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Tennessee bill speeding up application process for charter schools has school board member worried

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As legislators in Nashville debate a bill that makes for easier creation of charter schools, a Johnson City Board of Education member is worried about what more charter schools could mean for public education funding.

House Bill 2833 and Senate Bill 2168 are identical bills that would speed up the application process for charter schools. It would allow applicants to go directly to the state Public Charter School Commission for approval, rather than the current method of approval by local school boards.

Charter schools are public schools that receive public funding – taxpayer dollars – but they are run by non-profit governing bodies that may include parents. Right now, only four are approved in Nashville, Memphis, Knox County and Chattanooga.

Johnson City Board of Education member Michelle Treece said the bill could lead to more charter schools, and that could take away dollars from the state’s public school systems.

“When you have an organization or a programming that has the opportunity to come in and take even more funding from a public school, that’s a big problem,” Treece said.

Treece said, if passed, the measure could stretch thin an already underfunded Tennessee public education system. In a 2021 report, the Education Law Center said Tennessee ranked 44th out of 50 states and Washington D.C. in per-student funding.

“We are at the bottom of the barrel with funding,” Treece said. “We are already at a place of not being able to fund adequately.”

Gov. Bill Lee is also joining in the push for expanding charter schools. Last week, Lee announced an agreement with conservative Michigan school Hillsdale College to bring 50 to 100 charter schools to the state.

“Hillsdale’s charter schools in our state will be public, secular, classical education schools,” Lee said.

Treece was concerned about where the funding for that many schools would come from.

“Where does that money come from? It has to come from public school budgets,” Treece said.

HB 2833 would also reduce the time for the state commission or a school board to approve or deny a charter school application.

The bill also allows charter schools to use underutilized and vacant public school properties at no cost. It defines an underutilized or vacant property as having more than 50 percent of the building not being used for direction academic instruction, including spaces used for storage.

Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), the Senate Education Committee chair, said the ability to lease the building from a school district essentially for free better utilizes taxpayer dollars.

“Those school buildings, taxpayers built those schools and taxpayer funds are being utilized to educate our children, so I see that as appropriate,” Lundberg said.

When asked about the ability to apply for a charter school directly from the state, Lundberg said he is a proponent of local control in schools, but said sometimes there needs to be an alternative.

“I like it happening at a local level,” Lundberg said. “If there are local players who are bad actors, then they need another route of recourse.”

Lundberg said because of the quality of schools in the Tri-Cities, it is unlikely a charter school would come to the area.

“We have great schools in Northeast Tennessee,” Lundberg said. “That’s why it’s not an issue. In other parts of the state, they really need help.”

The House Education Instruction Subcommittee and the Senate Education Committee were expected to discuss the bills this week, but those hearings got pushed back two weeks. Lundberg said he expects amendments to be added to the bills.