Haslam: 2015 Could Be Year for Vouchers

Legislation that allows a limited number of parents of kids in districts with poor performing schools to access taxpayer dollars to in turn enroll their children in private schools looks on track to finally pass the General Assembly, Gov. Bill Haslam suggested Monday.

“I feel good about where we are in terms of where the bill is,” Haslam told reporters in Nashville following a morning speech at the Army Aviation Association of America Conference. “Now, from here to actually getting the ship into port is always difficult, but I actually do think there’s a really good chance we will get it passed this year.”

The measure, Senate Bill 999 — sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire — is up for a vote in the full Senate this evening. It was originally scheduled for a floor vote last Thursday, but was rolled to Monday.

The House version — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the Government Operations Committee. That measure last week cleared the Education Administration and Planning Committee on an 8-5 vote. Two Republicans — Kent Calfee of Kingston and Jim Coley of Bartlett — voted against the bill, joining Democrats Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, Kevin Dunlap of Rock Island and Johnnie Turner of Memphis. John DeBerry of Memphis was the lone Democrat on the Committee who joined seven Republicans voting in favor of the bill.

The proposal would create opportunity scholarships for any low income students receiving their education within a district that contains a school in the bottom 5 percent of statewide education institutions.

Vouchers legislation has has at times in the past looked to be headed to passage in the General Assembly only to die in the late going. Last year a bill stalled in the House in mid-April.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Dunn: Vouchers Not Dead, Just Delayed

School-voucher legislation passed the Senate Finance Committee on a 9-2 vote Tuesday morning, but was “taken off notice” in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee later in the day.

But that shouldn’t be taken as an indication that he’s getting cold feet, the House measure’s sponsor, Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn, told TNReport.

“Don’t read anything into that,” Dunn said.

Several education committee members were absent from Legislative Plaza who want to weigh in on the issue, and Dunn said he desires that the legislation get a robust hearing and full committee vote.

Dunn said he took the bill off notice instead of “rolling it” because House rules tend to discourage simply delaying the vote on a bill multiple times if it is otherwise “on notice” for a committee hearing. Taking a measure off notice and later calling it up again translates to a smoother parliamentary maneuver, said Dunn, who also chairs the committee that schedules bills for votes on the full House floor.

Dunn said he intends to press ahead with his voucher or “opportunity scholarships” bill in the education committee next week.

The Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, however, issued a press release Tuesday indicating they see the voucher bill’s “failure…to advance” as a hopeful sign that it’s floundering, or maybe even dead in the water.

Similar legislation authorizing vouchers passed the Senate last year, but failed in the House.

The legislation, HB1049/SB0999, would grant opportunity scholarships to low income students in schools districts with a school in the bottom 5 percent of statewide education institutions.

Those voting for the Senate’s measure — sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga — in the Finance Committee were Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, Mark Norris, R-Collierville, John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, Reginald Tate, D-Memphis, Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

Sens. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville and Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, voted the voucher bill.

Alex Harris can be contacted at alex@tnreport.com.

School-Voucher Bill Moving Forward in Legislature

The debate on school choice is underway in Tennessee Legislature and one measure, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, is working its way forward.

Last week the Senate Education Committee approved the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, on a vote of 8-0.

Senate Bill 999 would provide scholarships for private-school tuition to low-income students in the state’s worst-performing public schools.

The total number of vouchers the state would award would gradually increase from 5,000 available scholarships in the 2015-16 school year to a peak of 20,000 from the 2018-19 school year forward. The fiscal note on the legislation indicates a cost of $125,000 for the Department of Education to implement the policy.

The House companion legislation — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also easily cleared the House Education Planning & Administration subcommittee last week on a vote of 7-1, though not without debate.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat who is also a teacher, said the “gains and strides” made in education the last few years would be endangered by potentially removing $70 million from local school district. Dunlap said he’s “very, very concerned about the future of public education” as a result.

Rep. Dunn said critics of school vouchers, like Dunlap, appear more interested in protecting the status quo and putting “the emphasis on the system” rather than focusing on academic achievement outcomes.

“I’d like to put emphasis on the student,” said Dunn.

The Tennessee Education Association, many local school officials across the state and most Democrats in the Legislature have steadfastly opposed enabling parents to spend public monies on private education for their children.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers. I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools,”said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the Memphis Daily News in February.

