Senate OKs Harwell’s charter authorizer bill, Pinkston threatens litigation

Move to let state approve local schools could face court fight

On a 20-13 vote, the Senate gave its official approval of a plan allowing the state Board of Education to approve charter schools rejected by their local school boards.

The bill is part of a long-running debate about the role of charter schools largely in Nashville, an at times heated discussion driven by the local school board's repeated rejection in 2012 of a charter school favored by Mayor Karl Dean and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

"I think the fact that there is an ultimate arbitrator of that decision so we don't end up where we were last year is a good thing," Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters, adding he sees the bill as a way to avoid the messy situation of the state imposing a penalty against any school district that refuses to approve charter schools even after the state Board of Education tells them to.

The measure applies only to school districts with schools ranked among the worst 5 percent in the state, which currently includes Davidson County, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox and Shelby counties.

Senators debated the issue for a half-hour Thursday, with Democrats alleging the bill is narrowly written to only affect five of the state’s 95 school districts.

Opposed by MNPS and the state Coalition of Large School Systems, the bill gives the state Board of Education the power to approve charter school applications denied by the local school district. The BOE would then be responsible for the charter school, although the local school district that rejected the charter could opt to oversee the school anyway.

The bill needed 17 votes to pass, winning three more votes than needed — a narrow win in a body with 26-member Republican voting bloc.

Seven Republicans voted against the bill, including Sens. Mike Bell of Riceville, Rusty Crowe of Johnson City, Joey Hensely of Hohenwald, Becky Massey of Knoxville, Overbey of Maryville, Jim Tracy of Shelbyville and Bo Watson of Hixon. Massey is the only Republican voting no whose district would be affected by the bill.

Memphis Sen. Reginald Tate was the sole Democrat voting in favor of the bill. All others voted against.

After almost a year of waiting to be heard in the Senate due to political games at the end of last year's legislative session, the now-approved bill goes back to the House to approve minor amendments tacked on by the upper chamber. The House approved the measure last year 62-30.

"If the bill becomes law, and if the state actually tries to bring new schools into existence on the back of our local budget, then I imagine we'll have a discussion about potential litigation," said MMNP School Board Member and Budget Chairman Will Pinkston who argued the bill would confiscate Davidson County tax dollars to create state-approved charter schools he says will have little accountability. "Personally, I'm not averse to going to court over this. Let's hope it doesn't come to that."