Mar 17, 2022 - Politics

The charter school building debate

Outside the Tennessee state capitol.

Photo: David Underwood/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Republican state lawmakers are proposing to give charter schools an inside track on taking over the under-used buildings owned by local school districts.

Why it matters: The use of district-owned buildings is the latest battlefront in the contentious debate over charter schools. The use of district buildings is especially salient in Nashville and Memphis, where most charters in the state operate.

Driving the news: Legislation from Republicans Rep. Ryan Williams and Sen. John Stevens would require school districts to file reports with the state about under-utilized district buildings.

  • Charter schools would then have the first say on leasing or buying those buildings.
  • The Tennessee Charter School Center, which backs the proposal, said in a statement the plan helps "to ensure equitable access for public charter school students to publicly owned vacant and underutilized facilities."

The other side: State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said in a committee meeting he fears the proposal would impact the city's ability to decide what to do with the Hillwood High School building, which will be vacated after construction is complete on the new James Lawson High in Bellevue.

  • During the committee debate, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, expressed concerns about a provision in the legislation that requires the school district to pay for capital expenses.

Zoom out: Two other charter school proposals stalled this year.

  • One would have allowed for-profit charter schools and the other would have let prospective charter schools bypass local school boards and seek approval from the more favorable state charter school commission.

The bottom line: Charter schools are in line to receive added funding under Gov. Bill Lee's proposed education funding plan.

  • Lee has also invited Michigan’s Hillsdale College to pursue charter schools across Tennessee. His proposed budget includes facilities funding for charter schools.
  • Amy Frogge, a former Nashville school board member and vocal opponent of charter schools, tells Axios the slate of pro-charter proposals from Republicans will lead to "massive local tax increases and the collapse of public education, and it will all come at the expense of Tennessee's children."

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the governor has invited Hillsdale College to pursue charter schools across Tennessee. His budget includes money that would provide funds for charter school facilities.


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