Legislation strengthens Tennessee’s Public Charter School Law

Capitol Hill Week

Contact:  Darlene Schlicher (615) 741-6336 or email:
[email protected]

Legislation strengthens Tennessee’s Public
Charter School Law

NASHVILLE, TN), April 30, 2009 – Legislation that strengthens Tennessee’s public charter school law was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week.  The
legislation widens eligibility, clarifies funding and addresses rules for renewal of the public charter schools.  Tennessee currently has one of the most restrictive public charter school laws in the nation.

“Charter schools are public schools that are given flexibility to operate without the constraints of some of the rules and regulations normally imposed on traditional schools,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), sponsor of the bill.   “In exchange for this flexibility, they are held accountable for performance through a charter, which is an agreement between the local education agency (LEA) and the charter school.  It requires a strenuous approval process by the LEA and an equally tough renewal process of the charter every five years.”

A report released last year by Tennessee’s Comptroller’s Office, titled “Tennessee’s Charter Schools: Issues of Innovation and Sustainability,” found student eligibility estrictions and limited facilities funding may compromise the long-term viability of individual charter schools and recommended many of the changes included in the bill.  The report recommended that the General Assembly consider making eligibility for charter school enrollment less restrictive and consider more precisely defining state and local charter school facilities funding responsibilities. In addition, the report recommended that the state should also identify charter schools’ best practices and implement a
system for disseminating that information to traditional schools.

The legislation, SB 2133, addresses four provisions in the current charter school law.

  • Eligibility
    — Currently, public charter school enrollment is limited primarily to failing students and those from failing schools.  This legislation permits “at-risk” children (as defined by free and reduced-price lunch) to attend charter schools in those systems that have 12,000 or more students.
  • Caps
    — Currently public charter schools are limited to 50 statewide, with a cap of 20 in Memphis.  This bill says that converted charter schools do not count against the cap, clarifying in law what the Attorney General has already opined.
  • Renewal process
    – Currently, the charter agreement between the LEA and the charter school is renewed every five years.  This measure would change the renewal period from five to ten years, as well as establishes the required documentation needed during the renewal process.
  • Funding
    – Currently a public charter school receives the per pupil expenditure of state and local dollars.  Although it mentions appropriate federal dollars, interpretations vary from one LEA to the next.  This legislation defines the state and local charter school facilities funding responsibilities and clarifies the LEAs must allocate all appropriate federal funds, including Title I and ESEA funds, to the charter schools.

Tennessee now has 15 public charter schools, with six more opening in the fall.  Of those 22 schools, Nashville will have five, Chattanooga will have two, and Memphis will have 15.  The Memphis City School System also is converting four schools to charters this fall.

“We have seen considerable progress in our public charter schools,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville).  “In just five short years our public charter schools are a compliment to the traditional public schools, providing opportunity for innovations and choice for students and their families.”

Woodson said the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering is graduating the first charter school class of seniors this spring with a 100 percent graduation rate and all of these students have been accepted to college.  Two other successful Memphis schools, Star Academy and Circles of Success were named “Title I School of the Year” in 2007 and 2008, respectively.  At Soulsville Academy, half of the eighth grade took ninth grade Algebra, and all passed, with 76 percent attaining advanced scoring

Government Operations Committee
approves legislation to change judicial process

Legislation that would change Tennessee’s current process for selection of state’s Supreme Court judges was approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee this week.  Sponsors say the bill reflects the intent of the constitution that judges are to stand for contested elections.  The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) advanced out of the committee after Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey broke a tie vote in favor of the bill, which ran along party lines.
“The state’s constitution requires that judges be “elected by the qualified voters of the state,” said Senator Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland) who sponsored the amendment that would put the plan in place.  “The day when we ignore the constitution is the day we really spit in the eye of our citizens and say to them, you’re no longer necessary.  You gave us the power on the front end and now we’re going to ignore the plain language of the document that you’ve given us.”

The legislation provides for the governor to select Supreme Court justices without being filtered and narrowed down to a panel of three selected by the Judicial Selection Commission.  The Judicial Selection Commission is made up of members of special interest groups.  The legislation also envisions passage of a Constitutional resolution that would allow the people to decide on how judges should be selected in the future, by retention or by popular vote.

“There are plenty of folks who feel that direct elections are not only what the (state) constitution calls for, but would be best,” said Norris.

The action comes as a result of last year’s vote not to continue the Judicial Selection Commission, the central provision of the state’s current “Tennessee Plan” for selection of Supreme Court and appellate judges.  Under the Tennessee Plan, which was adopted in 1994, the governor must choose from three candidates for the state’s appellate and Supreme Court from a list presented by the Judicial Selection Commission.  After appointment, the judges then stand for yes-no retention votes at the end of their terms.

