Tenn. House panel OKs bill to tighten online school enrollment

Associated Press • Feb 19, 2013 at 9:00 AM

NASHVILLE — A proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at online-only schools passed a House committee on Tuesday after an amendment failed that would have allowed school districts to close failing virtual schools.

The administration bill by Gov. Bill Haslam was approved in the House Education Committee on a voice vote and is being scheduled for the House floor.

The proposal would allow beginning online schools to start with an enrollment of 1,500 and continue to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. The measure originally sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000.

Democratic Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville said he proposed the amendment following the low performance of Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state’s only privately operated virtual school.

K12 Inc., the nation’s largest publicly traded online education company, runs the academy for Union County public schools.

State officials have been questioning the K12 operation. Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman called its first-year test results “unacceptable.”

State figures showed the academy fell into the bottom 11 percent of schools for student gains, as measured under the state’s value-added assessment system. The cyber school scored a 1 on the 5-point scale.

Pitts said his amendment was intended “to put some teeth into the law.”

“We’ve got a situation where we’ve got a virtual public school that has clearly failed their students,” he said.

Under his proposal, the Department of Education could institute enrollment caps if a school underperforms after one year, and the state’s education commissioner could put in place caps or direct the local district to close the school.

Before the vote on the amendment, Rep. Bill Dunn expressed his opposition to it by telling fellow committee members that other factors should be considered when evaluating schools and instead of so much attention being given students’ grades.

For instance, the Knoxville Republican said there may be social issues affecting a student’s performance.

“I think we need to remember ... there’s more to them,” said Dunn. “Yes academics are important, but there are other things to look at.”

Also Tuesday, the committee deferred action on a proposal that would allow charter school applicants in the state’s largest school districts — Memphis and Nashville — to seek authorization from either the State Board of Education or the local school districts.

Currently local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. Nashville and Memphis officials have opposed the bill on the grounds it strips power from locally elected school boards.

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Mark White, said he’s considering broadening its scope.

“We’re listening to all interested parties,” said the Memphis Republican. “That’s why we’re not moving the bill very fast right now.”

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