published Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Tennessee charter schools bill sent to Gov. Bill Haslam

The Tennessee Capitol.
The Tennessee Capitol.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — The State Board of Education will be able to approve charter schools rejected by local school boards under a bill headed to Gov. Bill Haslam.

House members took final action on the bill Monday, voting 61-28 to concur with a minor date change on the Senate-passed measure.

The House passed the bill last year, but the Senate did not approve it until this year.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, pushed the bill after Metro Nashville School Board members in 2012 rejected a charter school application and later spurned the State Board of Education's later ruling the charter should have been granted.

Haslam, like Harwell a charter schools proponent, later punished Nashville by withholding $3.4 million in state funding for Nashville.

The bill headed to Haslam only affects five school systems that have at least one "failing" school in the bottom 5 percent of public schools statewide. Those systems are Hamilton, Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hardeman counties.

Democrats were stymied in their attempts to discuss the bill. House Clerk Joe McCord said only the Senate-passed change to the effective date of the bill could be discussed. Harwell agreed.

Harwell gaveled Democrats out of order when they sought to ask questions on what the bill actually does with Republicans saying that had been discussed last year when the House originally passed its version of the bill.

Among them was Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, who questioned whether anyone looked at "the huge property taxes this is going to cause" when money for public schools goes to new charter schools that were rejected by locals but later approved by the State Board of Education. The bill also allows the State Board of Education to oversee the charters it approves.

Public charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are privately operated and not subject to many of the rules and regulations that traditional public schools operate under.

Lawmakers are hoping to wrap up their annual session today or Wednesday. In other legislative action Monday:

• Senators approved Haslam's proposed "Tennessee Promise" legislation on a 30-1 vote, sending it to the House for expected final action.

The bill would effectively guarantee free community college tuition to Tennessee students by providing "last dollar" funds to prospective students beyond what they can already get from other forms of financial aid.

The scholarships would be funded by interest from $300 million in education lottery funds Haslam intends to put into a irrevocable trust.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, praised the bill, saying that after Haslam unveiled the plan in his annual address to lawmakers, parents "woke up and said my child a change to go to college now." Students did as well, Gresham said.

"Now, it's up to the youngsters to do the work" to make themselves successful, she said.

• With no discussion, the House sent Haslam a bill authorizing a limited, four-year study of the effectiveness of cannabis oil on certain types of intractable seizures.

Representatives voted 97-0 for the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

The bill authorizes hospitals affiliated with university medical schools to conduct studies on the impact of low-content tetrahydrocannabinol oil on certain types of seizures. THC is the chemical that gives pot smokers their "high."

Carter and other proponents say users could drink "gallons" of the oil without getting a psychoactive reaction. Last week, senators approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga on a 23-4 vote.

• Legislation allowing grocery stores to begin selling so-called "high gravity" beer exceeding the current 5 percent limit is going to the governor for consideration.

The House voted 30-1 in favor of the previously passed Senate bill. The bill allows sales of beer with alcohol content up to 8 percent in grocery stores.

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, who routinely opposes alcohol bills, sarcastically questioned whether the bill permits beer to be sold in schools and day care centers. Assured it won't, Floyd replied, "that thrills my soul."

Should Haslam sign the bill into law, it would not become effective until 2017.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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