Tennessee Paves a New Avenue for More Great Public Schools

Tennessee recently adopted legislation that creates a state charter school commission and gives the state board of education responsibility for overseeing charter authorizers. These actions should spur charter growth as well as raise the quality of the state’s charter sector, crucial wins for all Tennesseans.

By creating an independent chartering board (ICB) and giving the State Board of Education greater responsibility for overseeing authorizers, Tennessee is embracing a policy framework NACSA has advocated in favor of for many years. Our research and policy work has established that an effective charter school system requires multiple authorizer options as well as a separate oversight entity to hold all authorizers accountable. Tennessee’s recent legislation makes improvements on both these key factors.

First, the creation of an ICB reflects a best practice that NACSA has long supported.

ICBs provide benefits over other types of statewide authorizers—such as state education departments—as they are not distracted from the important work of authorizing by other critical functions. Nor are ICBs likely to be confronted with conflicts of interest that interfere with authorizing work. By focusing on just one function, ICBs can establish the expertise, scale, and capacity critical to quality authorizing.

In Tennessee, the new commission will take on the State Board of Education’s current role of approving new schools on appeal from local districts. Under existing law, denied applicants could only appeal to the State Board from certain districts; under the approved legislation, applicants will be able to appeal to the commission from anywhere in the state.

Tasked with a wide range of oversight tasks, the State Board has (by its own admission) struggled with capacity to oversee its growing portfolio. By contrast, an independent commission will be able to focus exclusively on high-quality authorizing and generating the capacity needed to oversee a growing portfolio.

This change should drive an increase in the number and the quality of applications, certainly in areas where the appeals option is now available for the first time, as applicants now have a prospect for approval even in the face of an adverse local district.

Second, the approved bill further strengthens the state’s charter school sector by tasking the State Board—now freed up from its authorizing responsibilities—with overseeing the commission and local district authorizers, a task more in line with other broad oversight responsibilities of the Board. Multiple authorizing options can positively pressure individual authorizers to adopt high-quality practices, but only if there is an oversight entity keeping the competition from devolving into a race to the bottom.

By creating an independent charter commission with the sole task of practicing high-quality authorizing and tasking the State Board of Education with the more appropriate responsibility of holding all authorizers to high standards, Tennessee’s recent legislation should lead to not just growth, but a significant jump in quality in the state’s charter sector.

Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at