Harwell's Charter School Bill on Life Support in Senate



House Speaker Beth Harwell’s charter school authorizer bill is in serious trouble in the Senate. After a long debate in the Finance Committee today, the sponsor—Senate Education Committee chair Dolores Gresham—put off voting because she almost certainly would have lost.

It seems that senators aren’t as willing as their House counterparts to swallow their concerns about this bill just to let Harwell stick it to the Metro school board for rejecting Great Hearts’ charter school last year.

Senators on the Finance Committee tried their best to pretend the bill has some rational basis in education policy. But the elephant in the room—that the only real purpose is to grease the skids for Great Hearts’ to start a school in West Nashville for all Harwell’s well-to-do constituents—finally overwhelmed the discussion by the end.

“I’m trying to figure out what problem we are solving with this legislation,” Chattanooga Sen. Bo Watson said. “You are taking away local control to fix a problem that may be very isolated.”

The bill, which creates a new state board to hear charter applications, applies only to Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Hardeman County—the five places where there’s at least one failing school. If the school board rejects a charter application, then the charter company can go to the new board for approval.

Critics say that will drain funds from school systems while setting up little segregated schools for well-off white kids in the suburbs. It doesn’t apply statewide because it would never pass the legislature that way. Lawmakers aren’t keen on stripping power from their own elected school boards and handing it to appointees in Nashville.

As a rationale for the bill, Gresham said it would help save kids in failing public schools by giving them more opportunity. But senators weren’t buying that BS. Even Nashville Republican Steve Dickerson sounded skeptical. He pointed out there are only six failing schools in Nashville but, if this bill passes, charter schools could go anywhere in Davidson County—whether the school board likes it or not.

“We could have a school failing in East Nashville but they might put charter schools in Belle Meade,” Dickerson said.

Gresham asked the committee to toss the bill to the end of its daily calendar while she worked it behind the scenes. The question is, does the Senate really care whether Harwell exacts her revenge?


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