Thriving school districts in Tennessee could avoid state charter appeals under bill

ohn Partipilo / Tennessee Lookout / A bill sponsored by Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin, to stop the state from overriding districts that turn down charter school applicants, could face tough seas.

A bill surfacing in the General Assembly could stop the state from overriding districts that turn down charter school applicants, as long as the district has no schools at the bottom of state rankings.

State Rep. Sam Whitson, a Franklin Republican, is sponsoring the measure, calling it a matter of "local control." Appeals would not be allowed if the local school system has no priority or failing schools.

The move comes after American Classical Education filed plans with the state charter schools commission to apply as a charter operator in Clarksville-Montgomery, Rutherford, Jackson-Madison, Maury and Robertson counties.

Amid an uproar last year, American Classical pursued applications in the Rutherford, Jackson-Madison and Montgomery school districts but pulled them just before the state charter commission was set to consider appeals. The group also wanted to open in Williamson County.

It's not an anti-charter bill, Whitson said Wednesday of his proposed legislation.

But if a school system has no priority or failing schools when the charter operator applies, the district would hold final authority and the matter couldn't be appealed to the unelected state board, Whitson said.

The measure could be up for consideration next week.

(READ MORE: Harrison area group petitions for charter school to combat 'Marxist indoctrination')

School districts still would be able to approve charter applications and would be responsible for the state and county portions of the funding to run them, he said.

"I trust the local elected officials more than I do an unelected commission to override their decision," Whitson said.

Professional Educators of Tennessee Executive Director JC Bowman echoed that sentiment, saying it makes sense to let local boards in districts without struggling schools determine the fate of a charter school without the threat of being overturned by a state panel.

"They're doing a really good job, and what is the reward? Bowman said.

Charter operators, if turned down at the local level, go to a state commission that's already stacked with candidates who aren't reflective of the whole community by and large, Bowman said. He said all of the commission appointments are made by the governor, creating a method for the state to circumvent local decisions.

The governor's office is said to have flagged Whitson's bill.

(READ MORE: Tennessee charter schools could enroll up to 25% of students from out of district under Gardenhire's bill)

Gov. Bill Lee made overtures to Hillsdale College last year in his State of the State address, then followed it up by saying at a secretly recorded event that he wanted Hillsdale College to start 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Public sentiment turned against the Michigan-based private Christian school in midsummer when its president, Larry Arnn, also was captured on video at the Franklin gathering saying teachers are educated in the "dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country." He also said Hillsdale would prove in Tennessee anyone can be a teacher.

The ensuing ruckus ultimately forced American Classical to pull its applications from consideration, but they resurfaced again last December.

Whitson's bill, nevertheless, isn't expected to see smooth sailing.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said Wednesday he believes "charter schools are public schools," even though they are run by different entities than the local school board.

"If they're denied, I think we have a process for them to make application to the state," he said, noting he would not favor such legislation.

(READ MORE: Tennessee House speaker seeks to allow charter schools to open boarding facilities)

House Education Administration Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, was upset by the Hillsdale College president's remarks last year and said at the time any hopes it had of operating charter schools in Tennessee were "shattered."

White, who helped form the charter schools commission through legislation, said the "damage is done" for Hillsdale after Gov. Lee declined to disavow Arnn's words.

White, however, remains pro-school choice and told the Tennessee Lookout early this session he "wouldn't be in favor of passing laws that would limit opportunities for a parent to choose what's best for a child's education, no matter where they live."

White noted he is "not opposed to Hillsdale," but to comments that "our teachers are not the best."

A spokesman for American Classical Education could not be reached for comment Wednesday.