In the end every stratagem to blunt the bill and every amendment to deflect or redefine its purpose fell victim to a party-line vote from the top-heavily Republican membership of the House. The final vote there was 62-30. Much the same result is expected when the bill gets to the floor of the equally GOP-dominated Senate on Friday.
The bill (HB702/SB830) targets only five of the state’s counties (and “targets” is definitely the right verb). Stripped of its various clauses and protocols, what it does is empower the state Board of Education, as an authorizing agency, to overrule, sans recourse to appeal, negative decisions on charter-school applications by school boards in Knox, Hamilton, Hardeman, Davidson, and Shelby counties.
The provision of the bill that limits it to those counties stems from an amendment by state Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), the key part of which states: “This section shall only apply to charter schools authorized by the state board of education upon appeal from a denial of approval of a charter school application by an LEA that contains at least one (1) priority school on the current or last preceding priority school list.”
“Priority” is essentially a euphemism for “failing,” and the adjective applies to the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state’s schools, those desti ned to end up being absorbed by the new state-run Achievement School District.
Defining the application that way nets the five counties listed, four of which — Knox (Knoxville), Hamilton (Chattanooga), Davidson (Nashville), and Shelby (Memphis) — happen to be the sites of the state’s largest urban school systems. Hardeman (Bolivar) makes the list because it is home to a large rural — and impoverished —African-American population.
The original version of the bill, sponsored by Mark White (R-Germantown) and Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), was based on population and too arbitrarily had Davidson and Shelby counties in its sights. As amended by Brooks, it both has a more defensible qualifying mechanism and is shorn of a proposal for a new state review panel that would have added a burdensome fiscal note.
White and Brooks stood in the well to advance the bill Thursday, and they were kept busy fending off a series of energetic efforts that essentially were meant to stigmatize and condemn the measure. No one really doubted what the outcome would be.
The bill’s opponents couldn’t be faulted for lack of effort. Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville) made a point of describing the disagreement between the Davidson County School Board and the state Board of Education that may have occasioned the bill.
This was a case in which the local board rejected a charter application from Mitchell described as an “out-of-state company from Arizona” that wanted to locate a charter school, Great Hearts Academy, in the upscale Belle Meade section of west Nashville but was rejected by the school board, he said, for failures to address questions regarding diversity and transportation.
Reflecting the Haslam administration’s strong comimitment to charter-school expansion, the state Commission of Education would penalize the Davidson board $3.4 million in state funding for its action regarding Great Hearts. That was one consequence. Development of the current authorizer bill was another. “A corporation from Arizona got denied some taxpayer dollars from Tennessee, that’s why we’re here,” Mitchell said. The issue hadn’t been education, it had been money. “Some millionaries weren’t go0n g to get some money, that’s why we’re here.”
If the presence of priority schools in a county was what qualified that county for such direct oversight by the state Board of Education, then new charter schools should be located within close proximity to the failing schools or within their confines, not in affluent areas, Mitchell argued, but his amendments to that effect were tabled.
State Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) argued in vain for an amendment requiring the state to pay the local share of funding for a new charter school in cases where it might overrule a local school board’s judgment. “If the state Board of Education is overruling the will of the people, the state can for for it,” Stewart said. “Nashville shouldn’t become a piggy back to fund whatever new educational scheme happens to be advanced by the latest school reformer Let them pay for these new unproven experiments they find so captivating.”
Stewart said the authorizer bill was one of many in this year’s session and in the previous two years that conformed to a pattern of state power being imposed on local options.
Others — Reps. Larry Miller (D-Memphis), Criag Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), Sherry Jones (D-Nashville), Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) — tried other arguments and other amendments, but nothing availed. Everything was tabled by more or less the same vote — 60- or 70-something to 20-somethng, ratios corresponding to the Republican-to-Democrat ratio in the House.
To all the objections White and Brooks responded that the aim of the bill was to reverse the trend whereby Tennessee consistently ranked low among the states in educational achievaement. “We’re trying to get the best charter schools in our state. We’re tired of ranking 46 or 47 of 48 in national standings. That’s what we’re targeting,” White said.
The outcome of the battle was never in doubt, but at least there was a battle. For most of Thursday, in the two chambers and in the committee rooms of the House and Senate, bills were read out by the speakers or chairpersons and declared passed without objection, one after the other, with the bills’ sponsors in most cases not having to say a word in explanation of them. It was government by assembly line.
More of that is expected on Friday, the last day before the factory is scheduled to shut down for the year.