VOL. 125 | NO. 252 | Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Local School Issue on Verge of Going Statewide
By Bill Dries
Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Haslam knew the question was coming.
Haslam was in Memphis earlier this month to announce he was tapping District Attorney General Bill Gibbons for his cabinet.
He also knew the Memphis City Schools board was a week and a half away from voting on a charter surrender.
“I probably won’t,” Haslam said when a reporter asked if he would get involved. “Obviously if there’s a way the
various parties think there’s a way we can help, I will. But we won’t take a proactive role.”
Two nights earlier, there were already indications that the standoff between Shelby County’s two public school systems could become something more than a difference of opinion to be settled locally.
Aside from a private act requesting special school district status for Shelby County schools, there is a statewide lifting of the 1982 ban on the creation of special school districts and a growing list of legislative bills that would apply to the entire state.
The Tennessee School Boards Association is expected to push for lifting the special district ban on behalf of other boards across the state and it wants taxing authority for those boards as well.
Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown gave a preview of one of several education bills he plans to introduce in the upcoming legislative session. It is a proposal he calls “equal opportunity scholarships.”
“It is one piece of the exciting reform package that we have going on in Memphis City Schools,” Kelsey told MCS board members at the board’s annual meeting with the legislative delegation this month.
The proposal would allow low-income students at failing or underperforming city schools to take the money the state spends on them and apply that money to attending another public school, a charter school or a private school.
MCS board members on both sides of the charter surrender question quickly identified the bill as a school voucher proposal and questioned how Kelsey could say it wouldn’t mean a loss of that funding to the school system.
Kelsey said there were ways to write the bill, which he has proposed before, that would allow for that. And he then ventured into how the MCS board might feel about a bill lifting the ban on special school districts if the private act for Shelby County did not include taxing authority for the county school board.
MCS board member Martavius Jones, sponsor of the city schools charter surrender resolution, said that still wouldn’t be acceptable because state law still creates separate taxing districts.
“Whether they have taxing authority or not, it still says that people who live in that … special school district area would fund special school districts in that area,” Jones said.
Kelsey persevered. “Of course the General Assembly could put any kind of new stipulation on any school district it ever decided to create.”
Jones said the answer was still no because of the “far-reaching” impact over years of the decision. “Thirty percent of the population is still hamstringing 70 percent of the population,” he said, referring to the percentage of the population in the county outside Memphis and the population percentage in Memphis.
The day after the MCS board approved the charter surrender resolution, Kelsey proposed another bill in Nashville to put any school district whose voters surrender its charter and where 15 percent or more of the schools are not making progress in meeting standards under state control – the entire school district.
Kelsey’s legislation would be a big step in an area governors and their state education commissioners have historically been cautious about.
The option of a state takeover of schools has been around for a while. But some past education commissioners have vowed never to use the takeover power and have the state running a school system on a daily basis from Nashville.
Outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen raised the likelihood of a takeover of individual schools during his second term as governor.
But Bredesen was also careful to define state control as the state contracting with an education expert or institution to run a set of failing schools – not an entire school system.
Kelsey’s bill is in preliminary form and has no fiscal note attached – an estimate from state officials of how much a proposal will cost the state.