The Tennessee Senate on Thursday approved legislation creating an independent state commission to approve public charter schools in Tennessee.
Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-TN-31) is the sponsor of SB0796. The tracking information is here.
The bill, which also passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday, is a key part of Governor Bill Lee’s education initiatives designed to improve education opportunities for Tennessee students. Lee worked with local school districts to incorporate changes to the legislation.
“I am pleased that Governor Lee worked with local schools districts and charter schools to gain unanimous support for the bill,” Kelsey said. “The new commission will ensure that charter school denials will be reviewed by a commission with expertise on quality schools. This law will help ensure that our children will have quality charter schools to attend in Tennessee.”
The legislation creates the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, whose core mission will be authorizing high-quality charter schools, which is currently administered by the State Board of Education, according to a press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus.
Commission members will be appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature, WATE said. At least five members must come from school districts that have charter schools.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, (D-TN-21), spoke out against the measure on the Senate floor, citing ongoing issues with charter schools in his district in Nashville, MSN said.
He added that the commission would likely not include “charter skeptics” who could think critically when approving school applications.
One political observer called the bill’s passage a step in the right direction.
“Innovation and experimentation as a path to improving our schools have long been blocked by teachers’ unions who would rather keep doing the same thing…and failing…rather than allowing new methods and options that might actually work but would require new ways of doing things,” said Steve Gill, Tennessee Star political editor. “Charter schools allow for the competition and innovation that our public school systems so often oppose, and the new charter commission will enable a more efficient process for the development and implementation of new charter schools while limiting the petty and often partisan local efforts to block them. This legislation won’t be a ‘cure all’ for the ills of our schools, but it is a step in the right direction and was a top priority for Governor Bill Lee that he can check off his list.”
One education expert weighed in.
“In the end, this means very little change,” said JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee. “For the success of students, we have always thought LEAs and Charter Schools should work together to meet the needs of children. This legislation keeps this part intact. What we are trading is one state agency that can handle appeals to a state commission appointed by the Governor. Not much difference.”
But Kelsey said the bill can make a difference for low-income students.
“Today, public charter school graduates from the lowest-income households are graduating from college at three-to-five times the national rate,” Kelsey said. “It strengthens charter school accountability by closing low-performing charters. It also ensures that all public schools, regardless of type, have a safe facility to support learning.”
Kelsey sponsored the original High-Quality Charter Schools Act in 2017 which required the State Board of Education to adopt quality authorizing standards to be used by all authorizers in the state, and created the Charter School Facility Fund through which grants are awarded.
Local school boards and the Achievement School District will continue to retain authority to authorize charter schools under the bill. The Board of Education will then take on the essential and critical role of oversight and accountability for all Tennessee charter school authorizers, including the commission.
The legislation also includes a provision to give public charter schools the right of first refusal to lease or purchase vacant school property before that facility could be disposed of for non-educational purposes.
– – –
Jason M. Reynolds has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist at outlets of all sizes.