This story was updated Thursday, April 4, 2019, at 2:09 p.m.
NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to create a new Tennessee charter commission cleared another legislative hurdle Wednesday.
But not before a Hamilton County lawmaker weighed in with concerns about who gets named to the powerful new authorizing body that would be empowered to overrule any local school board's rejection of charter operators' applications.
"I'm going to support the bill here today, but I do have some concerns, perhaps suggestions, that I'd like to offer in terms of how that commission is made up," House Finance Committee Vice Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said as the bill came through the House Finance Subcommittee. "Because I think that's going to be critical to the success of this process and to make sure that there is transparency in the process."
Hazlewood noted Hamilton County already has several "very successful" public charter schools, including one in her district.
But she noted "they were all approved by the local school board. I'm not aware of any that they denied that went to the appeal process."
She told Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, the bill's sponsor, that because most appeals would likely come out of the state's "Big Four" counties, including Hamilton, "I think some thought ought to be given to having representatives from those communities as a part of that process, just because it's home folks. That's my point."
Lee, a Republican, wants to move appeal decisions made by local school districts, now handled by the State Board of Education, to a newly created Tennessee charter commission.
The nine-member panel would have authority to approve charter schools denied by a local school district.
Hazlewood said that effectively moves the ultimate decision from local boards of education to the new state commission.
While the State Board of Education has that authority now in systems with at least one "high priority" school falling into the bottom 5 percent in terms of statewide student performance, the board has been cautious about stepping on locals' toes by overruling them and approving a new charter and then overseeing it.
The state board only oversees three charter schools — two in Shelby and the other in Metro Nashville — which were rejected by local officials.
Lee's legislation removes the "high priority" requirement and critics say it would allow charter operators to expand into affluent suburban as well as rural districts.
School boards, teachers and others, meanwhile, fear Lee's board, which unlike the state board will only have one task — charter schools — will prove far more likely to jump and overrule locals.
Lee's original bill allowed charter operators to bypass locals entirely. But faced with stiff opposition from fellow Republicans, the new governor was forced to retreat on that in order to get the measure through the House Education Committee.
"We just need to be very, very concerned about who those commissioners are, what sort of backgrounds they have and their knowledge of the communities that they are making decisions for," Hazlewood said. "So, just perhaps again to say I'd like to continue the conversation in that regard."
While agreeing the new commission's makeup is critical, House sponsor Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, said the process would still begin with the local community.
"It's only if it gets denied," said White, who also stressed the bill now contains provisions that the commission would "have to go into the local community" to hear appeals with the process starting afresh with local education agency officials able to state why they rejected the application.
Tennessee law requires the State Board of Education membership to include some local school board members and educators. Lee's bill has no such requirements.
Noting she had read the bill's amendments herself, Hazlewood said "my concern is with those ultimately making the decision. I know the governor appoints and the legislative body would confirm. But I just think there needs to be some thought given.
"I think it's fairly obvious that most if not all of the charter requests are going to be coming from the Big Four" counties or possibly Jackson-Madison County schools, Hazlewood said.
The bill now moves to the full House Finance Committee.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.