Critics of Huffman Want Decision from Haslam

Despite a recent opinion by Tennessee’s attorney general offering legal cover to the state Department of Education for its decision to delay release of student test scores, critics of the agency’s embattled commissioner aren’t letting up on their demand that he be cut loose.

And they want Gov. Bill Haslam to make a decision sooner this summer rather than later in the fall after the general election, as he’s indicated he intends to do.

“I haven’t sat down and had that conversation with [any of the commissioners] about the next four years, because it’s not appropriate,” Haslam said on July 8. “I’m in the middle of a campaign right now, and we will — this fall, if I’m re-elected, we’ll sit down with all 23, and see if they want to continue, and if that works for us.”

Kevin Huffman has been a lightning rod for criticism from both the left and the right. But by the same token he’s got staunch defenders among both Republicans and Democrats as well. Two of his biggest fans have been Tennessee’s GOP governor and the Obama administration’s education chief, Arne Duncan.

Haslam has been emphasizing improvements in test scores that have come about under Huffman, including Tennessee’s status as the fastest improving education system in the nation. The fundamental test of his administration’s education efforts ought to be student performance, the governor said, and in his estimation kids in Tennessee’s publicly funded classrooms are “learning more than they ever have before.”

However, opposition to Haslam on education — in particular, his embrace of both Common Core and student-testing as a means of evaluating the job teachers are doing — runs deep both among educators and conservative politicians who fear the state is giving up control of its education system to outside forces.

Citing a “complete lack of trust” in the commissioner, as well as alleging the manipulation of test scores, a letter sent to Haslam on June 19 demanded Huffman be replaced. Fifteen Republican members of the Tennessee General Assembly – 13 lawmakers in the House and two senators, endorsed the letter, which declared that mistrust of Huffman stems from his “actions and general attitude,” and that he’s demonstrated a “failure to uphold and follow the laws of the state of Tennessee in this latest TCAP debacle we are currently witnessing.”

The letter also questioned whether or not Huffman had the authority to waive the inclusion of TCAP scores, considering that a bill passed by the General Assembly in the 2014 session granted Huffman waiver abilities, but specifically excluded waiving requirements related to “assessments and accountability.”

But state Attorney General Bob Cooper recently released an opinion, requested by state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that found Huffman in fact didn’t abuse his authority by waiving those requirements, that no state or federal law “would be violated by a delay in releasing TCAP test scores,” as long as the results were provided by June 30, which they were.

The attorney general’s opinion did little, though, to change the minds of Huffman’s detractors.

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald, said he “wasn’t surprised” by the attorney general’s office opinion, and said it didn’t really carry any legal weight. And anyway, “there are a lot of different issues” on which Hensley said he’s had problems with Commissioner Huffman.

Hensley, a member of the Senate Education Committee, indicated he stands by the letter’s main thrust. Huffman should “go somewhere else,” he said. “I just feel like the commissioner doesn’t listen to the superintendents and the teachers and the principles, and he doesn’t listen too much to the Legislature, either.”

Julie West, the president of Parents for Truth in Education, said that she thinks that Cooper’s opinion is just splitting hairs.

“The irony is Commissioner Huffman pushed for this, because he’s all about the testing, and when he doesn’t get the results he wants all of a sudden he wants to do away with that being factored in,” West said. “And let me say, if the Governor and the Commissioner were really as proud of TCAP scores as they want us to believe, it certainly would not have been announced during the Fourth of July.”

West said that she was not just in favor of Huffman’s resignation, but that he should be fired. West also said that part of the problem, and what was “more disturbing,” was that Cooper “seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be the attorney for the people of Tennessee, rather than a servant of the Governor.”

“I think that part of the issue is the people of Tennessee don’t have a voice in who the Commissioner of Education is, and don’t have a voice in who the Attorney General is,” West said. “And for that reason they don’t feel, or they seem to act in ways that don’t show a lot of concern for what we believe, and truthfully for what the law seems to be.”

West described her group as not of any particular political perspective, but just people who are not “tolerating” what’s happening to their kids under Common Core or Huffman’s education department.

