This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Wayne Blair and Yazan Musieh represent two extremes in regard to their educational experiences, but they deserve commendation for their efforts. They also provide an opportunity to give a closer look at the opportunities for education at all levels in this county and state. Musieh has reached his personal goal of completing high school in two years, and while Blair, chairman of the Rutherford County School Board, took a few more years to complete his bachelor’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University, the key point is that he completed it. Musieh, a Riverdale student, will have the opportunity to begin college studies two years early, but many other high school students in the county have opportunities to begin their college studies early because of dual-enrollment programs at MTSU and Motlow State in Smyrna.
Tennessee has improved how accurately their test results reflect student proficiency, according to a report released Thursday. Education reform organization Achieve compared the gap between 2013-14 state-reported math and reading proficiency scores with scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a nationally implemented exam. NAEP is sponsored by the Department of Education and produces the Nation’s Report Card. The report found over half of states had big “honesty gaps” with discrepancies more than 30 percentage points between their assessment scores and NAEP exam results. States with bigger honesty gaps can mislead the public on whether students are proficient in basic reading and math skills, the report said. Tennessee, however, was among nine states whose state test scores most accurately reflected fourth grade reading proficiency.
The leader of Tennessee’s largest network of public colleges cheered a report released last week that said the Volunteer State leads the nation in establishing more accurate evaluations of students’ academic performance. John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said a smaller “honesty gap” makes it easier to gauge how successful students will be in college. The TBR oversees all of the state’s public colleges outside of the University of Tennessee system, including Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University and all of the state’s community and technical colleges. “It’s not about pretending that we’re doing OK it’s about really knowing how we’re doing,” Morgan said. “We understand it and we recognize it, and that’s a key pat of getting better.”
Governor Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan was defeated twice in legislative session this year but that doesn’t mean supporters of the bill have given up hope. Activists like Pam Weston are still fighting for the 280,000 Tennesseans’ without health insurance. “Insure Tennessee is not dead,” said Weston. With signs in hand, people in support of Insure Tennessee lined Knoxville streets to be heard. They protested across the street from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s auction Saturday morning. “It’s not over until we say it’s over. We the people say it’s over and we say it’s not over…reality is everyday there are as many as 2 people dying due to lack of early diagnosis and treatment,” said Weston. She thinks that wouldn’t be a problem if everyone was covered.
The little vehicle registration renewal sticker that some in Shelby County pay more than $100 for each year is now much less valuable to thieves. That’s because the new registration process with the Shelby County Court Clerk’s office makes the annual decal personalized by printing the license number of the vehicle it was registered to on it. That means the numbers on the stolen sticker won’t match the license number of the thief’s car. “We’ve had problems all across the state and the country with people who would steal them off of vehicles,” said County Clerk Wayne Mashburn. “And law enforcement, unless they actually stopped them for some other reason, didn’t know it didn’t go with that vehicle.”
Any lawmaker who serves one term in the Tennessee General Assembly — two years in the House or four years in the Senate — is eligible to remain on the state’s health insurance plan for the rest of his or her life. The plan lets them cover themselves, their spouses and eligible children. Eligible family members can stay on after the lawmaker dies. Many current lawmakers are enrolled now — 116 out of 132 — and 148 former lawmakers remain on the state plan, according to records obtained by The Tennessean. Many of those health insurance options are not available for the majority of state employees. State workers must work 10 years to be eligible to keep their state insurance when they retire. Unless they continue to work past age 65, retirees must switch at 65 to a different, inferior coverage plan.
The cause of medicinal marijuana seemingly took a step forward in Tennessee this month when Gov. Bill Haslam signed a measure making an extract of marijuana legal for use in treating intractable epileptic seizures. Initially, the legalization of non-intoxicating cannabidiol oil (CBD) was sought for child victims of particularly severe forms of epilepsy, but the final version of the bill has made CBD available for anyone suffering from debilitating seizures. There is enough evidence of CBD’s effectiveness to convince former opponents like Dr. Sanjay Gupta and local leaders like physician state Sen. Mark Green. However, many Tennessee families are still in the dark about whether CBD is available, what the procedures are for legally obtaining and using it, and how the process of determining eligibility is supposed to work. Adding problems these families don’t need are questions as to whether CBD is still illegal under federal law and whether out-of-state providers are violating the law. The answers are important because CBD cannot be made in Tennessee.
