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Governor Considers Letting State OK Charter Schools

by Andrea Zelinski on September 19, 2012

Gov. Bill Haslam is warming to the idea of establishing a process whereby state education officials bypass local school districts when considering approval of new charter schools.

The governor has for months indicated little interest in the idea, which is a departure from the current system wherein local elected officials determine whether to allow a taxpayer-funded charter school to operate in their district.

But while at the same time cautioning that he hasn’t yet finalized his 2013 legislative agenda, the governor told reporters Tuesday that the idea of state approval has become more palatable to him in wake of Nashville school board officials refusing to permit a charter school that’s already been deemed good-to-go by the state.

After the Metro Nashville Public Schools refused to allow Great Hearts Academies to open a school in the district, the state this week fined Metro schools more than $3 million.

“Prior to this, I don’t think there was a lot of political momentum around it,” Haslam said about assigning a state panel to consider charter school applications. “We’ll have to see what the General Assembly, how they react to that this year. But prior to this, that was not something that was on our agenda at all.”

Haslam said as recently as last month he was not interested in entertaining discussions about letting charter schools apply directly to the state unless he saw widespread rejections of charter schools.

The Department of Education announced Tuesday it would withhold $3.4 million in state funds from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in October as a consequence for refusing to approve Great Hearts Academies.

The decision comes as a surprise after Haslam told reporters last month that “threatening to withhold money, that’s not the business we’re in in the state. We’re in the business of educating children.”

He and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman both said they were in on the decision to punish the school district. The fine is permitted under a state law that gives the commissioner “discretion” to withhold some or all state education funding if the district violates state education law.

Huffman says the local school district “brazenly” violated state law when it twice refused recommendations from the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the Arizona-based Great Hearts charter school into the district. Metro schools had rejected the application, citing concerns that the school wouldn’t conform to racial diversity mandates.

But state law appears to give Tennessee’s education board veto power:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district or community, the state board shall remand the decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The grounds upon which the state board of education based a decision to remand the application shall be stated in writing, specifying objective reasons for the decision. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The LEA, however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Over the last year, Haslam and the Republican-led Legislature stripped away a handful of caps and restrictions on charter schools, paving the way for expansion of the school-choice movement.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Sommerville, said in a statement the fine was the “correct course to take to demonstrate to the errant members of the school board that you cannot deliberately break the law without consequences.”

Democrats say the move sets an unsettling precedent for local school boards, which they say should have complete control over which charter schools to embrace. However, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, stopped short of encouraging school boards across Tennessee to start deciding for themselves which state laws they want to follow or violate.

“I do not endorse anybody breaking the law, but I think this was really an uncalled-for punishment,” Jones said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said if the state wants Great Hearts Academies to open so badly, then it should foot the full bill.

“If the state decides to step in and overrule a local school board’s decision, then the state should be prepared to pick up the cost of funding that local school,” Turner said.

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