A Slippery Slope for the Tennessee GOP 

The party of "less government" in Nashville is interfering in local matters again.

Here we go again. Up in Nashville, the party of less government is getting heavy-handed and playing Big Brother, hatching yet another piece of prescriptive legislation designed to strong-arm local jurisdictions into submission. Following in the wake of 2011's Norris-Todd bill and two ill-fated sequels of 2012 that were properly declared unconstitutional, the newest education bill hatched on Capitol Hill by the ruling Republican Party would further erode local sovereignty and the authority of elected school boards to oversee long-established educational functions.

Under fast-track discussion this week in the state House of Representatives is HB702/SB830, which would, in effect, cut local school boards out of the loop in deciding on charter school applications. The bill would give applicants the standard option of pitching their proposals to school boards or of bypassing them altogether to go directly to the state board of education, which would have the final say on approval in either option. This is the current de facto version of the much-discussed "state authorizer" concept.

As a further indignity, an LEA (local education agency) would not only see its normal share of state funding redirected into charter schools (or, presumably, charter school networks), which it had no part in approving, it would be forced to divert local matching funds into the operation of such institutions.

If there is a saving grace to the bill, it is that it is written so as to apply only to the state's two largest school districts — those in Shelby and Davidson counties. This provision would seem to undermine the constitutionality of the measure in the way of the 2012 Shelby County-only school legislation declared invalid by U.S. district judge Hardy Mays.

The most telling rebuttal to HB702/SB830 came in the House education subcommittee last week from state representative John Forgety (R-Athens), a retired school administrator. Warning of the "slippery slope" the measure would create, Forgety said, "[T]his bill would indeed circumvent the legally vested authority of local boards of education that are elected by the people of their district, and it would relegate that authority from the local board to an appointed body. ... To me, [that] is fundamentally wrong."

Hearkening to his party's stated precepts, Forgety said, "I fear ... if we're not careful, we have a solution looking for a problem. ... If we do indeed believe that the best government is that which is closest to the people, then we need to leave those decisions with local boards of education or with locally elected officials."

That about says it. We don't doubt the good intentions of state representative Mark White (R-Germantown), the bill's House sponsor, who justified the measure as a way of jump-starting a rise in the state's educational achievement by providing "competition" of the sort he experienced as a small businessman. But, aside from the bill's other problems, there's something fundamentally wrong — and counter to free-market philosophy — with requiring one entity, especially a public taxpayer-funded one, to subsidize its own competition.

That's a major flaw in the reasoning behind this bill, one it shares with school-voucher legislation that is being steam-rollered right behind it.

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