A February 2013 MTSU Poll found that while 46 percent of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, 40 percent favor the idea and 12 percent were undecided at the time.

Dunn’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in full Committee next Tuesday. Gardenhire’s Senate bill is assigned to the Finance Committee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Another school choice proposal, sponsored by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not received as warm a welcome.

Both Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey have said that Kelsey’s legislation is unlikely to be funded, even if it passes the Legislature.

Haslam told reporters during a press conference last week that Gardenhire’s proposal was in line with what he’s indicated the administration would be willing to fund, and as such, he intends to fund that legislation rather than Kelsey’s more expansive plan.

While both Kelsey and Haslam are supporters of vouchers, they have clashed over the scope of such legislation in the past. In 2013, Ramsey pointed the finger at Kelsey as to why the voucher bill failed in the Senate. Kelsey had indicated earlier that year that he wanted to amend Haslam’s proposal to extend it to more Tennessee students.

McQueen Outlines Education Department Priorities

Tennessee’s new commissioner of education this week delivered her first formal presentation to a state legislative committee, laying out a series of goals she said will help the department build on “major education strides” of the past several years.

Prior to taking over for Kevin Huffman, who stepped down as commissioner last month, Candice McQueen served as a Lipscomb University vice president who specialized in “teaching teachers.” She told members of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday that one of her prime concerns as Tennessee’s top public-schools official will be to ensure that teachers are given what they need to succeed.

There’s been much attention paid lately to measuring teacher effectiveness in Tennessee classrooms. McQueen said the next necessary step is to pay more attention to helping teachers improve.

“Although teachers have performance evaluations, sometimes they still do not have access to the tools they need to get better,” said McQueen, who served as Lipscomb’s College of Education dean. She said better systems of “professional development” and “instructional feedback” can be implemented to “allow teachers to consistently improve.”

At her first press conference back in December after Gov. Bill Haslam tapped her to lead the Department of Education, McQueen promised she’d spend a lot of her time listening to the diverse concerns offered by people from varying backgrounds and perspectives across the state.

During the committee hearing Tuesday, McQueen reiterated that pledge, adding that she’s firmly committed to working closely with local districts to win their confidence in to the department’s statewide goals.

“Empowering districts” is a key strategic aim for the department under her leadership, McQueen said. The department is vowing to “provide districts with the data, support, and autonomy they need to make the best decisions for their students,” she said.

Local school district leaders and employees across Tennessee face a range of different challenges, but they also themselves possess an unsurpassed  understanding of their particular circumstances, McQueen suggested.

“Districts are best at making the decisions about what they need and what their teachers and students need,” said McQueen. “So we will do more to provide flexible systems so that they can make decisions about how they will best meet the goals that have been put forth.”

McQueen also noted that some districts are experimenting with teacher-performance pay schemes, and the department will encourage those efforts. “We would like that to continue and will support districts in making those decisions,” she said.

She lauded the gains the state’s made the past four years. “We are the fastest improving state in the nation in graduation rate. We should feel very confident about that,” said McQueen, who took over for Huffman on Jan. 20.

But in keeping with the Haslam administration’s “Drive to 55” initiative and the new free-community-college program called Tennessee Promise, more focus is needed on preparing students for post-secondary education.

Echoing the governor in his state-of-the-state address Monday, McQueen noted that people with college and technical school degrees are more likely to be employed and have much higher earning potential than Tennesseans with high school diplomas alone. The department has set as one academic performance goal lifting the average Tennessee student’s ACT score from its most recent level of 19.3 to 21.

Haslam’s Drive to 55 plan is to raise the proportion of Tennesseans who have completed college or tech school from roughly 33 percent now to 55 percent in 2025. A little know fact is that Tennessee is already among the fastest improving states in America for high school graduation rates, McQueen said. “This is a testament to the great work that is being done,” she said.

A component of putting the state on a path to achieve the Drive to 55 goal is better prepping students for college in high school with more “rigorous coursework.” Also, “the handoff between high school and post-secondary is weak,” she said, adding that Tennessee Promise has aspects designed to aid new-to-campus college students to help them transition and acclimate to an unfamiliar learning environment.

“We have to look at what are they doing past 12th grade and into the workplace,” she said.