And regardless of the attorney general’s view on the controversy over the TCAP scores, those on the left wing of Tennessee’s political spectrum still think Huffman needs to go, too. The Tennessee Democratic Party has regularly called for Huffman’s ouster, on the grounds that he is aloof and unresponsive to local teachers and education officials.

The governor owes it to the people of Tennessee to declare whether or not he plans to keep Huffman around, said Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron. That decision, Herron told TNReport, “is overdue, and should be both made and announced as soon as possible.”

“The commissioner has refused to listen to the teachers in public schools, and to the superintendents and schools boards who run those schools,” Herron said in a phone interview. “But the commissioner has united Tennesseans, from Tea Party Republicans to Tennessee Democrats, from 60 superintendents to thousands of teachers, who all agree it is past time for this commissioner to go back to Washington.”

Mary Mancini, a Democratic candidate for the Tennessee State Senate district being vacated by longtime state legislator, Sen. Douglas Henry, said that Haslam needs to either make his decision about Huffman, or “explain in non-political terms” why he has not made that decision yet, because she finds the education commissioner’s performance to be lacking.

“When looking at this job performance, it’s clear that [Huffman]‘s just not working the way he should be; doing his job basically,” said Manicini. “He’s been difficult and unresponsive to legislators on both sides of the aisle. Somebody needs to hold him accountable, and both Republicans and Democrats have been trying to do that, and he’s been completely ignoring them, and unresponsive, and that’s not acceptable.”

And the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, believes that the TCAP delay is another in a line of issues with the state’s top education executive, said Jim Wrye, government relations manager for the TEA.

“The policies were placed in that it would be anywhere between 15 and 25 percent of a student’s grade, and that it wasn’t ready at the end of school just threw a huge wrench into what is one of the most important things — which are final grades — for students, and especially for teachers,” Wrye said.

Wrye, though admitting he’s not a lawyer, said that he found the AG’s opinion interesting  because “the idea that you could be exempted from student assessments was something that was prohibited in that flexibility bill. It was something we had discussed at length during the legislative session.”

In September 2013, 63 school superintendents from around the state signed a letter criticizing the education reform policies being implemented by the state’s top education office. And later in 2013, teachers’ unions across the Volunteer State cast votes of “no confidence” in Huffman.

However, Huffman has enjoyed some recent support, with a petition of support recently announced that, as of press time, features over 400 signatures from Tennesseans, including Kate Ezell, a consultant associated with the Tennessee Charter School Incubator as a funds-raiser from September 2011 to January 2013.

Republicans Divided on Appeal for Huffman Heave-Ho

At least two prominent Republicans in the state House of Representatives are suggesting a call by fellow GOP lawmakers for “the immediate removal from office” of Education Department Commissioner Kevin Huffman is, at a minimum, premature.

A letter sent last week to Gov. Bill Haslam that was signed by 13 House Republicans and one Senate Republican excoriated Huffman and the Education Department for failing to heed concerns and complaints from local school districts as the administration and the GOP Legislature has gone about “overhauling education in Tennessee.”

“Our trustworthiness has continued to be jeopardized on education reform,” the Republican lawmakers wrote in the June 19 letter to the governor. “We feel that a great source of that mistrust comes from the actions, and general attitude of Commissioner Kevin Huffman and that is why we…demand the immediate resignation of Commissioner Kevin Huffman for misguided leadership, dereliction of duty, and for failing to uphold the laws of the State of Tennessee in the last TCAP debacle we are currently witnessing.”

House GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin and Calendar and Rules Committee Chairman Bill Dunn of Knoxville each told TNReport that they believe it’s unjustified at this time to be demanding the head of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief education official.

The Department of Education released a statement last week saying that the letter-signing GOP lawmakers’ accusations of illegal or improper activities by the department were “baseless,””categorically untrue” and “completely inaccurate.” The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that over the weekend Haslam said Huffman still has his support through the end of the year, but that “it’s too early to say what the cabinet will look like” should the governor, as is widely presumed, win a second term in the November election.

