The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Mark White of Memphis was approved 9-3 in the House Education Committee. The companion bill is waiting to be heard by the Senate Education Committee.
The proposal that advanced is an amended version of a measure that would have allowed 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.
Charter schools are public schools that are funded with state and local tax dollars. But they don’t have to meet some of the state regulations that traditional public schools do as they try to find different ways to improve student learning.
Currently local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. There are currently 48 charter schools in Tennessee.
Under the new legislation, the nine-member panel would be appointed by the governor and speakers of the House and Senate. Charter applicants would be able to apply to their local school board first, then to the panel if they’re turned down. The decision of the panel would be final.
Opponents say it takes control away from local officials, but leaves them with the responsibility of having to pay for additional charter schools.
“This law amounts to nothing more than an unfunded mandate which will blow a hole in local budgets, potentially forcing tax increases to pay for charter schools that weren’t good enough to pass local scrutiny,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.
Amy Frogge is serving her first term on the Nashville School Board and agreed with Turner.
“We would prefer that we continue to manage our schools locally,” said Frogge, whose 6- and 8-year-olds attend public schools in Nashville. “I see this as a real problem.”
However, Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said he believes an independent panel will remove politics from the charter school authorization process.
“Our underlying principle is quality in the authorizing process,” he said. “And for the last several years, I’ve noticed that our authorization process is becoming more political.”