In December, a group of parents rallied in Nashville to get their kids back in the classroom. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A state bill granting broad powers for the commissioner of education to assume control over a local school district if certain benchmarks are not met cleared a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

Nashville Democrats bashed the proposal at a news conference shortly before a subcommittee hearing. They said the state has already shown it does a poor job of turning around struggling schools by way of the Achievement School District, a decade-old program granting the state the ability to convert a failing school into a charter school.

Under the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, the education commissioner would have discretion to assume control over a district, remove a superintendent or replace elected school board members.

Cepicky said during the committee meeting that existing state law already empowers the commissioner to take over a district, but the law is too vague. Cepicky said high benchmarks would have to be met, such as failing to turn around a priority school. The proposal cleared with a voice vote.

Cepicky said too many districts are failing students and that he was bringing the proposal on behalf of students. He cited the state's low literacy rates in third and eighth grade as proof that urgent action is needed and downplayed the bill's impact since takeover powers already exist.

The proposal comes at a time when Metro Nashville Public Schools is at odds with the state on an array of issues. MNPS has sued over the the state's education funding formula, arguing Tennessee is not putting enough money into education. The district also sued over Gov. Bill Lee's voucher law, which allowed families in Shelby County and Davidson County to be granted education spending accounts, which they could use to help pay for private school tuition.

Earlier this year, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn demanded MNPS account for the spending of federal grant dollars and then provided the letter immediately to The Tennessean newspaper before the district could respond, a move that stakeholders interpreted as a warning shot about a possible takeover. Cepicky's bill references the spending of federal grant dollars as a parameter for triggering a commissioner's takeover.

Rumors regarding a full, or partial, state takeover of of MNPS by the Lee administration have swirled around Nashville education circles in recent years.

Nashville school board chair Christiane Buggs lambasted the proposal in a prepared statement.

"We want and appreciate a productive and collaborative relationship with the Tennessee Department of Education and its commissioner," Buggs said. "This anti-democratic proposal to allow a future commissioner to arbitrarily take over a school district would be a disastrous public policy."

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, said the bill, which is now headed to the full House education committee, is "troubling on many aspects."

"One, it's going around the voters of the state of Tennessee, and two the last time I checked there's no one in the Tennessee Department of Education who has ever run a school district," Mitchell said. "So it's troubling that they would want to take over a number of school districts in this state."