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In this March 4, 2019, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State Address in Nashville, Tenn. Lee won a Republican primary fight largely about who was toughest on immigration. But so far, an immigration crackdown isn't his focus. Lee's administration has opposed two immigration bills by Republican Rep. Bruce Griffey, though not on humanitarian grounds.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

This story was updated Wednesday, March 20, 2019, at 8:40 p.m. with more information.

NASHVILLE — Proposed changes to Tennessee charter school approvals narrowly cleared a major House hurdle Wednesday after Republican Gov. Bill Lee's administration abandoned its provision allowing charter operators to bypass local school boards completely and go straight to a new state commission for permission to open.

Senate Education Committee members, however, unanimously approved the controversial bill later in the day with a minimum of debate in the Republican-dominated panel. Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, was among senators voting yes.

That outcome was a far cry from the GOP-led House Education Committee, where after lengthy debate members advanced the measure on a 13-9 vote.

But in order to win the House votes needed, the administration agreed to narrow the original bill's scope. It originally would have allowed charter school operators to apply to either local boards of education or the nine-member commission. Critics charged that would let the charter operators bypass local districts entirely.

Under current law, the Tennessee Board of Education hears appeals of local decisions and can overrule districts when they reject applicants.

"Really nothing changes from what we're doing now other than we're moving from the state board to a commission," House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, told members.

White said having a commission devoted strictly to charter schools is an improvement over having the 11-member state board of education, which has other responsibilities including policy and teacher licensure, be in charge.

The commission would have a director of schools as well as more staff to oversee charter schools. The state board now has direct oversight over three charter schools in Nashville and Memphis.

Other charter schools are overseen by local education officials. Tennessee now has 116 charter schools, which are privately-operated public schools using taxpayer dollars and are free of some restraints placed on traditional public schools.

They have opened in counties with systems having schools falling on the state's "priority" list of the bottom 5 percent of traditional public schools in terms of public performance. Those are Hamilton, Davidson, Shelby and Knox counties.

There are four locally authorized charter schools in Hamilton County. But Shelby County has dozens. In hearing appeals, the state board of education has overruled local systems in only three of 21 cases.

Bill opponent Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, taunted Republican lawmakers representing suburban and rural districts, putting them on notice that he believes charter school operators will invade their counties should the bill become law.

"The one thing that I do like about this bill is the fact that now everybody gets a taste of the charter medicine across the state," Parkinson said as he excitedly began pointing to fellow committee members. "So you get a charter, and you get a charter, and you get a charter. [Rep.] Debra Moody, you get a charter. Everybody gets an opportunity to feel what we've been feeling in Shelby County."

A number of Republican lawmakers worry that an aggressive commission would result in a flurry of applications in their suburban districts and loss of local and state funding for their systems, a criticism made by urban districts.

Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, said during debate that he continues to have concerns, noting state school board members have rarely overruled local education agencies under the current set-up.

"My fear is that with a new commission that out of those [21] appeals, they've overturned the locals 17 times," Cochran said. "If that occurs, what we've done is we've taken power away from local boards of education who actually put their names on a ballot and we've given that power to appointed bureaucrats in Nashville."

Cochran said he's not accusing anyone of "malicious intent, but my worry [is] the current process seems to have given a lot of deference to local boards of education. My big worry on changing the process in a future commission is that that deference will no longer exist."

Brent Easley, Lee's legislative director, sought to assure Cochran the commission would carry on with the same objectivity as the state board has in terms of overriding local school boards' rejections of charter applications.

"Our goal is quality, not quantity," Easley said.

During the lengthy and sometimes heated debate, House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, a bill supporter, was in the committee room, moving from member to member of the GOP-dominated panel, quietly speaking to several apparently wavering Republican members.

Speaking with reporters later, Lee said, "We're really excited that the folks in the legislature are committed to children in Tennessee. And my education initiatives are focused at providing opportunity for every child in this state to have access to a quality education. That's what that particular bill that passed through committee is."

Lee also has a controversial school voucher bill now moving in the House.

Asked whether his decision to dial back on the charter school bill to get through committee portends problems for the voucher bill, Lee said, "the legislative process is a great one in which we work together to find a solution that actually accomplishes what we want. And that's what's happening in this process.

"We're getting a bill that's going to serve particularly those low-income students that are in those least-performing schools," the governor added. "That's the goal. And I think we're getting to a point in the legislation where it's going to in fact do just that."

The charter school bill is House Bill 940 and Senate Bill 796.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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