NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to create a new independent state entity for authorizing charter schools cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday despite reservations among several of his fellow Republicans.
The plan won approval from the GOP-run House Curriculum, Testing, & Innovation Subcommittee on a voice vote. Several representatives worried that it could wind up stripping any control or input over approval of new publicly funded charter schools from local school districts.
"This is the type bill that challenges us and this is why we're here," House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, told nervous subcommittee members, urging them to "move it to [full] committee with a totally open mind."
White noted that, although Tennessee has made large strides in improving public education, only 37 percent of third-graders read at grade level.
"We still have a long ways to go," White said, urging panel members to "get everything out of your mind whether you are for or against" charter schools. He sought to frame the debate as a "discussion about where we're going in education in Tennessee."
But even as White argued that and sought to allay concerns over the bill by saying there would be work to address them in full committee, Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, said, "I do have concerns, and generally it's better if what we do is try to shape these things in subcommittee rather than in full committees."
Lee's proposal is a major departure from existing state law. Now only local school boards have the authority to approve new charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that can operate free of some restrictions faced by traditional public schools.
If a school board rejects a charter operator's request to operate, however, the charter operator under existing law can appeal that to the Tennessee Board of Education. The state-run Achievement School District for low-performing public schools also can under existing law authorize charter conversions of struggling schools.
But Lee's legislation would allow charter operators to seek approval at either the local school system level or through his proposed new charter authorizing entity. There is no appeal process. It effectively would be one-stop shopping.
Some lawmakers worried that charter school proponents would simply seek the path of least resistance and head to the state, locking out local education officials from the process.
Moreover, critics said, Lee's legislation opens charter authorization across the entire state, not just the mostly urban counties such as Hamilton County where a number of them now operate. Charter schools are now restricted to districts where there are public "priority schools" that have the lowest track records when it comes to student performance.
"If this goes statewide, it opens it up for the smaller counties - Fentress, Roberts," said Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, warning it could dramatically affect their budgets.
Several lawmakers said the current appeals process is working well. It allows charter operators who are refused at the school district level to appeal the Tennessee Board of Education, which considers arguments made by the would-be operators and the district. The Tennessee Board of Education has overruled some local district rejections of charter school applicants but has upheld local districts on many others, they say.
But the Lee administration says the state board of education has plenty of other responsibilities and that it's best to put the issue in a stand-alone commission.
Lawmakers also raised questions about whether school districts could make their cases against charter applicants.
The bill would allow the proposed nine-member state charter authorizer to approve or reject charter applications based on members who are present at the meeting.
That and related aspects had House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who has advocated for charter schools and school vouchers for a quarter century, raising questions.
Dunn said while he supports charter schools, he wishes the proposed nine-member state charter authorizer would be required to act only if it had a majority of members present.
And maybe more than that, Dunn added, noting that some panel members may be "sitting there not feeling good" if there was a close, 5-4 vote. Perhaps a higher approval threshold would be better, he suggested.
In the end, the panel approved the measure on a voice vote, sending it on to the full committee.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.