Legislature Looks to Expand Charters, Vouchers

Debates over charter schools and education savings accounts are alive and well in this year’s legislative session.

Gov. Bill Lee created an ESA pilot program in 2019, but it has since been held up in court by a lawsuit from Shelby and Davidson counties — the only districts that the ESA pilot program would apply to. Representatives in those counties have argued that the state can’t target Nashville and Memphis alone. ESAs allow families to use public funds to send kids to private schools.

Gov. Lee insists that “charter schools are public schools,” and while they are funded by public dollars, they’re run independently. So far, charter schools are mostly limited to larger cities like Nashville and Memphis, but more applications are popping up throughout the state. Gov. Lee announced his intention to partner with Hillsdale College and introduce more charters throughout Tennessee — a move that has faced a lot of criticism.

A controversial new charter bill sponsored by Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) and Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) would make it easier for charter schools to establish themselves and grow. The bill states that if a school district’s decision to turn down a charter application is overruled by the state charter commission three times in the course of as many years, then the charter school would no longer need to seek district approval. Instead, it would go straight to the state charter commission. The commission has already overruled the Metro Nashville Public Schools board. 

Furthermore, the bill makes it easier for charter schools to “replicate,” or add additional schools. If a charter has been approved by the commission, it could go straight to the commission to apply for additional schools. The bill would also give charters increased access to underutilized district buildings — those that are vacant or used at less than 50 percent capacity — by allowing free rent or the ability to purchase them for $1. Critics argue that the bill removes local control and that charter schools do not typically show enhanced student performance compared to traditional public schools. 

“A charter is nothing more than an option for a parent to see if this would do better,” Rep. White said in February. “If it doesn't, then you can stay in the traditional public school. It's just an option for parents basically of low income.”

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) said that charters used to be “incubators for new ideas … but now they're incubators for profiteers, and hedge fund managers and venture capitalists to make money off of that last big pile of our public tax dollars, which is our public schools.”

The bill, having been deferred three times in the House, is scheduled to be discussed in a House education instruction subcommittee on Tuesday, March 15. It has already been recommended for passage in the Senate. 

ESA bills have also been introduced. One bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Rep. Michael Curcio (R-Dickson) would extend ESA eligibility to districts that have not offered 180 days of in-person learning because of COVID-19 or have “imposed a mask mandate on students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and refused to exempt one or more students from the LEA's mask mandate.” The bill was recommended for passage in the Senate but has not yet been discussed in a subcommittee. 

A Democrat-sponsored bill that seeks to repeal the ESA pilot program will be discussed in the House Education Instruction Subcommittee on March 15.