Harwell Holds Out Hope Dems Will Join Education Reform Push

Tensions may be rising and animosity escalating over education policy discussions at the Capitol, but Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell said Tuesday she’s still hopeful a bipartisan consensus on school reform will emerge that puts children above partisan politics.

Harwell also defended Republicans against charges by unions and Democrats that they’re anti-teacher. The GOP, said the Nashville Republican, “appreciates what every teacher does in the classroom.”

Gov. Bill Haslam in particular, Harwell said, is “committed to helping teachers perform well (and) giving them all the tools they need.”

Speaking to TNReport after a health care policy forum Tuesday night, Harwell reiterated Haslam’s call during his State of the State address Monday to cut back on the bureaucratic red tape teachers must contend with as a part of their daily routines.

House Republicans and the governor are first and foremost concerned with helping teachers “do well in the classroom,” Harwell added. “And we want to reward good teachers for doing a good job.”

Harwell says that while Democratic support for any of the GOP-backed reforms has been elusive — including on Haslam’s supposedly less controversial tenure overhaul — she’s hopeful that the goal of “doing everything that we can to help children learn” is something both parties will ultimately come together to support. The speaker indicated she believes the committee-hearing processes this session will lead lawmakers to “the best conclusions.”

Building a foundation for creating a highly educated future workforce ought to be everyone’s first priority, said Harwell.

“I welcome the support of the Democrats when they can give it it to us. I understand the need for the minority party to express their concerns,” said the speaker. “But at the end of the day we’re going to do what is best for Tennessee children.”

Asked whether she thinks teachers unions are good for education in Tennessee, Harwell said she believes they “have served a purpose.” She suggested there are, however, some areas where collectively bargaining negotiations can undermine the goal of getting the best teachers in the situations where they are most needed.

“Overall, what we want to look at is what helps a child learn in the classroom,” said Harwell. “When we take things off the negotiation table, what we are taking off is anything that would impact, in a negative fashion, the child’s ability to learn.”

Issues that need to be removed from collective bargaining negotiations include the discretion of education system administrators to pay some teachers higher salaries either to instruct students in difficult academic areas or to teach in troubled neighborhoods, she said.

“Those are the things that really don’t belong on the negotiation tables, but belong with state officials,” Harwell said.