NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's bill to expand charter schools in Tennessee cleared its first Senate hurdle Wednesday but bogged down in a House panel where Democratic critics charged it would harm traditional public schools.
Senate Education Committee members advanced the bill on a 7-2 vote, moving it to the Senate Finance Committee.
But it was delayed in the House Education Subcommittee after Democrats raised questions about whether Haslam's bill will let charter schools launch raids on regular schools' best students, a concern raised by Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales.
"They can in effect cherry-pick," said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.
Charter schools receive taxpayer funding but are governed by a private group or organization under a contract or charter with the state. Those charters exempt the schools from many state rules but demand accountability in return.
Current law caps the number of charter schools at 90 across the state. Twenty-nine schools now operate in Tennessee. Eleven more have received approval. Two schools are up and running in Chattanooga while a third is slated to open in August.
In the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who supported raising the charter school cap from 50 to 90 last year, balked at Haslam's bill, which eliminates the cap entirely.
Haslam's bill also does away with current restrictions that have limited charter schools' ability to recruit to students from failing schools, students who are failing and students who are from impoverished families.
"We want to give kids the opportunity to attend excellent schools," the Chattanooga Democrat said. "But every school in this state should be excellent. Every child in this state should have an excellent education."
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, the bill's sponsor, however, called the bill "very important" and argued it will serve as "an important tool in Tennessee's tool box to ensure children are prepared."
The governor's proposal, she said will "complement" public education and not be a "distraction." Proponents also said charter schools are held to rigorous standards in which they risk losing their charters if they fail to make "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years.
In response to questions from majority Republicans, the state's new charter schools director Rich Haglund, who assumed his position March 1, said "all of the schools are currently making AYP over the last several years."
That drew tough questions from Berke who said that two Chattanooga charter schools had not done well with student achievement scores.
Haglund said his review of the schools showed they were in "good standing."
Berke said he understood the schools were deemed all right because the data came from their first year of operation.
Haglund later sent senators a letter saying a staffer from the state comptroller's office "pointed out to me after the meeting that their research showed four schools in Target status for 2010. I double-checked my research and confirmed that the comptroller's data was correct. I apologize for the error."
The letter noted that at the end of the 2006-07 school year, one charter school closed for failing to make AYP for two consecutive years. In school year 2008-09, 12 of 14 schools made AYP. The two that didn't returned to good standing in 2009-10. In school year 2009-10, 17 of the 21 schools made AYP.
Education Department spokeswoman Amanda Anderson said because the two Chattanooga schools are new, they only have one year's worth of data.
"In order to show growth there must be at least two years worth of data. To get on the high priority list in terms of No Child Left Behind, and deemed failing, you have to have failed for two or more years. So both of these schools don't have enough data to show that just yet."
Berke said he is "seriously concerned about having been told the day before there were no schools on the AYP list and during testimony there were no schools on the AYP list. It wasn't until I stated some personal knowledge that I have that we get a revision saying there are roughly 20 percent of the schools that are.
"When we're having a debate on such an important topic we should have accurate information."