A bill that originally was about financial literacy was rewritten Tuesday through an amendment that would allow the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) to enroll out-of-zone students and charge charter schools an authorization fee.

The amended bill, backed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, was approved unanimously by the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee. It replaces a similar bill that was approved in February by the Senate Education Committee. Both the original House bill and the amendment were introduced by Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville).

If it becomes law, the amended bill could impact underperforming schools in Memphis and Nashville that have been taken over by the state and turned over to charter organizations as part of the state’s turnaround strategy for struggling schools.

Specifically, the bill would allow out-of-zone students to comprise up to 25 percent of students in any school operated through the ASD. It also would allow the ASD to charge its charter school operators an authorizer fee – for up to 3 percent of the school’s public funding.

Much of Tuesday’s debate was over whether the ASD should be permitted to enroll students who aren’t residentially zoned to their schools. When the state created the ASD in 2010, lawmakers specified that its charter schools would not recruit out-of-zone students, but would operate under the same zoning restrictions used by traditional public schools. This year, however, Barbic has asked lawmakers to allow charters to expand their reach.

Barbic told the House panel that ASD schools have room for more students, but that they often must turn away families because of where they live. He cited Cornerstone Prep in Memphis as an example. Much of the discussion echoed exchanges in February between Barbic and members of the Senate Education Committee.

Stephen Smith, legislative liaison for the state Education Department, concurred with Barbic’s explanation. “We just want the opportunity to be able to serve those parents and serve those children,” Smith said.

However, Shelby County Schools lobbyist Tony Thompson said the change would be another blow to the already beleaguered district, by pulling away more students from its schools in Memphis. “We’re closing schools all the time down here, and this is just another thing that adds to the situation,” he said.

Last year, Shelby County Schools – beset by shrinking enrollment and a shrinking budget – shuttered 10 schools. This year, the district’s Board of Education is considering closing two more.

Thompson also questioned if operators of ASD charters should be allowed to recruit students if the schools are still academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools.

The charter authorization aspect of the amendment received less attention, but Thompson told Chalkbeat that he had concerns about that as well.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

A bill scheduled for discussion Wednesday in the House Education Instruction and Programming Subcommittee proposes that traditional school districts also be allowed to charge an authorizing fee to district-authorized charter school operators — a proposal that district administrators have been pushing for years. However, the bill caps the district’s fee at 2.2 percent – below the 3 percent cap for the ASD under Tuesday’s amended bill.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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