While Casada and Dunn acknowledged there’s plenty of room for disagreement with, or criticism of, Commissioner Huffman and the Education Department, they said the Republican administration deserves some political latitude from GOP lawmakers, at least in absence of a full inquiry into issues surrounding the TCAP controversy.

Dunn noted that the Tennessee Comptroller has already been asked by two Republican lawmakers to investigate whether any laws were violated by the Education Department when officials last month OK’d delaying release of Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program results, which are usually included in students’ end-of-the-year report cards.

Lawmakers ought to at least wait to see the results of that audit before they start making specific demands on the Haslam administration, Dunn said.

“I do think that it is very proper to ask questions about what happened with the TCAP scores coming out,” said Dunn. “There will be a discussion, and I am sure there will be legislation that deals with what happens when the scores are not available, and there will probably be a discussion about whether the scores should be included on the last report card or not.”

But Dunn, who also serves on the House Education Committee and has been a vocal proponent of school choice and other reforms, said he’s taking “the long view” on the Haslam administration’s approach to education reform. In Dunn’s view, “good things are happening” in education as a result of the GOP running state government the past four years.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we doubling spending on education and test scores were going down,” said Dunn. “Now that Republicans are in charge, we are cutting taxes and test scores are going up.”

Dunn, who has been in the Legislature for about two decades, also pointed out that most of lawmakers who signed the letter are only just wrapping up their first or second terms, and they may lack the perspective he has.

Casada questions whether a legislative-branch member ought to be publicly demanding such specific and immediate actions on the part of a governor, like removal of a top executive branch official. “I feel like that my constitutional authority, as a legislator, is to pass laws and to appropriate budgetary items — to pass a budget,” he said. “That’s what I have been charged to do.”

Casada, who emphasized that he was speaking “only from my perspective” and not judging the lawmakers from a position of rank in the caucus leadership, added that he, too, parts ways with the administration on education issues from time to time.

“I strongly disagree with Common Core, and there are some other policies that I strongly disagree with the commissioner on. But Commissioner Huffman answers to the governor, not to me,” said Casada, who is being challenged in the GOP primary for his seat in the Legislature by Cherie Hammond, a member of the Williamson County Board of Education.

The only Senator to sign the letter, Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, told TNReport Huffman’s been given all the time he deserves, and it’s become clear enough over the last year that school-district superintendents across the state “have lost confidence in him.”

“It’s time for him to move on,” said Niceley, who is in his first term as a senator, but before that served six terms in the House. “The local directors should be his biggest supporters, and they are not. He’s lost them.”

The letter by the Republicans declared, “During (Huffman’s) tenure, complaints have poured in from our districts, from every level of professional involvement of education. From student teachers to superintendents, the feeling of a general lack of cooperation has left a black mark on this administration’s efforts to better the quality of education across the state.”

There were no Democrats’ names on the letter, although they’ve made little attempt to hide their displeasure with Huffman, or their contempt for a lot of what’s gone by the name of “education reform” under his leadership.

The House Democratic Caucus issued a press release just after news of the TCAP delay became public last month proclaiming, “Under Kevin Huffman’s leadership of the Department of Education, school districts, teachers and students have been mired in problems caused by the Commissioner’s push for more standardized testing without the proper infrastructure.”

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, was quoted in the release saying, “While Commissioner Huffman has pushed for more and more accountability for our teachers, his own Department has yet to be called to account for their own failures.”

PARCC Testing Delay Gets Haslam’s Signature

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a measure passed by the General Assembly that would put off state implementation of a math-and-English testing program affiliated with the Common Core State Standards.

The governor made the bill a law on Wednesday.

Under the terms of a legislative agreement reached in conference committee between the House and Senate last month, schools won’t begin subjecting students to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers until 2015-16.

Instead, the state will continue using the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. The new law also outlaws “intrusive data tracking,” declares that the state shall continue maintaining authority over education standards and mandates that, “The state of Tennessee shall not adopt Common Core State Standards in any subject matter beyond math and English language arts.”

The Senate approved the PARCC delay 27-0. In the House, the vote was 85-8.

Also as part of the legislation, the state’s Department of Education is directed to seek competitive bids to administer any new standards-testing programs. The Joint Fiscal Review Committee will then review the bids and make a recommendation for adoption.

