This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife, Crissy, are hosting a Christmas tree lighting event at the state Capitol on Monday evening. The tree will be strung with about 6,000 bulbs and more than 200 ornaments. The University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agricultures supplied the 30-foot Norway spruce from the Cumberland Forest in Morgan County. The tree was originally planted three decades ago as a part of a study into growing growing Christmas tree crops on strip mines. When that study ended in 1985, the tree was moved to stand next to the institute’s headquarters near Oliver Springs.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s public events this week include holiday events plus an annual remembrance of homicide victims. The governor was scheduled light the state Christmas tree on Monday evening and the Capitol Menorah the following day. The governor also travels to Rutherford County on Tuesday for a grant announcement at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Murfreesboro and a luncheon Chamber of Commerce speech. On Thursday evening, the governor is scheduled to attend the annual Tennessee Season to Remember, a gathering of the families and friends of people who have lost their lives to violent crime.
Gov. Bill Haslam says he has no second thoughts about the tax cuts he has pushed, even as he says his next budget will be the hardest his administration has drafted yet. Haslam raised exemptions from the Hall income tax on investments and approved plans to phase out the inheritance and gifttaxes in 2012 and 2013, arguing these cuts would attract investors into the state, especially retirees. But commentators, starting with a Nov. 17 column in the Knoxville News Sentinel, have noted that these breaks, as well as cuts to the state’s tax on food, add up to about $165 million in lost annual revenue.
Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough in teacher Amy Lawson’s fifth-grade classroom. Today’s students are being asked to think more critically. For example, what might a character say in an email to a friend? “It’s hard. But you can handle this,” Lawson tells them. Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education. In 45 states and the District of Columbia, Lawson and other kindergarten through high school teachers are starting to use the standards to guide what skills students learn and when.
Tennessee Education Kevin Huffman still isn’t sure whether a new Metro plan that limits where charter school operators can apply in 2014 is consistent with the state’s charter law. He’s also perplexed by the sheer volume of discussion that Metro has devoted to charters. Those were two take-outs from a recent Tennessean interview with Huffman for a story last week that discussed the chorus of criticism directed his way, his take on recent test gains and his decision to come here over other states. Huffman said he hadn’t spoken to state attorneys about Metro’s new policy in approving charters, adopted last month.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has a new mobile app that allows users to take along the latest agency info whenever they go. The new app includes access to all hunting, trapping, fishing and boating guidelines. Hunters can keep a hunting diary, access their harvest logs and upload their trophy photos. Fishermen and women can access a mobile fish identification guide. The app can also help users get directions to Wildlife Management Areas, check stations, Hunters for the Hungry processors, fishing spots, boat ramps and wildlife viewing areas.
How judges come to serve on Tennessee’s appellate courts is a topic that’s long been debated in courtrooms and legislative chambers. In 2014, voters may finally settle the issue. Those with the biggest stake in the outcome — judges and, to a lesser extent, lawyers — are focused already on the ramifications. All sitting judges at every level in Tennessee will stand for election to eight-year terms in August 2014. Then in November, voters will decide whether the Tennessee constitution should be amended to establish rules on how judges should be selected for the Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals.
The Knoxville Bar Association will launch by January an online resource to help voters learn more about local judicial candidates. A “Get to Know Our Judges” section of KBA’s website, www.knoxbar.org, will feature information about candidates seeking election to serve eight-year terms as judges in Knox County. The site will include biographical information about the candidates, as well as the courts that they are seeking to oversee, says Marsha Wilson, executive director of the KBA. The site will also include resources from the League of Women Voters and information on the election process from the Knox County Election Commission.
At the latest front in the war over Tennessee textbooks, a Williamson County parent whose objections helped spark the entire controversy now says all the books her group has reviewed have flaws. Laurie Cardoza-Moore’s quest to discard a geography book she claimed was anti-Semitic failed last year. But now as Tennessee school districts prepare to adopt new textbooks for 2014-15, she has broadened her target to include one of the most powerful companies in public education: Pearson, a publishing company that she alleges has a history of bias.
Insurers and some states are continuing to look for ways to bypass the balky technology underpinning the health-care law despite the Obama administration’s claim Sunday that it had made “dramatic progress” in fixing the federal insurance website. Federal officials said they had largely succeeded in repairing parts of the site that had most snarled users in the two months since its troubled launch, but acknowledged they only had begun to make headway on the biggest underlying problems: the system’s ability to verify users’ identities and accurately transmit enrollment data to insurers.
Weeks of frantic technical work appear to have made the government’s health care website easier for consumers to use. But that does not mean everyone who signs up for insurance can enroll in a health plan. The problem is that so-called back end systems, which are supposed to deliver consumer information to insurers, still have not been fixed. And with coverage for many people scheduled to begin in just 30 days, insurers are worried the repairs may not be completed in time. “Until the enrollment process is working from end to end, many consumers will not be able to enroll in coverage,” said Karen M. Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group.
The U.S. Department of Energy is committed to spending at least $1.5 million annually over the next three years to jump-start a new project to evaluate contaminated groundwater, especially the waterborne pollution that’s migrating beyond DOE’s Oak Ridge boundaries. In conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, DOE has put together a preliminary set of priorities and a strategic plan for addressing the Oak Ridge groundwater concerns.
Hamilton County is looking for its next batch of hyper-motivated math and science teachers. Project Inspire is seeking 15 recent grads or career changers to enter its urban teacher residency program, which puts teachers in a classroom for one year to co-teach alongside a master teacher. Candidates need no educational experience, though math and/or science knowledge and enthusiasm are key. While in the program, participants take master’s courses and receive a teaching license. The program is an educator’s version of a medical residency, which operates on the philosophy that students learn by doing.
Suburbs will swear in their school boards Monday night, a significant step in formation of municipal systems around Shelby County. Several of the school boards will go right to work, meeting to decide preliminary matters and ratify recent agreements between the Shelby County Schools Board and the individual suburbs regarding settlement of a federal lawsuit and the transfer of school buildings for a nominal fee. Suburban leaders who have fought for the school systems have characterized the accomplishment as historic so much it is almost a cliché.
Who’s interested in what knowledge is going into schoolchildren’s heads? A wide range of people, actually: educators and parents, of course; school boards, elected and appointed; legislators; and religious and political organizations. That interest has spilled into heated discussions about textbook selection from Texas to Virginia, and it is now warming up in Tennessee. How it unfolds could be a major indicator of where education is headed in this state. When it comes to textbooks, national attention usually turns to Texas, whose large market for textbooks tends to dictate practices in other states. But the conversation there has gotten ugly, with some state education officials pushing for inclusion of creationism and disputes over climate change in science texts.
With the infighting, feuding and overt partisanship that happens in Washington, it’s easy to forget that, sometimes, Democrats and Republicans actually work together and get things done. Two East Tennessee lawmakers have had some recent luck in getting legislation through Congress and onto the desk of President Barack Obama. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., worked with Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate on an agreement that will put in place new federal regulations for compounding pharmacies that mass produce drugs and sell them across state lines. A decade in the making, the bill received final congressional approval in mid-November.