One of the education themes that both Haslam and former Commissioner Huffman often emphasized over the past four years is that every child has a potential for learning. McQueen said the department will redouble a policy of “all means all” by offering “individualized support and additional opportunities for students who are furthest behind.”

“A majority of Tennessee students are economically disadvantaged, and large numbers are members of racial minority or other high need groups,” said McQueen. “Tennessee cannot succeed as a state unless these students are successful.”

Like Haslam on Monday, McQueen didn’t mention the controversial topic of Common Core by name in her presentation before lawmakers — and none of them asked her about it — but she reiterated her support for “having high standards” and “having aligned assessments.”

Mixed Response to Obama’s ‘Free’ Community College Plan

President Barack Obama unveiled a proposal to provide two years of community college tuition-free to “responsible students” Friday at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville.

The plan, called “America’s College Promise,” is inspired in part by Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” and Rahm Emanuel’s “Chicago Star Scholarship.”

“A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” Obama said. “It is the key to getting a good job that pays a good income, and to provide you the security where even if you don’t have the same job for 30 years, you’re so adaptable, and you have a skill set and the capacity to learn new skills, it ensures you’re always employable.”

The College Promise initiative creates a “partnership with states to help them waive tuition in high-quality programs for responsible students,” and also promote “key reforms to help more students complete at least two years of college,” according to a White House fact sheet.

The main thrust of this idea is a proposal to eliminate the tuition for community college students who “attend at least half-time, maintain a 2.5 GPA while in college, and make steady progress toward completing their program,” according to the official release. This will enable students to earn a two-year degree or half of the academic credit needed for a four-year degree.

Technical training programs across the country would also be expanded.

“I want to make it free,” Obama said in Knoxville Friday. “Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it., because in America, quality education cannot be a privilege that is reserved for a few.” Obama emphasized that students had to be willing to work hard if they wanted to maintain the benefit. “There are no free rides in America, you would have to earn it,” he said.

Community colleges are all about “the idea that no one with drive and discipline should be left out of opportunity,” Obama said. “And certainly that nobody with that drive and discipline should be denied a college education just because they don’t have the money.”

Federal dollars would fund 75 percent of the program, and the states would be expected to produce the remaining funds. Community Colleges would also be expected to adopt reforms to improve student outcomes.

“Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today,” Obama said.

A proposal for the free community college plan will be sent to congress in a few weeks, he said. “I hope that Congress will come together to support it,” because it’s not a partisan issue, but “an American issue.”

No details have been given as to the plan’s expected cost. However, with official estimates that the program will affect around 9 million students if all states participate, and an average tuition savings of $3,800 a year for full-time students, the Tennessean has estimated the program’s cost could top $34 billion a year.

The president lauded Tennessee’s “incredible strides” in improving education, including “Tennessee Promise” — the inspiration for the name of Obama’s program — which he said was the first time “in decades” a state had offered free community college to students.

But one of the Volunteer State’s Democratic U.S. representatives– Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis — has been critical of Haslam’s plan that “siphons” funds from the HOPE Scholarship, which is funded by the Tennessee Lottery. “The people who mostly benefit from his plan are people who didn’t make the grades in high school and are higher than the average income. That’s not exactly who you should be looking to benefit in society, the low-achievers and the affluent. I think it’s just a total sham,” Cohen said in an interview with the Murfreesboro Post in October.

In an official statement Friday, Cohen said Obama’s plan was more akin to his HOPE Scholarship program than it was to the “Tennessee Promise,” which is “a last-dollar scholarship without standards” to help students attain and maintain assistance. According to Cohen, Obama’s “highlighting” of an “unproven” last-dollar scholarship program rather than the proven HOPE Lottery program, meant “the president is looking at the hole and not the donut.”

Responses to Obama’s free community college plan from various Tennessee political quarters are below:

 Statement from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; January 9, 2015:

“The president recognizes that good things are happening in Tennessee.  We are proud of the Tennessee Promise.  It is changing the culture of expectations in Tennessee by encouraging more students to pursue a certificate or degree beyond high school.  The Tennessee Promise is focused not just on access but success in terms of making certain that students actually attain their degree.  We think having a mentor available for the students is an important part of achieving that success.

“Regarding the specifics of the president’s plan, we look forward to seeing more details in the coming days about the cost of the program and how it will be covered.”

