Capitol Hill Conversation: State Authorizer For Charter Schools In The Works

Feb 18, 2013

The Tennessee Capitol building in Nashville.

The state could soon decide which charter schools can open up in Memphis and Nashville. A proposed bill in the Tennessee General Assembly aims to wrest control of that process away from the school boards in the state’s two largest cities.

In its first test, a House subcommittee passed the bill Tuesday, but there was one Republican lawmaker who voted no. Representative John Forgety is a retired educator from Athens.

“If we do indeed believe that the best government is that government closest to the people, then in my opinion we need to leave those decisions primarily to local boards of education,” Forgety said.

Forgety’s stance goes against his party’s leadership. Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, also a Republican, supports the bill and said her support does not contradict her belief in small government.

“The local person here is the parent,” Harwell said. “I have a lot of parents—not only in my district but others—that wanted this option within our public school system.”

In a move that angered many parents, an Arizona-based charter operator Great Hearts Academy was rejected by the Nashville school board over concerns about it catering to affluent students. Great Hearts Academy officials said they would only return to Tennessee if there is a state authorizer in place.

Even so, conflicts between charter schools and local school boards did not begin with Great Hearts Academy. Prior to their merger, the Shelby County Schools board and the Memphis City Schools board both fought with the state over authorizing charter schools. Additionally, Memphis City Schools fought with the state over their funding of charter schools.

“Charter school advocates have long complained that it’s an uphill battle when they are being vetted by the local school board,” said Blake Farmer who covers the state Capitol for WPLN. “They argue that these local boards have a conflict of interest—it’s about the money.”

When a child exits a district school to attend a charter school, the per-pupil funding associated with that student follows. As a result, many school districts view charters as taking funding away from more traditional schools. In the last few weeks, Williamson County, a top-performing school district just south of Nashville, saw its first proposal for a charter school. The Superintendent of the Williamson County Schools Mike Looney opposes the charter school because he says it will siphon money away from his district.

"I believe that charter schools dilute the few resources that we have," Looney explained. "You know, our operational expenses don't go down--we still have to pay the utility bill, we still have to pay the payment on the buildings that we've constructed, we still have to have buses. So you take those few dollars and you send them or divert them to another place, you know, money's tight and it's gonna get tighter."

“Rural and even suburban school districts, primarily represented by Republicans, don’t want charters popping up in their back yards either, without some local say-so,” said Farmer, and that’s why the proposed legislation targets only Nashville and Memphis. “The reality is a broader bill would have a much tougher time passing.”