NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee's controversial public school charter bill moved through the House Government Operations Committee Monday with a "positive" recommendation, but not before gaining a new amendment ensuring that Tennessee lawmakers can keep an eye on how it's run.
The bill now has an official eight-year "sunset" or expiration date, routinely used by the General Assembly when creating new agencies to put an agency on a review cycle. That's to ensure lawmakers maintain legislative oversight and the entity is running as envisioned.
Lee administration officials did not include the sunset provision in the new governor's original bill, a fact pointed out last week by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the former chairman of the Senate's Government Operations Committee.
Bell suggested at the time he would introduce a separate bill to put it on a review cycle.
But noting the omission in the bill on Monday, House Government Operations Committee Chairman Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, told Lee legislative director Brent Easley that agencies "exist at the will of the Legislature," and they typically have an eight-year cycle on them.
"Do you have any opposition or opinion as to this amendment which would make this public charter school commission subject to the government entity review law?"
"No sir," Easley replied.
The controversial bill was given a "positive" recommendation on a voice vote, sending it on to the House Finance Committee.
Lee is proposing making it easier for public charter schools to expand as part of the governor's school-choice push. The charter schools are public but privately run and rely on state and local taxpayer dollars to operate. But they are subject to fewer state rules and regulations as opposed to traditional public schools.
Charter schools are now approved by local school boards and, if rejected, can appeal denials to the Tennessee Board of Education, which can overrule locals. They're only located now in five counties, including Hamilton County, that have schools in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide in terms of student performance. The state's Achievement School District also has charter operators in charge of some schools.
Lee is proposing to expand that. His bill would move decisions from the state board of education to a new state charter authorizer.
The bill originally would have allowed charter operators to go either to a local school board or the new state entity for permission and critics. That spurred opposition from Democrats but also from a number of majority Republican lawmakers nervous about charters popping up against local wishes, forcing the Lee administration to retreat.
As previously amended in the Education Committee last week, the bill will keep the current system where the new entity would simply hear charter operators' appeals of adverse local rulings. The new commission could still overrule local school boards.
But critics say the bill also would make it easier for charter schools to operate in rural and affluent suburban counties, again generating nervousness among some of Lee's fellow majority Republicans in the General Assembly who are worried about state and local tax dollars leaving the local school system.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow Twitter @AndySher1.