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Haslam Cool to State ‘Authorizer’ for Charter Schools

by Andrea Zelinski on August 30, 2011

Gov. Bill Haslam led the movement this year to take the shackles off Tennessee charter schools so they can play a bigger role in education, but he says he’s as yet unwilling to grant them their next wish — a statewide board to OK their applications.

Charter school advocates argue they’d rather have the state or some independent body OK their applications instead of local school boards, which they see as too hesitant to embrace nontraditional education initiatives.

But Haslam said he won’t give away powers now reserved for local school districts to anyone else — at least until he can gauge how successful his developing charter school reforms turn out.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve put in place. Let’s see how this works for a year or two before we do anything else,” the governor said.

Lawmakers this year removed the caps limiting the number of charter schools operating in the state and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Critics of charter-school expansion, like Jerry Winters, executive director of Tennessee’s largest teachers union, charge that the state is essentially writing charters a “blank check” to do what they want.

Officials also gave the state’s Achievement School District the power to approve charters in areas serving students who attend the state’s 13 lowest-performing schools.

But leaders in the charter school community, who met on Capitol Hill Friday, want more. They say a state-level process for “authorizing” or approving charters will create the operational stability the current system lacks. Applicants now who are denied locally can appeal the decision to the state Board of Education.

“We have a number of districts that don’t like charter schools but they have applications,” said Matt Throckmorton, who heads up the Tennessee Charter School Association. “It’s a situation where if we had a statewide authorizer, we could have a very consistent high-standard, high-quality application process, and therefore the applicants that are approved in those communities will be good charter schools and will be accepted much quicker.”

About a dozen charter school leaders rallied around that idea, although final details of what the association will pitch next legislative session will be worked out by the end of the year.

Sister Sandra Smithson of the Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville made it clear the authority shouldn’t rest with those in charge of failing schools.

“We need multiple authorizers, or at least one or two other choices as possibilities, and people with proven track records in education for bringing about substantive change,” she said. “I do have a problem trusting myself to a system that doesn’t work.”

The decision to authorize charter schools should stay within the district, Lee Harrell, a lobbyist with the Tennessee School Boards Association, told TNReport. He said he’s afraid the discussion is beginning to pin one type of school against the other.

“I fear we would abandon the mentality of traditional schools and charter schools working together,” said Harrell.

The Volunteer State is home to 41 operating charter schools with four others preparing to launch next school year.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report.

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