A state bill granting broad powers for the commissioner of education to assume control over a local school district if certain benchmarks are not met regarding improving priority schools and spending federal grant dollars cleared a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

Nashville Democrats bashed the proposal in a press conference shortly before the education instruction subcommittee hearing. They said the state has already shown it does a poor job of turning around struggling schools by way of the Achievement School District, a decade-old program granting the state the ability to convert a failing school into a charter school.

Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Scott Cepicky (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Under the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, the education commissioner would have broad discretion to assume control over a district, remove a superintendent or replace elected school board members.

Cepicky said during the committee meeting that existing state law already empowers the commissioner to take over a district, but the law is too vague and doesn’t offer guidance for when such a takeover should occur. Cepicky said high benchmarks would have to be met, such as failing to turn around a priority school. The proposal cleared with a voice vote.

Cepicky said too many districts are failing students, and that he was bringing the proposal on behalf of students. He cited the state’s low literacy rates in 3rd and 8th grade as proof that urgent action is needed, and downplayed the bill’s impact since takeover powers already exist.

The proposal comes at a time when Metro Nashville Public Schools is at odds with the state on an array of issues. MNPS has sued over the the state’s education funding formula, arguing Tennessee is not putting enough money into education. The district also sued over Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher law, which allowed students in Shelby County and Davidson County to be granted education spending accounts, which they could use to help pay for private school tuition.

Earlier this year, Schwinn demanded MNPS account for the spending of federal grant dollars and then provided the letter immediately to the Tennessean before the district could respond, a move that stakeholders interpreted as a warning shot about a possible takeover. Cepicky’s bill references the spending of federal grant dollars as a parameter for triggering a commissioner’s takeover.

Metro Nashville School Board Member Christiane Buggs (Photo: MNPS)
Metro Nashville School Board Member Christiane Buggs (Photo: MNPS)

The Tennessee Lookout asked through a spokeswoman for Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s opinion on the legislation. The spokeswoman referred questions to Lee’s office and a spokesman for Lee said “Our position on the bill is defer-watch. We’ll be keeping an eye on it.”

Rumors regarding a full, or partial, state takeover of of MNPS by the Lee administration have swirled around Nashville education circles in recent years.

Nashville school board chairwoman Christiane Buggs lambasted the proposal in a prepared statement.

“We want and appreciate a productive and collaborative relationship with the Tennessee Department of Education and its Commissioner,” Buggs said. “This anti-democratic proposal to allow a future Commissioner to arbitrarily takeover a school district would be a disastrous public policy that dramatically expands upon an Achievement School District model that has failed to achieve the goals it originally intended. We look forward to any support the State of Tennessee can give to school districts in a cooperative manner to achieve better student outcomes.”

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, said the bill, which is now headed to the full House education committee, is “troubling on many aspects.”

“One, it’s going around the voters of the state of Tennessee, and two the last time I checked there’s no one in the the Tennessee Department of Education who has ever run a school district,” Mitchell said. “So it’s troubling that they would want to take over a number of school districts in this state.”

State Rep. Mike Stewart said the failure of the ASD, which sought to convert Tennessee’s worst performing schools into its best performing by converting them to charter schools, is proof that the proposal is a bad idea. The ASD has failed at achieving that goal.

“The only precedent for this sort of crazy power grab is the Achievement School District, which was set up as a statewide effort to take over local schools,” Stewart said. “I think conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats can all agree the ASD was a total and complete public policy failure. It’s been a joke.”