A poll published this week showed nearly two-to-one support among Tennessee residents for a Medicaid expansion program shopped by Gov. Bill Haslam. But the plan, called Insure Tennessee, died an unceremonious death two months ago in the state Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee by a vote of 2-6-1. It’s that gap between public desire and legislative action that an event next week at downtown Johnson City’s Munsey Memorial Methodist Church is intended to help bridge, and possibly convince lawmakers to extend health insurance benefits to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Tennesseans living within 138 percent of the poverty line. Sponsored by the Tennessee Health Care Campaign and involving local medial and business leaders, the 6 p.m. Wednesday town hall will be used to tell attendees about the benefits of enacting the Insure Tennessee plan and to encourage voters to put pressure on local representatives, volunteer Tony Garr said.
A trumpet played as 486 graduates in black robes flowed through the leafy Fisher Garden at Rhodes College during its 2015 commencement Saturday. Loved ones were welcomed by Rhodes President William Troutt, wearing bright red and purple, who told the graduates they are ready to succeed in “an ever-changing world.”… U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, was present and accepted an honorary doctorate in humanities. He did not address graduates at Saturday’s ceremony. Troutt cited Corker’s “extraordinary career of service, his commitment to building a common understanding and bipartisan agreement and for leadership that is making a difference in our country and in our world.”
The Johnson City Schools system is effective at having school-age children show proof of proper immunization, but one soon-to-be Parent Teacher Association president has reason to believe the school system is lacking when it comes to proof of immunization for students entering seventh grade. Catherine O’Leary has made her case in front of the Board of Education at the past two open monthly meetings, passionately saying the completed Tennessee Department of Health Certificate of Immunization needs to be considered “the student’s ticket in the door.” “Administration let people stay in the building whom they have known did not have their boosters,” O’Leary said. “That’s a deceitful act.”
The Jackson-Madison County school system had an enrollment of 218 students in Advanced Placement courses last school year, but less than 20 percent of the students took the final Advanced Placement exam necessary for a chance at earning college credit. The Jackson Sun found similar trends at two other public school systems in the region as part of an analysis of Advanced Placement courses for the 2013-14 school year. The lack of participation in the exams raises questions about the quality of the AP courses being taught and about school policies that allow students to skip the exams. None of the 14 students who took AP calculus in Crockett County last year took the AP exam, and 28 percent of the 75 students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses at Lexington High School took the exam.
The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, and too few in Washington and Nashville have the political courage to do anything about it. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was in Knoxville last week to emphasize the need to shore up the federal Highway Trust Fund, which provides money for roads, bridges and mass transit projects nationwide. In Tennessee, new road construction essentially has ground to a halt. The federal government pays for about half the state’s transportation budget, so Tennessee’s ability to build roads and bridges is tied to the health of the Highway Trust Fund. Lawmakers at both the state and federal level need to face reality and take meaningful action to fully fund infrastructure work that is vital to the safety and economic well-being of citizens.
Just as I suspected, Tennesseans are not nearly as dogmatic, self-centered, hypocritical and closed-minded as most of the people we send to the state legislature. For example, ordinary Tennesseans understand the value of deliberative compromise. Our lawmakers respond to a request for compromise with, “What part of hell no don’t you understand, the hell or the no?” Ordinary Tennesseans, for the most part, have compassion for the underprivileged members of our society. Our lawmakers seem to treat those folks as freeloading pariahs. And ordinary Tennesseans believe local governments should control the parks and playgrounds located within their borders. Our lawmakers check first with their out-of-state contributors, then pass laws stripping control from local leaders.
State Rep. Glen Casada said someone should be “immediately reprimanded” for letting the public know how much he is compensated as a legislator. State Sen. Janice Bowling was “saddened, shocked and disgusted” at the idea of citizens knowing more about senators’ pay packages. State Rep. Rick Womick wanted an injunction to stop the release of information about what taxpayers are paying him and his fellow representatives. The hissy fit was caused by the Tennessean’s request this month to see which legislators are signed up for state health insurance and how much their premiums are subsidized. With the benefits office about to release the data, Connie Ridley, director of legislative administration for the state (whose husband just happens to be a lobbyist), raised the alarm, warning legislators that the release would violate their rights under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA.
As a young adult, and a conservative, my default position was in favor of the death penalty. Over the past few years, however, my faith and my politics compelled me to stop and think through this position. In fact, weeks after my family hosted a dinner party, I was informed that two of the guests who sat at our table were now at the epicenter of this polarizing issue – one an accused murderer; the other a victim. In the weeks that followed, I began researching the death penalty, and during that process, I learned several things that have changed my default position. In like manner, I firmly believe that Tennessee should rethink its position on the death penalty. I am a Christian, and I am conservative, in that order. My faith compels me to take seriously God’s Word, particularly the teachings of Jesus: Christ commands us to love our enemies; Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, revealing a deeper ethic of love; the two greatest commandments affirmed by Jesus are to love God and love our neighbors.