Despite an uproar from critics, the state House is moving quickly to make certain that school boards never again do what Metro's did last year in denying the Great Hearts charter school for West Nashville.
Sweeping legislation by House Speaker Beth Harwell creates a nine-member state board as the new ultimate authorizer of charter schools in Tennessee. The House Education Committee voted 9-3 for a new draft of the bill this week, applying the new rules not only to Nashville and Memphis but to the whole state.
The board — appointed by the governor and the speakers of the House and Senate — will hear appeals of school boards' denials of charter schools. Whatever the state board decides is final. And even though the elected school board has voted against opening that charter, taxpayers in that district are stuck with the tab for running it.
That last provision is the rub. Is the city ready to pay higher property taxes for charter schools? That's the question school board members are asking after looking at the district's preliminary operating budget for the coming year. It adds $44 million for next year — $15 million of which goes to new charter schools.
At least the school board authorized these charters. Under Harwell's bill, more are on the way — whether the school board likes it or not. Some school board members say they are worried Harwell's power play could force higher property taxes.
"This legislation amounts to taxation without representation," MNPS board member Amy Frogge says. "It removes control of our schools from locally elected officials and places it in the hands of an appointed board at the state level. The state will be able to open as many new schools as it wishes while Nashville taxpayers pay for them. Nashvillians will have absolutely no say-so about the performance of the state schools that we are funding and no ability to close them.
"At the very least, we need assurances that state-opened schools don't drive us off the fiscal cliff. The cost of operating charter schools is quite high, and this could be the king of unfunded mandates."
Another board member, Will Pinkston, says, "It's pretty easy to envision a scenario in which an appeals panel could unexpectedly drop multiple schools on us all at once, and that could have a destabilizing effect on the budget — to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over the short term — unless there are some fiscal protections built in."
During the House Education Committee meeting, Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, described the legislation as "basically telling the LEAs [local education agencies] they've got to accept what we want or else."
Harwell makes no secret of what's motivating her. Her Green Hills constituents wanted Great Hearts' charter school to open, and she's determined to make it happen. Great Hearts officials have said they will try again in Nashville if the legislature adopts a state authorizer.
"Ultimately what we want to do is have as many choices available to the parents here in Nashville as possible," the speaker says. "I don't want just any public charter school here in this state. ... I am all about a bad public charter school being closed. I think the most critical thing is we close bad public charter schools. But we did have an issue here in Nashville where there was a public charter school applicant that was a very good one. We actively recruited Great Hearts to come to this city, and I just would like to avoid what we went through."
This week, House Democratic Caucus chairman Mike Turner called the new state appeals board "a death panel for public schools." Turner contends Harwell's bill will let charters with nearly all-white enrollments pop up in well-to-do suburbs of Nashville. The school board denied Great Hearts' application because members felt the school would cater mostly to well-off white families.
"Charter schools are not a panacea," Turner said. "We're just writing them a blank check here and saying take our school systems over. They're going to resegregate our schools. You wait and see. That concerns us. There are some people for charter schools who mean well. There are some other people on the charter school side who are driven by profit, driven by political motivations. That's what concerns me. And they're all allied together opposed to the public schools, and the public schools are going to get the shaft."