Under the bill approved this week, once the current Tennessee Plan process expires in June, the governor would be allowed to make the appointment solely at his discretion until 2014 when the judges could face challengers at the end of their terms.  The next step would be the referendum vote to allow Tennesseans to decide whether to
amend the constitution to restore the current system of retention elections for Supreme Court justices.  However the earliest that vote could take place is 2014 due to the requirement that the Constitutional Resolutions be approved by two general assemblies before it is placed on the ballot where it must receive a majority of votes in the gubernatorial election.  This bill would bridge that time gap by giving the governor the authority to select and appoint vacancies on the high court in the meantime.

Legislation approved by the Senate
Transportation says NO to Federal REAL ID Program

Tennessee would be the 12th state in the U.S. prohibiting the issuance of a REAL ID card if legislation approved by the Senate Transportation Committee this week becomes law.  The bill, SB 1934 sponsored by Senator Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), directs the Tennessee Department of Safety not to implement the provisions of the federal REAL ID program.

“This bill sends a message to Washington that they need to back off plans to implement a national identification card,” said Senator Burchett.  “REAL ID is an encroachment on our freedoms that we must not tolerate.”

The REAL ID Act was signed into law in 2005.  The federal initiative forces states to standardize driver’s licenses cards across the nation into a single national identity card and database.  It does this by stipulating that state driver’s licenses and state ID cards will not be accepted for “federal purposes” unless they are in compliance with the Act.  Those
purposes include boarding an aircraft or entering a federal facility unless the state issuing the identification meets all of the law’s numerous conditions, like standardizing data element and security features on the IDs, a machine readable zone that allows for easy capture of data, and the construction of a interstate-linked database that makes information in each person’s file available to the government.

To date, 21 states have enacted anti-REAL ID bills or resolutions.  However, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Washington, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, and Louisiana have enacted binding legislation prohibiting participation in the federal program, with several other states considering similar action.

“The federal legislation, if imposed by states, turns the states driver’s licenses into an invasive national ID as it imposes numerous new burdens on taxpayers and state governments,” added Burchett.  “It will cost Tennesseans millions of dollars, as well as encroaching upon the lives of our citizens.”

Although the Act was passed by Congress, Real ID cannot go into effect without a legislative action by states.  State legislatures must also appropriate money to remake or build administrative machinery required to comply with an extensive document storage system.  In addition, millions of Americans who do not have driver’s licenses would be required to receive a REAL ID card.

“Real ID is way over the line as far in invading our citizen’s privacy,” Burchett concluded.  “I am pleased this bill was approved today and hopeful that we will have the support needed to pass it on the floor of the Senate.”

The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for implementation of the federal program, has granted extensions to all states which is good through December 31, 2009.  In addition, States that meet certain benchmarks for the security of their credentials and licensing processes will automatically be granted a second extension until May 11, 2011, to complete full implementation of REAL ID.

General Welfare, Health and Human
Services Committee briefed on Novel “Swine” Flu

Tennessee Health Commissioner Susan Cooper briefed the Senate General Welfare, Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday about the worldwide Novel “swine” flu pandemic.  The action came just before the state announced reports of the first probable cases in Williamson and Shelby Counties in Tennessee.

On April 26, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) declared a public health emergency to manage the cases of swine flu emanating from an outbreak in Mexico.  Cooper told lawmakers that there is currently no vaccine for the Novel Flu due to the fact that this new virus has not been seen anywhere in the world before this outbreak.

The Department of Health is working closely with federal, state and local governments to prepare to respond to the outbreak.  She said the Department of Health has stepped up its level of activity, referred to as conducting surveillance.   The Department has also requested Tennessee’s portion of antiviral drugs and supplies from the strategic national stockpile, which is being distributed with a priority for states with confirmed cases and along U.S. borders.

Cooper said that although this situation is naturally a source of concern, it should not be cause for panic. As public health officials utilize the comprehensive planning and training that’s been done to prepare for public health threats of this nature, there are steps citizens can take to protect their health and prevent the spread of the virus.  These include covering your nose and mouth while sneezing, thoroughly washing hands throughout the day, and staying at home if you are sick.

Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.

Tennessee Resolution declares state’s
under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a resolution claiming Tennessee’s “sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”  The proposal, SJR 311 sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), is designed to send Congress a message that the federal government has overstepped its Constitutional bounds by mandating a massive amount of federal policies upon the states in violation of the Amendment.

 “The language of the Tenth Amendment is clear and concise that the federal government’s powers are limited to a specific set of activities,” said Senator McNally.  “The federal government was created by the states specifically to be an agent of the states, not vice-versa.   It was such an important point with the founders that they specifically provided for this sovereignty in our Constitution.”

The resolution also points out that Article IV, Section 4 says, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”  In 1992, the United States Supreme Court ruled in New York v. United States, that Congress may not commandeer the legislative and regulatory processes of the states.

“States are demonstrably treated as agents of the federal government,” added McNally.  “This means that many federal laws are directly in violation of the Constitution of the United States.”

