Lawmakers have put a clear target on the Metro Nashville Public Schools system in a bill that would allow groups looking to open charter schools to apply straight to the state Board of Education.
Under the proposal, the option to circumvent the local school board would only be available in Nashville and Memphis. The legislative language, which was released late Monday before a Tuesday meeting, won its first victory in the House Education subcommittee today before a standing room only crowd.
The legislation singles out counties with a population of at least 600,000, subtracting all other towns and cities besides Nashville and Memphis. With 635,000 people in Davidson County and 935,000 people in Shelby County, the two school districts clearly qualify. Other big counties like Knox and Hamilton fall shot on the population benchmark by more than 150,000 people.
The measure also stipulates that charters can use the Board of Education as an authorizer only after the local school district has twice been asked by the BOE to reverse decisions to reject applications. Both Memphis and the MNPS school system have been asked to reverse multiple charter applications.
Amy Frogge, an MNPS board member, told committee members the proposal will create something of a “shotgun wedding” for districts and charter schools that take the alternative chartering route. She urged the group to delay a vote to hear more stakeholders, including Director of Schools Jesse Register.
Lawmakers instead pushed to act on the legislation, voting 6-3 to approve the bill with bipartisan support and sending it to the full Education Committee. The opposition was also bipartisan as Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens, voted against the legislation because it was “a problem looking for a solution.”
Last year, MNPS repeatedly rejected a charter school application, and was told by the Board of Education to reverse its decision. When the school board refused, the Department of Education fined MNPS $3.4 million.
Board members continued to criticize the legislation at its school board meeting Tuesday night, and called for a speedy assessment of their legal options to fight the proposal should it become law.
Members expressed concern not only because the legislation is focused on Davidson and Shelby County, but because the move would take decisions away from locally-elected school boards and charter schools winning approval from a new statewide authorizer would be funded with local tax dollars siphoned from the school district.
Board member Michael Hayes said he generally favors the idea of a statewide authorizer, but that he too was disappointed with the legislation. He said his problem is the measure lacks a method for keeping the outside authorizer accountable.
“All of that language is missing from this four page document,” he said.
While charter school advocates have pushed for a statewide body to OK charter applications for years, the flare up in MNPS frustrated lawmakers who saw the action by local officials as snubbing state law which lent momentum to the effort.
MNPS school board members suggest the legislation’s attempt to single out select school districts will backfire given an ongoing legal battle in Shelby County over 2012 legislation that targeted the county in the process of a school district merger.
"Given the context of the recent federal court decision in Shelby County, it's surprising that a Memphis legislator would bring this kind of constitutionally suspect legislation,” said board member Will Pinkston, a former top aide to former Gov. Phil Bredesen. “I'm guessing there are any number of organizations — school boards, parent groups, civil rights groups — that might be ready and waiting to litigate over this one."
The Board of Education is opposed to establishing a statewide charter school authorizer, and would rather see BOE decisions to reverse local school board decisions be binding, the board chairman told The City Paper. The board has agreed with 35 of 45 local school board rejections of charter school applications.
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, is sponsoring the bill in the House. He said the legislation is targeted at Nashville and Memphis because they have the most charter schools.
The legislation now heads to the full House Education Committee.