Tennessee Lifts Charter School Cap After U.S. Threat

Published September 1, 2009

The lure of federal dollars played a key role in liberalizing parts of Tennessee’s charter school law, but at least one reform advocate says the incentive has yet to effect meaningful change.

On June 29, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) signed into law Senate Bill 2133, 11 days after lawmakers in both houses gave the measure overwhelming approval. Among other changes, the legislation raised the statewide charter school cap, expanded student eligibility for charter enrollment, and increased the length of charter agreements from five years to 10.

Previously tied up in the House Education Committee, SB 2133 moved to the floor after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan threatened Tennessee with losing a chance at a share of the $5 billion “Race to the Top” federal funds because of its restrictive charter school law. State Democrat leaders freed their members to vote for the bill, following the party’s leadership from Washington.

“This got their attention in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Joe Williams, executive director of the national advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

Not Just Funding

But one member of Tennessee’s House Education Committee insists the federal financial incentive was not the main factor in changing her fellow lawmakers’ minds.

“I think it’s fair to say the primary motivator was the need to give parents a choice in their children’s education,” said state Rep. Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). “The sponsors and other proponents of this legislation refused to give up, because it was just too important to the children of Tennessee not to pass.”

DFER, which worked with national education officials and local charter school groups to promote the changes in SB 2133, contends the education secretary’s public statements were crucial to the bill’s success.

“Race to the Top has allowed Duncan to draw the line in the sand,” Williams said. “It’s raised the bar a bit for elected officials in statehouses across the country.”

Racing Higher?

Kara Kerwin, director of external affairs for the Washington, DC-based Center for Education Reform, believes Tennessee and other states should go beyond making minor changes and address more-substantive problems with their charter school laws.

“What would really help Tennessee get Race to the Top is the authorization process,” Kerwin said. “Independent and multiple tracks to authorizing charter schools give them more meaningful oversight.”

A proposal to give the state board of education the power to authorize charter schools was amended out of the legislation, leaving it entirely to local boards.

Kerwin noted the provision raising the total number of charter schools allowed in Tennessee from 50 to 90 will have very little bearing without other improvements in the law—especially in a state where only 15 charter schools operated in three different cities during 2008-09.

Expanding Eligibility

Harwell believes the change in student eligibility requirements is the most important aspect of SB 2133. “The legislation passed this session opens up charter schools to many more students,” she said.

Previously, the only public school students who could transfer into charters had to come from schools that registered as failing under the state’s accountability system, or who themselves failed to achieve proficiency on state assessments. Now any student who qualifies as low-income under federal poverty guidelines may enroll in a charter school.

But Kerwin says the change in eligibility for charter school enrollment does not go far enough to merit receiving the special federal funds. “If you’re measuring how this will work, this shouldn’t qualify them for Race to the Top,” she said.

Even so, Harwell is optimistic about her state’s chances to get a share of the $5 billion.

“I do believe Tennessee now has an excellent shot at the Race to the Top grants,” Harwell said. “Arne Duncan should be applauded for challenging states to pass real education reform and providing rewards for that.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Tennessee Senate Bill 2133: http://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/apps/BillInfo/Default.aspx?BillNumber=SB2133