Virtual school cap passes; charter schools delayed

Friday, April 12, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 15

NASHVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee House has approved a proposal that caps enrollment in virtual schools.

The House voted 66-29 Tuesday to pass the administration bill that allows beginning online schools an enrollment of 1,500 with the ability to expand as long as they meet performance requirements. If they fail to do so for three consecutive years, then the state education commissioner could chose to cap enrollment or direct the local school board to close the school.

The bill passed the Senate last month and now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

Haslam's initial proposal sought to cap online school enrollment at 5,000.

Much of the opposition on Tuesday came from Democrats who questioned the performance of the Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by the for-profit K12 Inc.

State figures show the academy fell into the bottom 11 percent of schools for student gains as measured under the state's value-added assessment system. The cyber school scored a 1 on the 5-point scale.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman called the performance "unacceptable."

The House also voted to allow school employees who are current or former law enforcement officers and meet certain requirements to carry guns in elementary, middle and high schools. That bill passed 82-15. The Senate is scheduled to take it up on Thursday.

Meanwhile a proposal to create a state panel to authorize charter schools for five counties was delayed in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday for at least the second time in about two weeks. The first time was because lawmakers said the panel lacked oversight. An amendment was proposed Tuesday to address that concern by making the panel a part of the state Department of Education administratively.

But then the vice chairman of the committee questioned why the legislation applies to just five counties and not all those in Tennessee.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville, delayed a vote to get with lawmakers and address that concern and others.

"Clearly the committee has drilled this bill down, and I think they still have some questions," said vice chairman Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga. "That's why the sponsor wants to get with some of the members and maybe have further discussion before moving forward."

The panel would be able to overrule local school board decisions on charter applications in the lowest-performing school districts. Currently, only five counties would be affected, but they include more than 330,000 students in the state's four largest cities: Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby. Hardeman County also would be affected.

Charter schools are public schools that are funded with state and local tax dollars. But they don't have to meet some of the state regulations that traditional public schools do as they try to find different ways to improve student learning.

Currently, local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. There are 48 charters operating in Tennessee.

Watson, who is also Senate speaker pro tempore, said he would be more supportive of the bill if it applied to all counties because they would then have access to the expertise sponsors say the panel would provide. Earlier in the legislative process, there was discussion about giving the bill statewide implications.

Watson and other committee members also questioned the nearly $240,000 price tag to start the panel, including more than $100,000 to pay an executive director.

"I'm troubled with the amount of money," said Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro.

But Gresham said the panel and the money to create it are needed to continue education reform in Tennessee.

"These are the lowest-performing schools in the state," she said. "This kind of mechanism can only have a positive effect. What we're trying to do is make sure there are quality charter schools authorized in those areas of the state."

The push for a charter school authorizer gained momentum in the aftermath of a fight over Nashville's refusal to accept the application of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies — despite being ordered to by the state Board of Education last year. Some feared the school was being located on the west side of Nashville to cater to affluent, white families who live nearby.

When the Nashville school board refused to accept Great Hearts, the Department of Education withheld $3.4 million in state funding.

According to the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, there were about 20 charter school appeals last year.