“Whatever is selected shall be tested before it is implemented,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville who sponsored the legislation.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said the PARCC delay is a “victory” on at least two fronts for Common Core opponents. It both gives critics more time to try and expose and publicize Common Core’s shortcomings, and it sets the stage for the state rejecting PARCC in favor of some other standardized-testing system not so closely associated with Common Core.

“PARCC is very expensive, and there will be other providers of standardized tests that will compete for our business, and that will cost a lot less,” said Casada. He said that if PARCC is ultimately rejected by Tennessee, then students won’t necessarily be taught a curriculum that’s skewed toward the Common-Core standards measured by PARCC.

“I do think (the PARCC delay) is a blow to Common Core as it was intended to be implemented,” said Casada.

That Haslam signed the PARCC-delay legislation wasn’t unexpected — he’d already indicated that he would. “The important thing is that the Common Core standards that we feel so strongly about are staying in place, and that’s what will be taught in our classrooms,” Haslam told reporters last month.

“I think a test like PARCC — and I think that there are several others that are more attuned to the Common Core standards that are being taught – I think would have been preferable,” the governor continued. “That being said, the Legislature wanted to do (a Request for Proposal), we signaled that we can live with that, and we’ll try to get that done as quickly as possible and have the best result that we can to bring back to the Legislature.”

But the governor’s top education official, Kevin Huffman, has expressed displeasure that the state wont be pushing ahead immediately with embracing all the components of Common Core. Huffman, who serves on the governing board of PARCC, said last month that the delay has him “concerned that children in other states will have access to more advanced assessments before Tennessee children.”

The ranks of Common Core opponents have generally been growing, and are politically diverse. Conservatives worry that Common Core represents a takeover of Tennessee education from forces outside the state, and that it’ll have a “dumbing-down” effect on students. Teachers both here and nationally are also becoming increasingly suspicious of Common Core and want to see implementation slowed down.

While the Tennessee Education Association has declared that it “is supportive of (Common Core) standards, particularly with the focus on higher order thinking, problem solving and constructed response assessments as opposed to all multiple-choice,” the organization also supported the delay of PARCC and listed passage of the moratorium as one of its “legislative victories” for the year.

“We’ve been concerned about schools and school districts and teachers and students being prepared for the new assessment,” TEA President Gera Summerford told TNReport Friday. “Hopefully the delay will allow some time to do things well and do things better. I have heard from school districts as well as individual teachers that a lot of the districts have felt like they weren’t ready.”

Tennessee’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative organization that’s become increasingly active in the state’s politics over the last year, has made opposition to Common Core — along with resistance to the Affordable Care Act and promotion of tax cuts — a central issue of focus.

At a series of town-hall meetings around Middle Tennessee that the group hosted this week, AFP Tennessee’s director, Andrew Ogles, said the PARCC delay is clearly a win that Common Core critics can rally behind.

Ogles said one of the more objectionable things he hears Common Core supporters argue is that the system doesn’t have anything to do specifically with school curriculums. But if PARCC and Common Core are closely associated with one another, it’s inevitable that themes and priorities emphasized on the test are going to find their way into the classroom, he said.

“I like standards and I like testing,” said Ogles. “But they need to be standards that are created, owned and operated by Tennessee and the state Legislature. Right now, you have a system of standards that are basically under the control of the federal government — there are federal dollars tied to implementation. And you have a test, the PARCC test, which is copyrighted and owned by a private corporation.”

Ogles worries that if the state fully signs on to Common Core and adopts PARCC testing, parents and teachers will lose the ability to hold state and local elected leaders accountable for making changes to the system.

Haslam Kicks Off ‘Tennessee Promise’ Signing Tour

Gov. Bill Haslam visited the floor of a factory in Cookeville Tuesday for a ceremonial signing of his initiative to provide free community college or tech school to all Tennesseans who seek it.

The General Assembly put its stamp of approval on the Tennessee Promise legislation in overwhelming bipartisan votes last month. The measure passed 87-8 in the House and 30-1 in the Senate.

