NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's public education system could be entering a new era, with a Republican governor who strongly supports charter schools and a GOP-controlled General Assembly where his ideas likely will find fertile ground, some lawmakers say.
"I think charter schools will certainly have a more favorable climate, possibly some school-choice issues, and I think returning more power to principals in school systems," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga. "I think you'll see some tenure reform."
McCormick also predicted a "lessening of the influence" of the Tennessee Education Association, which he called "long overdue."
A spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association said he "certainly hope[s] he [McCormick] is wrong" on the lessening of union influence.
"I think that the teachers in the state need a strong voice and the children of the state need somebody outside the legislature to look out for them," said Jerry Winters, manager of government relations with the TEA.
The TEA has only reluctantly agreed to the establishment of charter schools, which get public money but are exempt from selected state or local rules.
Winters acknowledged lawmakers are "going to be more positive" toward charter schools.
"But I think it would be a major mistake to write them a blank check," he said. "The jury is still out on the effectiveness of charter schools. There are some good ones. There are some bad ones."
David Smith, Haslam's transition team spokesman, said the new governor backs charter schools "because innovation and choice are crucial pieces of a successful education system."
The General Assembly in 2009 raised the cap on the number of charter schools in the state from 50 to 90, but Haslam favors lifting the cap. He also wants to change a law that largely limits charter school admissions to students from poor families or those who are failing or come from failing schools, Smith said.
Tennessee Charter Schools Association Executive Director Matt Throckmorton said the advocacy group believes the schools have "earned the right to ask for what we consider model legislation, but with a Tennessee style."
Their proposal includes the items Haslam has cited. Throckmorton said the group wants to retain tough state requirements for approving charter school applications.
The presumptive House speaker, Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, supports charter schools and championed the 2009 expansion. She said charter schools she has visited "are doing a tremendous job with children who've frankly fallen through the cracks."
Still, she said, "I'd like to defer and wait to see what the legislation actually looks like. We want to make sure we keep the proper safeguards in place because we only want the best charter schools to exist in this state."
McCormick emphasized that, while he personally supports charter school expansion, "I want to get feedback from my caucus members before I'd be willing to support anything publicly on their behalf. But I suspect they'll agree with me."
Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said he backs charter school expansion.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers during Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration made changes, including tying teacher tenure to student test scores and expansion of charter schools. They helped Tennessee win a $501 million federal Race to the Top grant to help reform education.
"It seems to me that we also have to make sure that we give schools time to incorporate the changes that we made and figure out what's working," Berke said.
The 107th General Assembly convenes Tuesday. Gov.-elect Bill Haslam will be sworn into office Jan. 15. Republicans have a 64-34-1 majority in the House and a 20-13 majority in the Senate.
TEA's Winters said teachers don't want to be "scapegoated" for student problems beyond their control.
Hamilton County has two charter schools in operation and a third has been given a green light to start later this year
Hamilton County Education Association President Sharon Vandagriff, a third-grade classroom teacher, said while some charter schools have worked, others haven't.
She said school systems should begin focusing on a "schools of innovation" law. That allows "teacher-led schools" within a more traditional public school structure, she said.
"That to me would make the most sense because what I hear teachers say collectively is that, 'If I could make the decisions about how we were running the schools and structuring, we could be more successful.' In a school, you really don't have that much control," Vandagriff said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...