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VOL. 35 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 25, 2011




Charter school bill advancing in Senate

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Legislation that seeks to create more charter schools in Tennessee would hurt public schools, critics said of the proposal that advanced in the Senate on Wednesday.

The measure, which is one of Gov. Bill Haslam's top priorities, passed the Senate Education Committee on a 7-2 vote and is now headed to the Senate Finance Committee. The companion bill was to be heard in the House Education Subcommittee also on Wednesday.

Charter schools are funded with state and local tax dollars but don't have to meet some of the state regulations regular schools do as they try to find innovative ways to improve student learning.

Under current law, the number of charter schools is capped at 90 statewide. There are currently 40 in all: 25 in Memphis, 10 in Nashville, 3 in Hamilton County and one each in Knoxville and Shelby County.

Besides removing the cap, the proposal also allows any student in the charter school's jurisdiction to attend the school, as well as removes the statute's sunset provision.

"It's a very important piece of legislation to really be an important tool in Tennessee's tool box to ensure children are prepared," said Republican Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, a member of the Senate Education Committee and co-sponsor of the proposal.

Opponents of the legislation say attention should be given to improving public schools. Sen. Andy Berke has voted for charter school legislation in the past, but didn't support the current proposal.

"We want to give kids the opportunity to attend excellent schools," the Chattanooga Democrat said. "But every school in this state should be excellent. Every child in this state should have an excellent education."

Democratic Sen. Charlotte Burks of Monterey said opening charter school enrollment could open the door for cherry picking, "leaving the poorest, least achieving children in the public school system."

"All around I just think it's better if we try to do better with what we have, and not be starting all these new things," she said.

Woodson said the proposal is a "complement to the traditional system ... not a distraction."

"It's an opportunity for districts to all meet the unique needs of their children," she said.

In other action Wednesday, a proposal to restrict the collective bargaining rights of Tennessee teachers passed the House Education Subcommittee 7-6.

The House version exempts several areas like merit pay and evaluations from negotiations, but stops short of eliminating all union bargaining, which is what the Senate companion bill proposes.

Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, who as leader of the chamber can vote on any House panel, broke a 6-6 subcommittee deadlock to keep the bill alive.

"I think this is still a little bit of a work in progress, so we want to work with the Senate as much as possible to pass the bill in similar forms," Harwell said.

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