Amendment requires Lee's charter school commission to have the majority of members from affected counties

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks with students during a visit to Cameron Middle School Monday, April 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - A majority of Gov. Bill Lee's proposed nine-member Tennessee charter school commission would have to reside in a county where a charter school now operates under an amendment adopted Tuesday in a Senate panel.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, offered the requirement for five members from impacted counties, noting "there are a limited number of counties that have charter schools" and affected counties should have a majority on any commission.

Among those counties is Hamilton County, which has four publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.

Lee's original bill gives the governor power to appoint three members from each of the state's three grand divisions - East, Middle and West Tennessee - to serve on the commission.

But it didn't guarantee appointment of anyone from a county where there now is at least one publicly funded, privately run charter school.

Some critics charge Lee's bill to overhaul the current system would lead to an activist pro-charter board approving more charter operator applications. The state now has 116 charter schools, the vast majority of them in Metro Nashville and Shelby County, which includes Memphis.

"They understand how charter schools integrate into that community, how they're absorbed and how they're accepted," the chairman added.

The amendment was seconded by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and approved on a voice vote.

Watson said it would give counties such as Hamilton, Knox, Metro Nashville and Shelby an opportunity to see a resident on the commission.

In the House, Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, has raised similar concerns.

Although Hamilton County hasn't had major controversies over charter schools, Metro Nashville has.

Charter proponents, including parents, say the schools, which are freed from many of the restrictions traditional schools have to follow, are innovative and produce good results. Opponents say there have been any number of problems, with overall student performance mixed.

Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, said he had another major concern about Lee's bill.

It doesn't include any provision allowing judicial review of the new charter commission's decisions. Any approvals by the commission, which would take over charter responsibilities from the Tennessee Board of Education, would be final under the governor's bill, according to Yager.

"And I just believe it's fundamental there should be a right of review of the commission," Yager said.

But the senator said he was dissatisfied after reviewing his amendment and would bring it next year in a stand-alone bill, noting the legislation doesn't "really become operative" until the 2020/2021 school year.

The bill later passed on a 9-0 vote.

Lee, an advocate, has already been forced to cede ground on his original bill. Under current law, requests by charter operators go first to the local school board. If rejected, the operators can appeal to the state board of education.

The governor's bill originally set up a two-track process under which operators could go either to the local board of education or the new commission. But the Tennessee School Boards Association, the Tennessee Education Association and the Professional Educators of Tennessee all had problems with that.

As a result, charter operators under the revised bill would continue having to apply first to local boards, with the new commission hearing appeals.

The legislation still allows the state commission on an appeal to approve charters in any district in Tennessee, a provision about which critics have sometimes taunted rural lawmakers.

Charter schools can also be eligible for a percentage of money from any bond issue approved locally for school construction, officials have said.

The measure is Senate Bill 796/House Bill 940.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.