John Eason has been a part of the fight to bring more charter schools to Tennessee for the past 15 years. So far, it’s been a losing battle, and after the most recent failure, Eason’s hope for expanding the reach of privately operated public schools reached a new low.
A state bill to expand the reach of charter schools was put on the backburner two weeks ago thanks to House Democrats. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) has promised to keep fighting and even left the window cracked ever so slightly to the possibility the legislation could be heard again this session.
Eason, a board member for the Tennessee Charter School Association, said he’s not confident.
“For 15 years, I’ve been trying to get this thing done, so to have another year where there are a bunch of kids at the [Nashville public housing complex] James Cayce Homes without the choice of where to go to school, it’s disappointing,” he said.
The legislation, which stalled for the session in the education committee on May 20, would have allowed children on free or reduced lunches to have the choice of attending charter schools. It also would have erased the cap, currently at 50, for how many charter schools Tennessee may have.
In Nashville, charter schools, which teach some of the system’s most troubled populations, have proven especially successful. KIPP Academy, for instance, has seen its students gain between one-and-a-half and two grade levels of academic achievement per school year.
The bill had the support of Mayor Karl Dean’s administration. The expansion of charter schools has been advocated by everyone from Gov. Phil Bredesen to President Barack Obama.
But when the bill was on the brink of advancing through committee, House Democrats reportedly took dramatic action, ultimately ensuring its defeat. An “emergency” caucus meeting was called, according to one Democratic caucus source.
At the meeting, the Democrats eventually called for a rare unit vote — meaning every caucus member would be forced to vote together, despite the fact that there were dissenting views. For instance, Democratic Reps. Mark Maddox and John DeBerry voted for the bill in the K-12 education subcommittee. The bill also had passed the Senate and had a Democratic co-sponsor, Mary Pruitt (D-Nashville).
It wasn’t the first time House Democrats had used the unit vote tool this session. They did the same thing on the House Speaker vote to begin the session. Prior to that, however, the caucus hadn’t called for a unit vote in recent memory.
“I’m disappointed the Democratic caucus took that position,” Harwell said. “Ultimately, I believe it harms the children of Tennessee.”
Outside sources speculated that the penalty for going against the unit vote would have been severe.
Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association, told The City Paper that what details he knows of the caucus meeting are “pretty sketchy.” He understands that less than half the caucus members present were either supportive of or neutral toward the bill. But during the meeting, Throckmorton said there was a motion to take a “unity” position on the bill, meaning that anyone who opposed that position would be “all but kicked out of the party.”
“They went to an absolutely unprecedented political maneuver,” he said. “We had had a really good discussion on public policy and education in this state, up until about 8:47 a.m. on Wednesday, May 20. That’s when this … stopped being public policy and started being politics.”
But Democrats paint a different picture. Caucus Chairman Mike Turner (D-Nashville) insisted Democrats are not actually against charter schools, but simply opposed elements of the bill. Turner said Harwell was unwilling to negotiate.
Regardless, Maddox, the party whip, was the one who called for committee adjournment effectively killing the bill.
“We are not against charter schools, but against this bill,” Turner said. “We had concerns that changes we would make to this bill would be stripped out in the Senate just like they did on the guns in restaurants bill.
“There would have been no penalty, no one would have been punished for voting their conscience.”
One Democratic caucus source went further than Turner and said blame for the bill’s defeat belonged to the Dean administration for a number of mistakes. Democrats were aggravated when Harwell, a Republican, was chosen to carry the bill, and were not brought in to help shape the legislation.
“This bill probably could have been passed this year if there had been more Democrats brought into the loop,” the source said. “Instead, Beth Harwell was tagged as the prime sponsor and there was no communication until the bill was up for a vote.”
Nuances trip up mayor
It’s not the first time the Dean administration has had its communication and outreach tactics criticized.