This week Haslam’s touring the state to talk up the new program, which he calls “a bold promise” that shows the state under his leadership is “fighting the rising cost of higher education.”

Under the Tennessee Promise, any graduating senior will be eligible for two years of paid-for tuition, provided they maintain a 2.0 GPA. Also while in school, they have to work with an education “mentor” and agree to contribute eight hours of community service.

“We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee,” Haslam said.

The governor plans to visit Jackson and Covington on Wednesday, Blountville, Knoxville and Chattanooga on Thursday, and Nashville on Friday.

Haslam said the company he visited May 13, Tutco, Inc., which manufactures heating-coil elements, was one of those that told him Tennessee ought to improve its education and training opportunities for graduating high school seniors if it wants to attract and keep industrial employers.

“I heard a pretty similar message no matter where I went, and that was, ‘We love being in Tennessee but we need a better-trained workforce,” Haslam said. “I heard messages from Tennesseans that, ‘I want to get further training, but cost is an issue to me.’ So that is what drove us to kind of come up with the dream of the Tennessee Promise.”

The governor unveiled the two-free-years proposal during his state-of-the-state address in February.

The idea behind the state tour this week is to “celebrate with some of the people who inspired the idea” when the governor traveled Tennessee two years ago on a brainstorming mission with business and education leaders to devise policies to enhance higher education opportunities with the hope of enticing more companies to the state.

The governor said getting people two years of “absolutely free” community college will go a long way toward putting a four-year college degree in financial reach for a lot of Tennessee students and families who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

Haslam didn’t have much comment about the news that state schools are looking to bump tuition next year, except to say the Board of Regents will have to make the call. The governor did suggest, though, that the Tennessee Promise is designed to help offset just those kind of upwardly creeping costs.

‘Tennessee Promise’ Passes House, Senate

A pledge Gov. Bill Haslam made earlier this year to offer free community college or associate’s degree-equivalent education opportunities to every student in Tennessee who graduates high school has won the General Assembly’s backing.

On an 87-8 vote Tuesday night, the House of Representatives approved the “Tennessee Promise,” a lottery-reserves funded initiative Haslam first floated back in February during his state-of-the-state address.

The new program is designed both to augment the rising cost of a college education for Tennesseans, and at the same time get more high-school graduates  into college and post-secondary career-training programs. The Senate passed the legislation 30-1 on Monday, with only Hohenwald Republican Joey Hensley opposed.

The Tennessee Promise is linked with the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative that’s aiming at increasing the number of graduating seniors who go on to earn a post-secondary degree of some sort. Currently, the percentage is around 32 but Haslam wants to see it get to 55 in the next decade.

The finding source for the new scholarship program will be a lottery-reserves funded endowment that’ll be overseen by the state treasurer, the state funding board and the chairs of both the House and Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committees. The “Tennessee Promise” program will be administered by the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick presented Haslam’s Tennessee Promise to the lower chamber Tuesday evening. He said the point of idea is “to increase enrollment and increase success after enrollment.”

Estimates are that 12,000-13,000 students “will apply and meet the requirements in the first year” of the Tennessee Promise’s existence, said McCormick. In the second year they are hoping for 25,000 or more, he said.

McCormick also said the Tennessee Promise is not “just another entitlement program.” The Chattanooga Republican said there are clear provisions within it requiring students who access the scholarships to perform academically, volunteer for community service and secure other sources of financing for their education. 

“It is important to note that the scholarship does not cover the full cost of books, supplies, room and board, transportation and personal expenses…it’s just for tuition in fees,” said McCormick. “So the student does have a financial interest and is expected to contribute to it.” He added that the scholarship will go directly to the institution and not the student.

All eight House lawmakers who voted against the bill were Republicans, including GOP caucus chairman Glen Casada and Lascassas Republican Joe Carr, who is challenging Lamar Alexander in this year’s GOP primary race for U.S. Senate.

Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, who voted against the legislation, said that he indeed does regard the “Tennessee Promise” as simply new entitlement program.

