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Gov. Lee’s proposal to new create charter school agency passes education committee

Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to create a new state agency to oversee charter schools Tennessee passed the House Education Committee March 20 on a 13-9 vote.

House Bill 940, as amended by the committee, would create a new charter school commission within the state education department and take over duties relating to charter schools currently handled by the state board of education.

The most controversial component of the legislation—a measure that would allow the new commission to approve charter school applications anywhere in the state without local school board input—was removed at the behest of nervous Republicans who likely heard an earful from their local public education officials.

In the bill’s current form, new charter applications would first be heard by local school districts. In the event that local school officials deny an application to open a new charter school, the new nine-member commission, appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature, could hear an appeal from the charter applicant and overturn the local decision.

Two issues almost completely absent from the Education Committee’s debate of the bill: the costs passed onto local school districts when a new charter school opens and the academic effectiveness of charter schools in Tennessee.

The legislature changed state law in 2002 to allow for the creation of charters schools, which are funded by state and local tax payers but operate independently, picking their own curriculum and managing their own budgets.

Over the years, lawmakers have loosened the rules and added tax dollar investments to allow for more charter schools and enrollment at charter schools has jumped more than 500 percent since 2010.

The program keeps growing in spite of the fact that, statewide, students at Tennessee’s charter schools under performed district-run schools on end-of-course exams.

And according to a 2018 report by the Tennessee Department of Education, “both charter schools and district-run schools display considerable variation in overall effectiveness” as it relates to student academic progress.  

Still, there are 116 charter schools operating in Tennessee today. And Gov. Lee’s new charter school agency could expand the charter footprint even further.

The academic growth and success of students should be primary consideration when lawmakers consider whether a program is worthy of additional investment. But that issue was not discussed on March 20.

Next step:
The bill will be heard next by the House Government Operations Committee, which meets next on Monday, March 25 at 2 p.m.

How they voted: House Education Committee passed the bill 13-9, March 20.
Representatives voting for the bill:
Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, District 37
Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, District 71
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, District 64
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, District 16
Rep. Tom Leatherwood, R-Arlington, District 99
Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington, District 81
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, District 33
Rep. Iris Rudder, R-Winchester, District 39
Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, District 35
Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, District 95
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, District 83
Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, District 42

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, District 90

Representatives who voted against the bill:
Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, District 23
Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, District 97
Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, District 72
Rep. Chris Hurt, R-Halls, District 82
Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, District 40

Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, District 54
Rep. Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville, District 67
Rep. Harold Love, Jr., D-Nashville, District 58
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, District 98

Absent/Missed the vote:
Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, District 41