Todd Gardenhire bill on charter schools fails in committee

photo Todd Gardenhire
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - A bill from Sen. Todd Gardenhire that would let for-profit companies run and manage public charter schools failed to make the grade in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

The bill failed, getting just two votes, including the Chattanooga Republican lawmaker's own vote, while one colleague said no and three others abstained.

Gardenhire earlier told the panel the bill is intended to help charter schools, which are run by nonprofit groups but funded with tax dollars. Often, they are started by parents, teachers, churches or other groups.

"As you all know, when the charter school starts up, the hardest year is the first year and sometimes it's not easy to get competent administrators or people who know how to do the mechanics of starting a school," Gardenhire explained. "This would allow well-meaning people who set up a charter school to go outside and hire people to manage it. That's not to say everybody's not competent."

While charter schools can contract out some services like cleaning or food service to for-profit vendors, they currently are not allowed to contract out management services to them.

Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, said, "I'm a little concerned with getting profits into the mix."

He noted that lawmakers, who previously have lifted caps on the number of charter schools, are now looking at creating a statewide "authorizer" that would more easily overrule local school boards' rejection of charter applications.

"I don't know whether it's good or bad" to have for-profit companies running the schools on behalf of the nonprofit charter school boards, Hensley said, "but I have a little apprehension."

Gardenhire's only yes vote besides himself on the Republican-controlled committee was Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.

On Tuesday, the House companion bill passed the Republican-controlled Education Subcommittee.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, the sponsor and a longtime charter school advocate, argued the measure fits in well with other reforms. Well-meaning groups often struggle when it comes to managing a complex operation like a charter school, he said.

While some consider for-profit a "nasty word" for charter schools, DeBerry said, it really isn't. Management companies won't own the charter school and can provide valuable help, he noted.

National Heritage Academies, Michigan-based for-profit charter management company, has hired two lobbyists on the bill.