House chairman knocks charter commission override authority

By: - September 28, 2022 6:01 am
"Number One, I don't like charter schools." Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Number One, I don’t like charter schools.” Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston (Photo: John Partipilo)

The House chairman of the Joint Government Operations Subcommittee on Tuesday criticized the authority of a state commission to overrule local school boards that turn down charter school applications.

Rep. Kent Calfee, a Kingston Republican who is stepping down from the Legislature this fall, spoke out against the ability of the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission to turn back the decisions of elected school boards. Calfee has three school boards in his East Tennessee district.

“They make decisions, they’re elected by the people, and I trust ’em. I don’t always agree with them, but I trust ’em,” Calfee said after the Tuesday meeting. “And I don’t like when an appointed committee can override our elected officials because, as Republicans, we’re supposed to favor the local people, and that’s just not doing that.”

Calfee acknowledged that the Legislature passed Gov. Bill Lee’s legislation setting up the commission whose members are appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature. Calfee will no longer be in the Legislature when the 113th General Assembly opens in 2023, but he said the policy enabling the commission to overrule school boards needs to be reviewed.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said Tuesday she is considering sponsoring legislation to remove the commission’s authority to overrule local school board decisions on charter applications.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville: "Tennesseans hate" the state's charter school commission. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville: “Tennesseans hate” the state’s charter school commission. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Tennesseans hate it,” she said.

Those pointed comments come as school boards across the state are considering applications by charter schools to operate in their districts. Several have been turned down, including classical charters affiliated with Hillsdale College, and the Public School Charter Commission is set to take up challenges in October.

The issue turned especially thorny after Gov. Bill Lee and Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn outraged many Tennesseans earlier this summer when the governor sat idly at a Franklin reception where Arnn said teachers come from “the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges’ ‘ in the nation. Lee declined to refute the statement, saying only that he supports Tennessee teachers and that Arnn’s statements were based on a national debate.

Lee has said he wants Hillsdale to open 100 charter schools in Tennessee, though Arrn has said he only plans to open 50. Since then, Hillsdale has been sending promotional materials to residents in key areas.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Portland Republican who serves on the subcommittee, declined to comment on Calfee’s statements after Tuesday’s meeting but defended the fairness of a state hearing for a charter school applicant in Sumner County.

Ultimately, the committee extended the Public Charter School Commission for another three years.

But Sen. Page Walley also asked questions about the board’s makeup and pointed out it has a 5-4 imbalance of members from school districts with charter schools. The commission is to be made up of members from the state’s three grand divisions, some with charter schools and some without.

Walley, a Bolivar Republican, noted his district has a charter school appeal coming up in Fayette County where the school board turned down an application.

“I want to make sure that we don’t have a heavy thumb on there that might be imbalancing it toward too easily overturning a local decision,” Walley said, adding he is “always intrigued by fairness.”

Walley said he is not considering legislation to overturn the commission’s authority but is gathering information. He wasn’t certain whether the commission should have appointments by the governor and House and Senate speakers. 

But several lawmakers, mainly Democrats, contend the commission leans heavily toward charter schools.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.