Even though Republicans are lately focused primarily on the federal health care ruling, a top House Democrat expects education will again emerge as the most contentious political issue in next year’s Tennessee Legislature.
Debate about college tuition, charter-school expansion and school choice will be among the hottest of hot-button issues come dead of winter 2013, minority-party caucus chairman Mike Turner predicted this week during a conversation with reporters in Nashville.
And Turner doesn’t seem particularly optimistic his party will fare any better getting its way and protecting its interests than has proven the case in the last two years. During the 2011-2012 Tennessee General Assembly, Democrats failed to successfully defend one of their dearest and most loyal constituencies, unionized teachers, from landmark legislative defeats at the hands of a politically aggressive GOP bent on removing the Tennessee Education Association as an obstacle to majority-party education reforms.
“I don’t think next year is going to get any easier,” Turner said. “They may be better at what they’re doing. Governing is new to them, being in the majority is new to them. God help us all if they get their feet underneath them before we get it back.”
He added, “I think education next year will be a big fight again.”
Gov. Bill Haslam has said his next big issue is indeed higher education. Haslam has said he wants the state to re-evaluate the system’s costs, boost the number of graduates and better weave degrees with Tennessee employers’ needs.
On that particular education issue, and likely few others, Turner hinted that Democrats and Republicans might be able to find some common ground trying to determine how to diminish bloated, upper-level bureaucratic dead weight in the state’s university system.
“Higher ed has got to learn that we are in difficult times. When they cut, they just tend to cut the bottom,” said Turner, a firefighter from Old Hickory who isn’t facing a re-election opponent this year. “They’ve still got their 19 vice presidents and their department heads and above them they’ve got chancellors, and I don’t think they live in the real world up there. If the United States can have one vice president, I’m not sure UT needs 19.”
Such concerns are in fact presently on the minds of some of those attending government-funded colleges. Recently, students at the University of Tennessee launched an online petition drive in Knoxville to protest a $22,000 raise for its chancellor at a time when student tuition is expected to jump an average of $289 per semester.
Nevertheless, Turner characterized the pending evaluation of the costs of higher education as something of “a crisis coming” for college-bound students of low-to-moderate means.
Turner expects the Republican-led Legislature to take another shot at raising the bar on awarding the state-funded Hope Scholarship. Students now need either a score of 21 on the ACT or a 3.0 grade point average.
Haslam last year slid school choice issues to the back burner, asking a panel to study the implications of allowing parents to send their children to private, charter or other public schools outside their local area using a voucher program. The panel is expected to report its findings to the governor this fall.
“I think vouchers will be in play, big time this time,” said Turner. “I think they’re going to push them hard.”
Turner also anticipates a GOP-led push to expand charter schools, which he predicts “will ultimately lead to private re-segregation of the schools.”
Haslam began his first few months in office working to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can open statewide.