The resolution concludes by giving “notice and demand to the federal government, as our agent, to cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.”  Upon passage, the resolution will be sent to The President of the United States, Congressional leaders and the Tennessee Congressional delegation.

Twenty-eight states have approved similar resolutions.

Bills in Brief

Dedicated Road Funds — Legislation that would make it harder for the Governor and General Assembly to raid Tennessee’s dedicated road fund has been approved by the full State Senate.  The bill, SB 1309 sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), would require authorization through separate legislation to divert gas tax revenues that are dedicated for transportation.  The measure would put Tennessee back in the position it was prior to 2004 and restore the appropriate checks and balances to ensure that any diversion of the funds are fully meted out through the normal legislative process.  Currently, the dedicated road fund can be diverted through a line in the appropriations bill, which is a much easier route to raid the funds.

Mental Health — The full Senate has approved legislation on Monday that seeks to ensure that crisis services continue to be available for mentally ill citizens.  The bill, SB 441 sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), requires the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities to coordinate with other departments and agencies of state government to make sure that services for persons in psychiatric emergencies include a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week toll free telephone number, and walk-in triage screening, assessment, intervention and follow-up care.  It also calls for access to in-house crisis care.

Texting while driving — The Senate agreed to a minor amendment to legislation that would ban “texting while driving,” sending the measure to the governor for his signature.  The bill, SB 393 sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), prohibits sending or reading text messages or emails on a hand-held mobile phone or personal digital assistant while a driver is operating a motor vehicle in motion.  The amendment deletes certain emergency personnel from the ban.

Pending Rules and Regulations – Secretary of State Tre Hargett has added a new tool to his office’s web site to make it easier for people to track pending rules and regulations issued by the state’s regulatory agencies, according to officials testifying in the Joint Government Operations Committee. It’s now possible to get updates on pending rules and regulations by subscribing to the Pending Rules and Regulations RSS Feed. This new tool complements the current Pending Rules and Regulations Online Database.  The new service allows citizens to stay updated on rules that have been filed with the Secretary to give business owners advance notice of pending rules.

Home health care — The full Senate has approved legislation to allow home health nurses or aides to accompany a recipient outside the home during the course of delivery of
prior-approved services.  The bill, SB 851 sponsored by Senator Diane Black (R-Gallatin), allows aides or nurses to accompany their patients to places like the doctor’s office
or church.  Currently services are banned unless they are in a hospital or at home.  Additional visits or hours of care would not be approved for coverage, and services would be limited to what the recipient would be entitled to if provided exclusively at the recipient’s place of residence.

Ethics / General Assembly — Legislation that would end the rights of a member of the General Assembly to receive healthcare benefits if convicted of a felony was approved by the Finance, Ways and Means Committee this week.  The bill, SB 2205 sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would require the state to end the benefits upon conviction or upon a plea of guilty, if the charges are in relation to the member’s official capacity as a legislator. The family members eligible for benefits are not included under the bill.  The General Assembly has already passed similar legislation ending legislative pensions for those convicted of a crime in relation to their official capacity as a member of the General Assembly.  The bill would go into effect after the 2010 election.

Good Faith Exception to the “Exclusionary Rule” – The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that allows a judge to give a jury access to evidence or facts obtained as a result of a search or seizure which contains a minor technical error.  Many states, as well as the federal courts, have enacted what is known as the “common
sense” or “good faith exception” to the exclusionary rule regarding suppression of evidence in violation to the fourth amendment, or unreasonable search and seizure.  The bill, SB 518 sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), attempts to balance the scales of justice to a standard embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Leon and Herring v. United States, which was the law in Tennessee prior to 1979.  This standard allows the judge and jury to weigh all the facts and still administer justice in an objective manner.

Confiscation of Weapons / Martial law – Legislation limiting the power of government to confiscate firearms and restrict the sale of ammunition during martial law was approved this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The bill, SB 1992 by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), prohibits the confiscation of weapons from law-abiding citizens or restricting the ability to purchase guns and ammunition during times of martial law.  The law already makes that provision in cases of a natural disaster or declared emergency.

Escape from police custody – Legislation that strengthens penalties against those who escape arrest was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.  The bill, SB 388 sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), provides that a person commits the offense of escape if they knowingly escapes the lawful custody of a law enforcement officer. A violation of this bill would be a Class A misdemeanor regardless of whether the person was being held for a misdemeanor, civil offense, or felony.

Aggravated Robbery – Legislation was approved by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee would make offenders who commit aggravated robbery ineligible for parole or early release.  The bill, SB 241 sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), requires the offender to serve 100 percent of the person’s sentence if, on or after July 1, 2009, the person commits aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, regardless of whether the person has a prior conviction for aggravated robbery.


Search News by Member

Follow us on Twitter

Flickr Photos