NASHVILLE (AP) – Lawmakers questioned a proposal to create a special panel to authorize charter schools in several Tennessee counties during debate at the state Legislature Tuesday, while a nonprofit group criticized the governor's decision to withdraw his school voucher program.
The measure to create the panel was delayed in the Senate Finance Committee after members expressed concern about the new entity that would pay its executive director more than $100,000. Lawmakers questioned the need for the panel that would oversee five of the state's lowest performing counties: Davidson, Hamilton, Hardeman, Knox and Shelby.
"I don't understand the hesitancy to have this housed within an existing government agency," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.
Currently local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. There are 48 charter schools in Tennessee.
Under the proposal, applicants rejected in the five counties could appeal to the nine-member panel that would be appointed by the governor and speakers of the House and Senate.
Some members said they don't think a new entity is necessary for just five counties that probably won't have that many appeals. Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, told the committee there were about 20 charter school appeals last year.
"I hate to see these people employed ... for a light workload," said Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville.
Republican Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville agreed.
"My main concern is the establishment of a whole new office with new board members, with an executive director whose salary is in six figures, and all of that for apparently five counties," he said.
However, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dolores Gresham, said the panel is another tool to create better education in Tennessee.
"The point of the legislation is to bring quality charter schools where we need them most," said the Somerville Republican.
Another bill related to charter schools that was believed dead has apparently been revived in the Legislature.
The proposal would allow for-profit charter schools in Tennessee. State law currently requires all charter schools and any management companies they might hire to have nonprofit status.
Jim Wrye, the chief lobbyist of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said the group – which is against charter schools in general – said some for-profit entities focus more on making money than students' education.
"When you have a land developer getting into the education business, now what's their first business?" Wrye asked. "It's certainly not educating students."
Meanwhile, the Tennessee chapter of the American Federation for Children held a press conference at the legislative office complex later Tuesday to decry Gov. Bill Haslam's decision last week to withdraw his school voucher proposal.
The group had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into an advertising campaign to urge lawmakers to approve a voucher program that was broader in scope than the version envisioned by the Republican governor.
Haslam's proposal would have limited the program to 5,000 children from low-income families attending the worst performing schools in the state in the first year, growing to 20,000 students by 2016.
Raul Lopez of the Tennessee Federation for Children said his group was pushing for an amendment to the measure that would open the door to other children if the full number of eligible students from failing schools didn't sign up in a given year.
But an impasse in negotiations led to Haslam's decision to yank his bill from committee.
"The committee was denied the opportunity to discuss the legislation and the proposed amendment, therefore halting education reform progress in Tennessee," Lopez said.
The group appeared especially angry at Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who carried the bill on Haslam's behalf – and pulled the measure in consultation with the governor.
In a discussion with reporters on Monday, Haslam defended his decision to put the voucher measure on hold, saying that he had told all parties involved that he would pull the bill if there was an attempt to change it.
"I don't know how to be more clear," Haslam said. "One of the loudest messages we can give is what we did last week in saying that really is the bill we want, and if you want to do your own, please do. But that's going to be our bill, period," he said.
Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig in Nashville contributed to this report.
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