Tennessee lawmakers scale back charter school proposal


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday significantly scaled back Gov. Bill Lee’s pitch to make it easier to open high-quality charter schools and shutter poor performing ones.

Lee, a Republican who took office in January, proposed the initiative during his first State of the State address, which also touted the value of vouchers and expanding school choice. The original legislation would have allowed charter school operators to bypass local school boards when seeking to open a new facility.

The House and Senate education committees instead advanced a measure Wednesday that would create a state commission to handle appeals when local school boards deny charter school requests.

Currently, the state Board of Education handles appeals. The nine-member commission would be appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature.

“We really need to be serious about what we’re doing, really look at best practices moving forward and make sure this commission works with our local school board on these charters,” said Committee Chairman Mark White.

Appeals to the state Board of Education are rarely successful. When they are, the charter schools have the option to operate under the state rather than local school board. Under the revised bill, a director and staff hired by the governor-appointed commission would oversee such schools. Just three charter schools are presently being managed by the state.

When Lee’s original plan was released, lawmakers, school board members and others balked at the bill’s language to allow a state commission rather than local school boards to sign off on new charter schools.

Wednesday’s meeting sparked a lengthy conversation among lawmakers, who eventually voted 13-9 in favor of the amended measure — a markedly narrow margin compared to most governor-backed bills. The Senate Education Committee later unanimously passed the amended bill.

Despite the changes to his initial bill, Lee remained positive.

“We’re getting a bill that’s going to serve particularly those low-income students that are in those least-performing schools,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

Separately, Lee’s proposed budget has set aside $12 million to boost funding for charter school facilities and campuses. The state has budgeted $6 million for charter schools over the past two years.

The charter school bill still must clear both the full House and Senate.

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