When Michelle Rhee's controversial education reform organization, StudentsFirst, started pouring money into the campaign coffers of state House and Senate Education Committee members last year, it denied it was buying votes.
"Absolutely not," says Brent Easley, the director of StudentsFirst's organization in Tennessee. "We support people who are the champions of the children of the state. If you know [these legislators], you know how much they care."
Still, the fact remains that the lobbying arm of the group has donated from $1,000 to $13,500 to every member of the Senate Education Committee, save Sens. Stacey Campfield and Charlotte Burks. It has donated from $1,000 to $5,000 to every member of the House Education Committee, except for five members (Reps. Jim Coley, Lois DeBerry, Roger Kane, Harold Love, and Joe Pitts), and it spent $112,113 on Rep. John DeBerry's re-election campaign. StudentsFirst also has given generously to House Speaker Beth Harwell ($5,000), Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey ($10,000), Gov. Bill Haslam ($10,000), and both the House and Senate Republican Caucuses ($10,000 apiece), along with several other smaller donations to other members of the House and Senate.
Thus, it's really no surprise that the bills that are StudentsFirst's top priorities are sponsored by education committee members to which it donated. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the hundreds of thousands of dollars thrown around by the ex-wife of the state's Commissioner of the Department of Education will make a difference when it comes to one of the most contentious bills this session: HB 702/SB 830, the state charter-school authorizer.
In actuality, the bill itself is pretty non-controversial—it provides for a would-be charter school to have 20 days instead of 10 days in which to appeal a local school board's denial of the school to the state. Where the fuss comes in is with an amendment to the bill, which would give the state the authority to approve charter schools all on its own, without any say from the local school district. The catch for the would-be schools is that they would lose the process of appeal; if they decided to apply to the state instead of the local school district, any decision made by the state would be final.
"It's clear that states with multiple pathways to charter schools are the ones home to the most high quality schools," Easley says.
But critics of the state authorizer claim the bill is a power grab by the state, and one that would have a negative effect on local school systems.
"I think local control is really important. It's our kids and our community," says Indya Kincannon, a member of the Knox County Schools Board of Education. "You have more scrutiny with local control."
The Tennessee Education Association's area director, Tanya Coats, is more blunt.
"We want autonomy from the state Big Brother. I think we're an astute enough institution to decide if a charter school meets our needs," says Coats.
As introduced, the authorizer amendment would only apply to school districts in counties with a population over 600,000—i.e., Nashville and Memphis—but that language is currently being reworked, and it's unclear as of press time whether that part of the wording will be changed. Even if it isn't, opponents worry that in future years it would be an easy change to lower the threshold to 400,000 to include the Chattanooga and Knoxville school systems.
Matt Throckmorton, the head of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, says there have been too many denials of charter schools based on "local politics" in Memphis and Nashville.
"Applications need to be determined on the merits of their application," Throckmorton says. "The state is not going to be as concerned with one neighborhood, which allows them to decide based on the quality of the application."
The "one neighborhood" Throckmorton is referencing is West Nashville, where Great Hearts Academies, a Phoenix-based charter school operation, tried and failed to open a school last year, after the Nashville Metro school board denied its application, even after the State Board of Education recommended approval on appeal and the state Department of Education threatened to withhold funds from the school system for doing so. (Which it did, to the tune of $3.4 million in cuts.) School board members said they were opposed to the school because they were concerned its intended location in a wealthy suburban neighborhood would be a de facto barrier to the attendance of poor children in struggling schools—the students that charter schools are ostensibly supposed to help the most.
Kevin Huffman, the commissioner of the Department of Education, is noncommittal on the authorizer, saying he is waiting to see the final language of the legislation, but says the concept seems necessary after the Great Hearts mess.
"We want to make sure state law actually gets followed," Huffman says.
The amended bill passed the House Education Subcommittee easily two weeks ago, on a 6 to 3 vote. (Voting against it were Love, Pitts, and Rep. John Forgety). Since then, it has been deferred in the full committee in the House twice; a vote could come next Tuesday, or it could be delayed once again. The Senate has not yet scheduled the bill for a vote, possibly waiting to see what the final amended amendment looks like in the House before doing so.
Last week the Nashville Scene reported the scuttlebutt in the Capitol was that a compromise authorizer was in the works, one which would allow the state Board of Education to approve a charter school application only after it had been denied by a local school board first. Supposedly, the compromise bill would apply statewide. Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville, the chair of the House Education Committee, would only say everything "is in flux ... there will probably be some more amendments."
Even though a charter school has yet to open in Knoxville, the full KCS board has issued a statement of opposition to any state authorizer.
"The Board supports high quality charter schools, but believes the power to authorize charters should remain with local Boards of Education (to ensure a productive relationship and clear accountability) rather than a state-wide authorizer," the statement reads.
KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre also has his own feelings on the bill. Having previously worked in Massachusetts, which does have a state charter authorizer, he says he saw firsthand the effects of such a law.
"My observation is having that dynamic can lead to a situation where there is a limited relationship between the charter schools and other schools, since their accountability isn't to the local school board, it's to the State Board of Education." McIntyre says.