A bill allowing the expansion of charter schools in Tennessee has passed the State House, but a premature press release with highly inflammatory language almost killed it.
Passage in the House was widely expected after the bill rocketed through approval in five House committees Wednesday. The quick movement has apparently been fueled by a compromised forged in part during a meeting Monday afternoon that included legislators, charter school proponents and the state teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association.
Debate on the bill was going along smoothly and receiving bipartisan support until State Rep. Ulysses Jones (D-Memphis) obtained a press release that was being sent out by State Rep. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
The release, which wasn't supposed to be sent by Kelsey until the bill passed, included a line that stated "public schools are the last vestige of slavery."
As soon as Jones read Kelsey's language, the House erupted in groans and shouts. Democratic Leader Gary Odom of Nashville, visibly angry, then approached the well of the House but was intercepted by the primary sponsor of the bill, Nashville Republican Rep. Beth Harwell.
Harwell grabbed Odom's arm and could be heard saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't know."
For more than a few moments, it appeared that all of the bipartisan support for the legislation could evaporate and that the legislation might die due to Kelsey's comments.
After what seemed like an eternity, Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner of Nashville, who had originally opposed the charter school bill and had successfully blocked it from passing earlier in the session, approached the well.
Turner took the microphone and, although visibly angry, stated, "We've worked too hard on this bill. Let's put everything aside and vote this bill out."
House members debated the bill a bit longer and then followed Turner's advice. The State Senate is expected to follow suit later today.
The post-compromise bill includes caps – a limit of 90 charter schools statewide, including 35 in Memphis/Shelby County and 20 in Nashville, plus an allowance for three additional 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 bill’s language defining that lottery process 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.
Metro Nashville Public Schools currently has three charter schools in operation: LEAD Academy, Smithson-Craighead and KIPP Academy. Two new charter schools – Smithson-Craighead's middle school and Global Academy – will start serving students this fall.
Once part of the school system, charter schools must meet the same federal and state educational guidelines as other public schools. Charter schools receive local and state funding, but no public funds for building or transportation.
All of Smithson-Craighead's students, and 94.3 percent of KIPP Academy's, are considered economically disadvantaged by state Report Card data. Such data on economically disadvantaged students is not available for LEAD. All three schools are considered in good standing under federal No Child Left Behind laws.