville hand-delivered to me. That's pimping little babies," she charged. "They're telling me how great it is to be in a charter school and why we ought to do it for other kids."
Rep. Brown and other Democratic critics appeared astonished to learn that aides to Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, had worked with Republicans and charter school proponents on the 12,000-student cap and that the governor now is supporting the measure.
With the cap, the bill affects 12 of the state's 136 school systems, including Hamilton County. The county's first two charter schools - Ivy Academy and Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy - are expected to open later this year. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales has criticized the legislation.
Critics offered one amendment that sought to make so-called "at risk" students - that is, poorer students - from all local systems eligible. The other amendment would have made all public school students eligible to attend charter schools, regardless of income.
But Education Department lobbyist Bruce Opie said the administration and department were comfortable with the 12,000-student cap and "uncomfortable" with expanding it to all systems and students.
Both narrowly failed with a Democrat or two peeling off to join Republicans.
But after succeeding in delaying the bill for a week, Democrats said they are hopeful of ensuring all Democrats remain together on the evenly divided committee.
In other action Wednesday:
n House Transportation Committee members approved a bill preventing local governments from setting up traffic cameras to catch speeders on interstates. The bill also prohibits the use of photo enforcement to fine motorists who enter an intersection while a traffic light is green or yellow and the light turns red while they remain in the intersection. It also requires warning signs that camera enforcement is in use.
n Panel members also approved a bill by Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, that allows residents of Soddy-Daisy, Graysville and a number of other towns to use golf carts legally on nonstate roads during daylight if they have seatbelts and adequate warning lights.
The law would remain effective until July 1, 2010, giving lawmakers time to see how it was working. Rep. Cobb said local governments sent him resolutions urging him to push the bill. He said a number of Neighborhood Watch groups use the electric vehicles.