NASHVILLE - Months of battling over issues such as the expansion of places where handgun-carry permit holders ability can go armed clattered to an end for the General Assembly on Thursday night as lawmakers concluded their annual session amid a flurry of passing bills.
Among measures passing was the first significant expansion of charter schools since 2002 and first-of-its-kind licensing and state Health Department inspections of commercial breeds of cats and dogs.
Senators voted 27-2 and gave final approval to legislation expanding the number of children eligible to attend charter schools in Tennessee.
The measure passed the House earlier in the day on a 79-15 vote despite an uproar caused when one of the sponsors in a news release said "public schools are the last vestige of slavery."
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, urged colleagues to ignore the news release from Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, a conservative Republican.
"We've worked too hard on this bill," said Rep. Turner, who had earlier opposed the measure until a compromise was struck. "Let's put everything aside and vote this bill out."
Hours later, Rep. Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, the former chairman of the Education Committee, chided Rep. Kelsey, saying his comments had "jeopardized" the bill "and was an insult to every member of this chamber and to every teacher in every public school in this state."
Rep. Kelsey was unapologetic, saying that "although I'm proud of the hard work that our teachers do ... we still have a ways to go in Tennessee."
The charter schools bill had previously been bottled up in the House Education Committee. But a compromise began to come together after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan threatened to deny schools up to $100 million in "race to the top funds," federal stimulus money meant to encourage educational innovation.
In the end, Democrats and Tennessee Education Association officials, who had opposed the bill, wound up working with the bill's proponents.
As passed, poorer students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program would be eligible to attend a charter school in systems with average daily membership of at least 14,000 students where at least three schools are on a high-priority list of failing schools.
The description includes six school systems, including Hamilton County Schools. Two charter schools are now licensed to begin operating in the county this year.
A House amendment requires charter schools to first accept students who are failing or who attend failing schools, the current standard of eligibility. Other so-called "at risk" students, that is, poorer students, could only attend if there were still vacancies. They would be selected by a lottery so schools could not "cherry pick" the brightest students.
The bill also increases the existing state cap on charter schools from 50 to 90 schools.
House members accepted two other amendments from Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga. One requires education officials to track whether charter school students wind up returning to public schools. Another encourages local schools to use the "race to the top" funds for educational innovation in areas such as public magnet schools.
Rep. Brown said lawmakers' interest had turned into a "race for the money" as opposed to a "race for the top." Tennessee is not guaranteed to receive any of the $100 million, she said.
"What we did was we took that piece of legislation and converted it to a race for the top as opposed to just a race for the money," she said.