A new charter school bill for Tennessee rocketed through approval in five House committees Wednesday, and proponents say it could officially be passed in both the House and Senate as early as today.
”We're really optimistic that we’re going to get it passed now,” said Matt Throckmorton, president of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. “We’ve been dead half a dozen times. It’s been controversial. In the end, everybody came together. Everybody’s listened to everybody’s concerns.”
The quick movement has been fuelled by a compromise forged in part during a meeting Tuesday afternoon, Throckmorton said, which included legislators, charter school proponents, and state teachers’ union the Tennessee Education Association.
Several big changes have been made. The revised bill caps the number of charter schools at 90 statewide, including 35 in Memphis and 20 in Nashville, plus allowance for an additional three charter schools that could serve students who have dropped out as well as a review period for all charter schools every five years. School districts across the state with at least 14,000 students would be able to enroll, on a lottery basis, students receiving free and reduced meals.
The language defining that charter school eligibility lottery process, Throckmorton said, will be some of the “tightest” in the nation, which Throckmorton said helps address the concern of opponents that charter schools “cherry-pick” the public school students with the most propensity to succeed.
“We want to have a public trust that we’re not cherry-picking,” Throckmorton said.
The language stipulates a 30-day enrollment period for charter schools each year, and prioritizes students who are academically struggling. Such students may have either failed their own Gateway Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) exams, or be zoned to a public school that has failed certain academic benchmarks required by federal No Child Left Behind laws.
Throckmorton credited lawmakers including Mike Turner, Les Winningham, Harry Brooks, Beth Harwell and Jamie Woodson for their “leadership” in helping the bill move along, and said the office of Mayor Karl Dean has also been very involved in the process.
Dean, for his part, said in a statement Wednesday that the Legislature “deserves credit” for the recent work on the legislation.
“The Legislature deserves credit for coming together in the spirit of compromise to move forward on this legislation. This is something my administration has been focused on since the beginning of the legislative session,” Dean said. “If the legislation is passed, it will be a big step forward for education in Tennessee, but especially in Nashville. It will make charter schools a real option for our students most in need, and that’s what this is really about.”
The charter school bill, which would dramatically broaden student eligibility for charter schools in Tennessee, was defeated weeks ago at the will of a majority of the Democratic caucus. Charter school supporters say broadening charter school access in Tennessee will help shore up this state with laws in other parts of the country.
Nashville Board of Education member Alan Coverstone, who was part of a work group that suggested charter school-friendly changes to policies at Metro Nashville Public Schools, said he considers the legislative activity a positive step.
“The state's action gives Nashville another tool to use in pursuit of an excellent education for every child, and I look forward expectantly to seeing that vision realized,” Coverstone said in a Wednesday e-mail. “I am pleased that the state legislature seems poised to give the MNPS greater control over the strategic use of charter schools and that the students and families whose educational choices were artificially limited the previous enrollment restrictions will see improvement.”