“This is one of the things that we talk about all the time, we blame Washington all the time for creating new entitlements, new entitlements, new entitlements,” he said.  “And that is what we are doing with this particular piece of legislation.”

Holt said he also worries the ultimate consequence of channeling more government funding toward post-secondary institutions is “we’re further distorting the education market.”

McCormick said he, too, is concerned that the cost of a college education keeps rising and doesn’t want to do anything to exacerbate that problem.

“I would say that tuition has gone up in states that have similar programs — ones that don’t lotteries, ones that don;t have lotteries — and I think that it is our job to keep a closer eye on it,” he said. “And we are going to have to keep doing that. That is a legitimate point and we need to work hard on that.”

Haslam Plan For Community College Prompts Questions

A plan by Gov. Bill Haslam to pay for two years of community college for Tennessee students has been met with questions over its potential costs and criticism that it erodes a successful scholarship program.

Haslam proposes to pay for the program, called Tennessee Promise, by setting up a $300 million endowment with lottery funds and reducing the amount freshmen and sophomores receive from the HOPE scholarship, from $4,000, to $3,000, while increasing the amount to $5,000 in the final two years of college.

In unveiling the program during his State of the State address, Haslam described it as “a bold promise” and said it would be the only such state program in the country.

“We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee,” Haslam said.

This year, in-state tuition and fees at UT Knoxville total $11,200 per year, not including housing. That’s about a fifth of the median family income in Tennessee, $54,700.

Under Haslam’s proposal, a student could enroll for two years at a community college courtesy of state taxpayers, then transfer and finish up a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school. The idea would be to make a four-year education less costly while giving students the same piece of paper from the same school.

The bill, filed last week, calls for proceeds above $10 million in the lottery fund to be transferred to a new endowment, with the earnings used to pay for the program. Presumably, the endowment could not be raided to pay for other lawmaker wish lists, but the Legislature would do well to make sure the purpose of any new fund is locked down tight.

A lawmaker who helped craft the state’s lottery scholarships has come out against the plan. Congressman Steve Cohen told the Tennessean that “high-achieving students beginning four-year degree programs” will end up with less money.

Questions remain, though. A recent WPLN story explored whether the funding mechanism is sound. Budget crunchers will have to predict the future costs of the program, the potential demand by parents and students, as well as the estimated savings from restructuring the lottery scholarship.

It’s also not known what effect a new incentive to head to community college would have on the costs at four-year schools in the state. With fewer freshmen and sophomores in lecture halls, would schools respond by trying to raise their fees faster than they would have otherwise?

The Chattanooga Times Free Press pointed out out that the lottery program itself ended up paying for less of the total cost of attending school over time:

At its peak, the maximum HOPE award covered about three-quarters of the average price of tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges in 2006-07. In 2012-13, the maximum HOPE award barely covered half of the average cost, according to a 2013 Tennessee Higher Education Commission report.

Haslam’s bill would incentivize scholarship students at the state’s four-year schools to finish on time.

Current law allows students to receive a HOPE scholarship until earning a bachelor’s degree or earning the number of semester hours for the degree — with funding also cut off five years after enrollment. The Haslam bill would cut off lottery scholarship funds at either 120 semester hours (15 hours per semester for four years) or completion of eight full-time semesters, whichever comes later. The bill would keep in place the five-year cutoff.

The Promise program follows other efforts by the Haslam administration to expand access to higher education, including a nonprofit, online college aimed at working adults and priced at $2,890 per full-time, six-month term.

Measure to Grant In-State Tuition to Children of Undocumented Immigrants Moves in Senate

A bill providing that American-born children of undocumented immigrants be eligible for in-state tuition at state-supported colleges and universities cleared the Senate Education Committee Wednesday on a 6-3 vote.

Senate Bill 2115 provides that students who’re still legally dependents of their parents would be classified as residents of Tennessee and charged in-state tuition if they’ve been in the state for at least one year prior to college admission and either graduated from a high school in the state or earned a Tennessee high school equivalency diploma.

During the hearing Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, questioned the fairness of the legislation. He suggested it would benefit one group that others cannot receive — favoring children of undocumented immigrants over the children of legal residents outside the state whose children may want to come to school here, or the children of parents who live here but have not established state residency.

