As the legislative session drew to a close, lawmakers spent some of their final hours on Capitol Hill debating whether it’s worth creating a state law largely in reaction to one school district defying the state.
Speaker Beth Harwell, the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives and one of the most influential in the state, made assigning a state panel to review applications of rejected charter schools a priority this year after watching from the sidelines as Metro’s elected school board repeatedly turned down a favored charter school.
The debate continued a long-running discussion about the role of charter schools — privately run, publicly funded institutions that play a key part in the education reform movement sweeping the nation.
But it also brings to light a running feud largely between key state officials and Metro Nashville Public Schools that gets the State Board of Education and the state legislature involved.
“I can’t remember a time when an issue has been this badly botched by everybody involved in it,” said Will Pinkston, MNPS school board member and former political operative for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“Regardless of party, regardless of chamber, it seems like nobody’s on the same page, nobody’s in agreement. It’s troubling seeing this kind of sausage being made when it affects as many school districts and children,” he said.
Harwell wants a state body to review charter school applications turned down by their local school board and approve those the panel finds qualified to open.
The idea is largely an outgrowth of last year’s flare-up when the Metro school board repeatedly, and sometimes narrowly, denied a charter to Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based charter school operator that wished to open its first Tennessee school in more affluent West Nashville. Board members cited diversity and transportation among their chief concerns.
High-ranking government officials were steamed that MNPS rejected the charter school. Emails obtained by The City Paper revealed both Mayor Karl Dean and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman working behind the scenes to help Great Hearts win approval.
But after the school board issued its final rejection of the charter, Huffman and Gov. Bill Haslam slapped the school district with a $3.4 million fine — by withholding state education funding for administrative spending — and Dean sided with Harwell, who began leading the charge to encourage an alternative route for approving charter schools.
But how to meet those ends proved difficult for the speaker.
She sought the idea through several reincarnations of the bill. At times, she zeroed in on Nashville and Memphis, then all 95 counties, and at last ended up focusing on the five counties with schools sitting in the bottom 5 percent in the state, including Nashville.
The plan won easy approval while maneuvering through the House of Representatives, home to Harwell’s 69 fellow Republicans — although several admit off the record that their support for the bill is to back their speaker despite doubts the policy change is necessary.
But the Senate, with less loyalty to the House speaker, was more resistant.
After a series of delays to hear the bill, high-ranking Senate Republican Bo Watson of Hixon questioned in a key committee whether there was a problem that needs to be solved. He and other members, including those in Harwell’s own party, pushed back the bill, putting it on shaky ground.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen in the testimony where that problem exists unless there’s one isolated incident and this relates to the Davidson County situation,” Watson told reporters after taking the bill to task in a key legislative committee meeting.
“This is a basic business question. Do you change your entire process because you have one random variation? Most businesses would tell you no,” he said.
Lawmakers have been careful to avoid mentioning the Great Hearts drama, but instead debated why the new panel is necessary and where the idea came from.
Haslam, meanwhile, is all for it.
“I think charter schools, the well-run ones, are a benefit for the state. I think the ability to have another board who would approve it to give the final say so is a good thing,” he said.
“To me, it’s always been about, there should be somebody that says this application meets the state requirements and it’s not just the LEA [local education agency] who makes the final decision so we don’t get back in a Great Hearts situation,” said Haslam.
His office backed the bill, and he worked with Harwell’s office to help sell the idea to legislators.
“I don’t think it’s all about Great Hearts and Metro,” Haslam said. “We, the state, we don’t want to be back there where we’re saying, ‘OK we don’t think you followed state law, here’s the penalty.’ We don’t want to be back there in that position.”
After weeks of delays and a handful of rewrites, Republicans appeared to come together on the idea of an outside authorizer for rejected charter schools as of Thursday. By Friday it had all fallen apart.
The latest version of the bill refined the current appeal process, giving the State Board of Education power to approve snubbed charter schools in counties with low-performing schools. It also gave the local school district a 30-day window to broker a deal over whether the school district or the state board would take on oversight of the charter school to be planted in the district’s backyard.
While the state board has spent the past decade reviewing a total of 46 charter school denials, ordering school districts to approve 11 of them, the board would be new to authorizing charter schools.
But no matter the revisions, the bill became caught in a crossfire between the House and Senate. When the larger body rejected a judicial redistricting bill by a wide margin — the one which was a favored project of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — it died, a pocket-veto by the Senate which never scheduled it before the close of business.
"It's not fun to fight with friends or to have disagreements with friends," Ramsey told reporters after the adjournment. "But in the end, we're all here together in the state of Tennessee. We have another session to come back to and we'll all be friends ... soon."
MNPS school officials — who tried to negotiate terms into the bill with little luck this session — generally oppose the idea of an outside authorizer that could open schools in their district and drain their budget.
The latest version was a step in the right direction, said Pinkston, the Metro school board’s Budget Committee chair. But he said he’s wondering if it ultimately will run afoul of the state constitution by focusing on counties with poor-performing schools. He said he’s also concerned that the legislation singles out areas with struggling schools but falls short of requiring charters approved by the State Board of Education to serve students in those communities.
MNPS this month agreed to let the director of schools shop around for outside legal counsel in preparation of broaching a legal battle on new laws they fear may go too far, such as the outside authorizer. At a time when changes to how the state addresses public education bustle around Capitol Hill, he said, “legal maneuvering is as paramount as legislative maneuvering.”
But the education reform movement is in full swing, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) who adds that the more important focus needs to be redirecting the conversation on students, not the personalities or the politics.
“We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults. What we have to do is a preserve a system that serves children,” she said.