This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee education officials trying to implement the federal government’s new Common Core academic standards face opposition from a tea party-linked group that also objects to what it considers biased passages in some state-approved textbooks. In September, the Senate Education Committee held hearings to discuss concerns about the standards that are designed to prepare students for college or a job by the time they graduate from high school. Two months later, the same committee called hearings to review the role of the Tennessee Textbook Commission, which recommends its selection of books to the State Board of Education.
The new year looks to be a year of change — including extra dimes and quarters — for University of Tennessee system employees. The University of Tennessee will increase its systemwide minimum starting pay rate from $8.50 an hour to $9 an hour for all employees effective Jan. 1. And on June 30, 2014, that figure will further increase to $9.50 an hour. “We’re committed as a university system to offering competitive compensation to our diverse and dedicated workforce,” said UT President Joe DiPietro in a news release.
There is about to be a scene change in the drama surrounding the unfolding of the Affordable Care Act: Off the website and into the doctor’s office. The countdown to 2014 is especially meaningful for those who were able to become insured under the health reform law and can finally start seeing their coverage kick in Wednesday. And it is significant for the doctors and hospitals that are watching closely to see what effect the law will have on their patient base. Approximately 4,500 Tennesseans and 6,850 Georgians had enrolled on the health insurance exchanges as of Nov. 30, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Federal environmental safety regulations that take effect early in the new year will have a big impact on manufacturers, distributors and consumers of plumbing and electrical supplies, according to local suppliers and distributors. As of Jan. 4, 2014, all brass plumbing fixtures that come in contact with potable water will have to meet new lead-free environmental requirements. The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, signed into law in January, 2011, requires a weighted average of no more than 0.25 percent lead on wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures.
Deanna Smith worked at Krystal’s call center for nine years before she was laid off in January 2013. Since then, she’s been sending out resumes and browsing job sites and going to interviews, but hasn’t found work. She’s been relying on federal unemployment benefits to support herself and her two kids. But those benefits ended Saturday. She’ll get her last check on Jan. 4. “I’m going to have to withdraw money from my 401K,” she said. “I have no other choice.” She’s one of 18,000 Tennesseans and about 40,000 Georgians who will no longer receive a weekly unemployment check since the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program ended Saturday.
All the rain that fell this year might make you think Chattanooga was morphing into Seattle. Except that Chattanooga got twice as much rain in 2013 — 67.4 inches and counting as of Friday — as did Seattle, which had a total of just under 33 inches. “It was a much-wetter-than-normal year,” said Derek Eisentrout of the National Weather Service’s Morristown, Tenn., office. The Chattanooga area’s 2013 rainfall — almost 16 inches above normal — was the 10th highest since record-keeping began in 1879, Eisentrout said last week, as more rain still was predicted before year’s end. The record high for rainfall was in 1994, he said, when 73.7 inches fell. It’s said every cloud has a silver lining, and the area benefited in some ways from the deluge — including slightly lower electric bills.
Once again, education reform is shaping up to be one of the key issues for the state Legislature in 2014, but lawmakers should take a measured approach to ideas such as charter schools and school vouchers. Tennessee has enacted many reforms over the past several years — adopting Common Core State Standards, eliminating collective bargaining for teachers, revising tenure rules and instituting tougher teacher performance reviews, to name a few. Despite opposition from many educators, student achievement has improved since the reforms have been in place. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the nation’s report card, showed Tennessee’s fourth- and eighth-graders had the largest growth in reading and math of any state from 2011-2013.
The drive to raise classroom standards is, for the most part, well intentioned and useful. More than a quarter of American students tested below the basic proficiency level for mathematics, for example, on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment. The test is given every three years to students ages 15 and 16 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It has consistently shown the United States below average internationally on math and at a disappointing average level in reading and science. In a recent survey by the OECD, adults in the United States scored better than only two of 12 other comparably developed nations, Italy and Spain.
This past June, I completed my second year as a Teach for America teacher. I’d been placed in a challenging public high school in Memphis but instead of scaring me away, my experience strengthened my commitment to education. Yet I knew that there was no way I’d return to teach at my placement school. The culture there didn’t promote student achievement, individual teachers operated in isolation and the school overall had little shared vision for where we were going. After a comprehensive search across Memphis, the schools I found with the strongest sense of collective mission and collaborative culture were outside the legacy Memphis City Schools district, in either charter schools or schools operated by the state Achievement School District.
“Breaking Bad” was TV fiction. So was “The Andy Griffith Show.” Their themes converge in methamphetamine production in Tennessee, but with real-world outcomes: Meth destroys health and lives of thousands of Tennesseans, and sometimes kills. And local sheriffs and police officers must try to stop it, even when they get no help from the state capitol or anywhere else. Officials at the state level know that Tennessee has the nation’s worst meth addiction. They joined a national registry intended to track and prevent purchasing patterns for cold medicines that contain the critical ingredients for making meth. It’s not working. In fact, it seems the database isn’t even making a dent in meth-lab production throughout Tennessee.
Note: The news-clips will resume on Thursday, January 2, 2014