“If we pass this, we’re going to be giving a benefit to people, where legal citizens don’t receive today,” said Hensley.

Hensley added that he believes the current system of treating illegal immigrants’ children the same as those students whose parents aren’t residents of Tennessee is fair and equitable.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, disagreed. “We’re not giving (students) a benefit. We’re taking away a penalty from them, a threshold that they can’t afford to go to school,” he said.

A related bill was rolled for two weeks because of a drafting error. Senate Bill 1951 would grant in-state tuition costs to undocumented alien students who live in Tennessee and who meet the academic standards of the HOPE scholarship and who have attended Tennessee schools for five years prior to graduating from high school.

Student Demand for Online Courses in TN Rising: Report

The number of UT Knoxville students taking distance or online classes has nearly tripled since the 2001 school year, a new report from the state’s Offices of Education Research and Accountability says.

The number went from 514 students in 2001 to 1,413 students in 2013 and is in line with significant growth nationally in interest in flexible, online ways to learn and get a degree. The report on online learning comes at a time when soaring student loan debt has captured the attention of politicians and the public — a problem BusinessWeek says may represent “the next big threat to the economy.”

The report doesn’t suggest the final word on that, but does track the early steps in an experiment undertaken by Tennessee and other states at affordable, online learning. Last year, state lawmakers put $5 million toward the establishment of a nonprofit, online school for Tennesseans who wanted to complete their degree. Students (who tend to be 25 or older) at this accredited online university pay about half what students at UT’s flagship campus in Knoxville pay in tuition:

“(Western Governor’s University) Tennessee’s tuition will average approximately $2,890 per each six-month term for full-time enrollment of at least 12 competency hours. By comparison, tuition and fees for undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville will total $5,597 per semester for full-time enrollment in 2013-14; tuition and fees for MTSU will be $3,920.34.”

A degree from WGU Tennessee can cost less as the student takes on more work, since pricing is set per term instead of per credit hour. Once a student establishes competency in a subject area, he can move on to the next class in the academic progression right away. That built-in financial incentive to finish efficiently should put college within reach of more working Tennesseans who want to stay out of debt. Online learning experiments are happening on Tennessee’s traditional physical college campuses, too.

The report documents the work to develop online courses through a collaborative of Tennessee’s public universities and technology center. In the high-growth field of nursing, the introduction of online coursework has provided students with more certainty that they can access the courses they need, even if a human at their campus is not available to teach the material that semester.

The report leaves open the question of whether students actually learn as well or better online, a question that the backers of MOOCs, or massive online open courses, are also struggling to answer. Also still to be measured is any cost savings estimate the state should expect from moving more coursework to the Web. Online courses cost more to put together on the front end than traditional, in-person courses, the report says, citing a study of the University of North Carolina’s online courses.

But if the UT Knoxville numbers are any indication, the demand for them is very real and likely to grow.

As to performance of students who participate in online learning, the report indicated that mixing remote coursework with in-the-classroom experiences may actually improve education outcomes over those who stick with classroom-only experiences. The OREA study  noted that the U.S. Department of Education has published research findings that suggest “students in online conditions perform moderately better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” Those conclusions, however, are disputed by some.

Last summer, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a memorandum of understanding that launched Wester Governors University in Tennessee as part of his “Drive to 55” effort to enroll more Tennesseans in higher learning curriculums.

Haslam: Improving Higher Ed Access a 2014 Priority

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that while he hasn’t finalized the particulars of his legislative agenda for 2014, higher education will clearly be a focus.

Haslam spent Tuesday in Murfreesboro talking up his administration’s efforts to encourage more Tennesseans to pursue an education beyond high school, emphasizing the importance of “higher ed” to economic development for the state.

“Government has a real role. One of the roles is to prepare the workers for the workforce,” Haslam told reporters after his announcement of an equipment grant of $625,007 to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro.

The grant is a portion of the $16.5 million in equipment and technology grants approved by the General Assembly last session for “workforce development programs” at Tennessee higher education institutions, a part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to “increase the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials,” according to a press release.

