Tennessee Senate approves Gardenhire bill making it easier for charter schools to recruit out-of-district students

Staff photo by Andy Sher / Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, seated at center, sits with fellow Senate Republican Caucus members on Nov. 15.

NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Senate on Monday approved legislation allowing privately operated public charter schools to enroll up to 25% of their students from outside the local public school district where they operate while also limiting the number of children of administrators and teachers attending a charter to no more than 10%.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, passed on a 26-5 vote. The House companion bill is scheduled to come up in full committee Tuesday.

Gardenhire said his Senate Bill 980 is intended to address multiple issues. The bill is supported by the Tennessee Charter School Center and opposed by the Tennessee Education Association, which represents many public school teachers and other school workers across the state and has raised multiple concerns.

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, asked Gardenhire to explain what problem the bill solves.

"Several of the -- I've termed it the 'educational industrial complex' -- doesn't like charter schools," Gardenhire said. "They like to keep everything status quo. And this sort of clarifies some things. As I said, one of their concerns is out-of-county students could come in and flood the charter school."

But Gardenhire said "this actually puts limits on it to ease the indigestion of the 'educational industrial complex' that doesn't like charter schools. This also puts limits on the number of students who can come from the teachers or the administrators of the charter school."

The senator and the Tennessee Charter School Center's Elizabeth Fiveash say charter schools can currently recruit as many students as they can handle outside the confines of the district in which they operate, but that they don't because the charter schools already having lengthy waiting lists.

Jim Wrye, the Tennessee Education Association's assistant executive director for government relations and communications, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press last week that none of the five districts with charter schools, a list that includes Hamilton County public schools, currently allow operators to recruit additional students from outside the district.

He also said charters will seek to recruit students from smaller counties who would be faced with losing not just state tax dollars for the students but the share of locally raised money.

One provision allows the charter schools to obtain personal information such as phone numbers and email addresses of children's parents or guardians from publicly run districts. Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, wanted to know why they want or need that.

"I think most schools get that information for a lot of reasons, but I suspect it would be to verify where the students actually were from when they came into the school system," Gardenhire said, adding it could also be "in case there's an emergency or bad weather or whatever."

Yarbro said he was trying to assess the intent, saying there have been instances of families of students enrolled in a school receiving text or email communications "sort of urging them" to apply to another school.

"And I just want to make sure that that's not our goal," Yarbro said, adding there could be amendatory language "to make clear to where we're not just using this public information as a means of sort of recruitment and marketing."

Yarbro said he also appreciated Gardenhire's explanation of the bill, saying he was just learning that there is not a limit under current law.

"But I do think that the (local education agencies) -- if they're making that decision for the public schools in their district, that same policy ought to apply to the charter schools in the district. That ought to be a uniform policy," Yarbro said. "As I understand it, there's still discussions of amending this legislation across the hallway to actually address that issue. And I encourage those."

But without the changes, Yarbro said, he would vote no, which he wound up doing.

Gardenhire said the bill "just clarifies a lot of things we have about in-district and how many are transferred from one to another. It's really a clarity type of a bill. Cleans it up."

Other provisions include charter school enrollment lottery preferences issues and school intervention policies.

Gardenhire also has legislation that would bring school vouchers to Hamilton County. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said he's not a big fan of the bill but is a strong proponent of public charter schools.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.