District 6 Metro Councilman Mike Jameson was critical of Dean’s administration for altering plans to redevelop the downtown riverfront. Jameson held a community meeting after he got wind that a previously approved adventure water park had been put on the backburner. The community responded angrily and Dean, admitting a communication breakdown, eventually turned 180 degrees and put the water park in his new capital spending plan.
Dean said it didn’t strike him as “responsible” for members to oppose a bill because of its sponsor. He called the need to expand the reach of charter schools to Nashville’s poor children “very urgent,” pointing out that 70 percent of the county’s students would become eligible.
“There may be other issues involved than just the merits of a particular bill,” Dean said, expressing hope the bill would be heard again this session. “Those nuances of the legislative process I don’t know. But I do think as a state, and certainly as a city, we need to embrace reforms that have worked elsewhere and have created real opportunities to kids.”
Erick Huth, president of local teachers union the Metro Nashville Education Association, said the bill’s failure to advance this session was a reflection on Dean, who has been rumored to be interested in taking control of Metro schools if they fall into corrective action for a fifth consecutive year.
“Given his reception, it’s my impression that the legislature would not be inclined to authorize mayoral takeover,” Huth said.
Strict application process
Supporters of the bill say the changes to the law would bring Tennessee up to speed with the rest of the nation. Changing the law would not interfere with charter school quality control mechanisms, as Tennessee would still have “one of the strictest application processes in the nation,” according to Throckmorton.
Such strict — and often inconsistent, according to bill supporters — eligibility requirements for students make it hard for charter schools to plan for the number of students to enroll. Significant resources must be dedicated to screening families and sometimes finding students, even though “hundreds and hundreds” of ineligible students are turned away from charter schools each year, Throckmorton said.
Randy Dowell, the school leader of KIPP Academy, said he has only heard “hearsay” about the Democratic caucus meeting. But he’s talked about the bill with his students, including a rising ninth-grade KIPP graduate who thinks her younger brother should be able to attend the school she says has made a big difference in her life. Her younger brother is ineligible for KIPP enrollment under the current law.
“To her, it’s an issue of rights. Why doesn’t her little brother have the right to attend a charter school?” Dowell asked. He estimates KIPP has turned away about 500 families who wanted to enroll at the school but couldn’t under current Tennessee law.
State teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, has lobbied strongly against the bill. TEA President Earl Wiman has concerns about the proposed bill, but said he isn’t clear on all that happened during the Democratic caucus meeting.
“I don’t really know what happened or how it came about,” Wiman said. “I do know that we did not make that request. We did not make any request that the Democrats do that.”
The TEA’s biggest concern about the bill stems from how Tennessee distributes funding. Charter schools receive the tax dollars earmarked for the public school students who choose to attend the charter schools, but the operating costs of other system schools don’t necessarily decline correspondingly. An elementary school could lose five or 10 students in each grade level — and the public funding that follows those students — without having to employ fewer teachers or pay lower school maintenance costs.
Public school districts also pay for many of the administrative costs of charter schools, including payroll, Wiman said. Metro Nashville Public Schools, for its part, charges its charter schools an administrative fee, which has been a bone of contention for years.
“The way that [the law is] in place now is that it takes money away from the public school system without reducing the operating cost of the school system,” Wiman said.
For her part, Harwell still holds out hope for the legislation, even stating there’s a chance it could be brought back this session.
“I have been reassured by the Democratic caucus chair they are not opposed to charter schools and would like to work on this issue,” Harwell said. “And the time to do it is now. We don’t have another year of luxury, especially with Metro Nashville Schools in another year of failed status.”
Turner agreed to work on the issue, but offered a 2010 timeline for doing so.
“I have spoken with people from the charter schools, the Chamber, Metro schools, teacher’s union, mayor’s office, and the governor’s office and said I want to work with them next year to bring out a bill that we can all work with,” Turner said.
For charter school advocates, who have been working on the issue for more than a decade, talk of “next year” leaves them less than optimistic.
“I’m not confident this can get done in this state given the makeup of our legislature,” Eason said.
Reporter Ken Whitehouse also contributed to this report.