Haslam said he views these grants as a “great investment” for the state that “will mean even more jobs coming to Tennessee in the future.”

Although the general unemployment in the state is still fairly high, the governor said “we have an impending shortage of skilled laborers in Middle Tennessee.”

In order to address that, and entice more businesses to relocate to the state, Haslam said that one of his administration’s top legislative priorities in the upcoming session will be improving access to higher education. “I think you’ll see a real focus on higher ed; both making certain that we have the job preparation programs, as well as we have to have a way that we can encourage more Tennesseans to attend school after high school, and so I think you’ll see some things around making that more affordable as well,” Haslam said after the grant announcement.

The governor also touted the importance of an increased number of degree-holding Tennesseans as necessary to continue job creation and economic development across the state at a luncheon event with the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce later that day.

The governor went down the list of programs enacted and laws passed in the name of enhancing the state’s economic status, and praised efforts to improve education – both K-12 and post-secondary – along with recently passed tax cuts, workers comp and civil service reform and his administration’s push for more exports.

Although the state’s business climate is one generally approved of by companies looking to relocate, a common complaint has been that Tennessee lacks in workforce development and has consistently ranked somewhere in the “40s” in education nationwide, Haslam said.

But the state has been working to improve that statistic, and with the release of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores last month showing Tennessee as the “fastest growing state in the country,” it appears that the educational improvement efforts have been paying off, the governor said at the luncheon.

“It’s a really big deal when the commissioner of education in New York says, ‘If we work really hard we can be like Tennessee,’” Haslam said. “That’s a big deal, and that hasn’t been said a lot.”

U.S. Education Czar Extols Tennessee for Leap in NAEP Scores

President Barack Obama’s top education official on Thursday afternoon heaped praise on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration’s public school reform efforts in Tennessee.

Arne Duncan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, joined Haslam on a conference call with reporters following the governor’s announcement earlier in the day that Tennessee had earned the title of fastest improving state on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings.

While Tennessee has consistently ranked near the bottom of states in math and reading scores measured on NAEP, sometimes referred to as the “national report card,” this year the state posted a 22-point gain. That’s “the largest growth of any state in a single testing cycle since NAEP started nationwide assessments a decade ago,” a press release from the Haslam administration noted.

Duncan, who called the nation’s scores as a whole “encouraging but modest,” commended the Volunteer State for “a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment.”

“Tennessee has become a model for the nation in improving student achievement, through collaboration and comprehensive efforts that keep students’ best interests at heart in every single decision,” said Duncan.

“We know there is still a lot of hard work in front of us, but this is absolutely a day of celebration for the students and hardworking educators in Tennessee,” he added.

Tennessee is by no means now a national leader in education outcomes overall. The NAEP scores only measured reading and math proficiency for 4th and 8th graders, and despite the gains the state still ranks in the bottom half of the country. But Tennessee was the only state, in addition to the District of Columbia and Defense Department schools, to show significant, across-the-board improvement on the report card.

On the national education political stage, that makes Tennessee’s success a story worth highlighting for the Obama administration, which, like the Haslam administration, has encountered criticism on a number of fronts for its school reform efforts.

While Duncan took care to pay tribute to Tennessee’s teachers and students for their heavy lifting in the classroom, he also made a point of saluting change-committed “officials” who “have shown courageous leadership in taking bold action.”

Duncan delivered an express declaration of approval for Tennessee’s Department of Education commissioner, who’s been the target of sustained criticism by dissatisfied factions of teachers and district-level administrators unhappy with his methods and management approaches.

“Kevin Huffman is doing a fantastic job,” said President Obama’s education czar.

But Duncan reserved his glossiest accolades for Haslam himself, of whom the secretary said he’s “always been a huge fan.”

“There are many, many smart governors around the country, but quite frankly few have his level of commitment and courage to take on the tough issues in education. And his work is not easy, it is difficult, it is complex, it is controversial,” said Duncan. “I am sure there have been times when the governor’s political advisers urged him not to do something, but I have never seen him waiver, ever, from what he thought was right in his heart for Tennessee children.”