Statement from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; January 9, 2015:

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today released the following statement on President Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal:

“The right way to expand Tennessee Promise nationally is for other states to do for themselves what Tennessee has done. Then, instead of creating a new federal program, the federal government can help in two ways. First, reduce federal paperwork for the ridiculous 108-question student aid application  form which discourages 2 million Americans from applying for federal Pell grants that are already available to help pay community college tuition. Every Tennessee Promise applicant has to fill out this form. Second, pay for the millions of new Pell grants that will be awarded if other states emulate Tennessee Promise and if Congress reduces federal paperwork and allows students to use Pell grants year-round.

“The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state’s community college students already have a federal Pell grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800-per-year tuition. The state pays the difference–$500 on average. Nationally, in 16 states, the average Pell grant pays for the typical student’s entire community college tuition.”

Alexander is chairman of the Senate education committee.

Statement from U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. 01; January 9, 2015:

Today, Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) released the following statement after President Obama announced a proposal to make community college free for some students:

“It’s disappointing President announced yet another new government program with no clear plan to pay for it during his visit to Tennessee. The president was right to hold up Governor Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan as an effective way to prioritize higher education, but a better way to expand access to college would be to encourage states to follow Tennessee’s example and find state-based solutions that work for their citizens, not create another expensive, one-size-fits-all federal program.”

Rep. Roe serves on the House Education and Workforce Committee where he chairs the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.

Statement from U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. 02; January 9, 2015:

Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.) released the following statement Friday regarding President Obama’s education announcement in Knoxville.

The federal government is in terrible financial shape, and we simply cannot afford this program nationwide with a current debt of more than $18 trillion and very high yearly deficits.  The State of Tennessee, however, is in good financial shape and can support such a program on its own.

I am also worried this proposal could result in the end of incentives for community colleges to hold down costs for all students.  Historically, whenever the federal government subsidies anything, the costs explode.  When the federal student loan program was created, schools began raising tuition rates and fees much more than the rate of inflation each year.

The only way to get college costs down for everyone is to reduce federal loans at colleges and universities that do not hold their tuition increases to the rate of inflation or less.

Statement from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. 03; January 9, 2015:

Today, President Obama arrived in Tennessee to make an announcement regarding the launch of two new initiatives. After the President’s announcement, Rep. Fleischmann made the following statement.

“Tennessee has an exceptional business climate, and thanks to local workforce development efforts and public-private partnerships, manufacturing is growing in East Tennessee. We are fortunate to be home to some great educational institutions, research facilities, and amazing companies. This outstanding work has garnered recognition from the Department of Energy, which, in conjunction with universities and non-profits, has announced the launch of the new Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Advanced Composites. I am glad the President took the time today to come see all that is happening in East Tennessee. I am hopeful he will work with the new Congress to help businesses continue to grow through mechanisms like this public-private partnership.”

Statement from U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. 06; January 9, 2015:

Congressman Diane Black (R-TN-06) released the below statement on President Obama’s proposal to offer students free tuition for the first two years of community college. The concept is based on the “Tennessee Promise” initiative.

“As a first generation college graduate and a former educator, I desire to see every student have an opportunity to pursue higher education,” said Congressman Diane Black. “But the President must understand that the solutions we have adopted in our state, like Tennessee Promise, work because they are done the Tennessee way, not the Washington way. Tennessee Promise is a state-led initiative designed to meet the unique needs of our students. The program is paid for by a lottery reserve fund that will allow us to continue balancing our budget each year and will not result in added costs to hardworking taxpayers. By contrast, the President’s proposal appears to be a top-down federal program that will ask already cash-strapped states to help pick up the tab.”

Rep. Black added, “While the White House says that three quarters of the program would be paid for with federal funding, I have yet to hear what offsets, if any, would be proposed to ensure Americans are not saddled with greater debt and deficits as a result. Will the President offer proposals to make his plan budget-neutral, or will he attempt to charge it to the credit card? Ultimately, any efforts to reboot Tennessee Promise as a one-size-fits-all nationwide approach will be met with heavy skepticism from Congress.”

Background:

Signed into law in May 2014, the Tennessee Promise program offers to pay the first two years of community college or technical college tuition for high school graduates in the state of Tennessee. The program does not cover tuition costs for returning adults. Tennessee Promise matches participating students with a mentor to help navigate the college admissions process and requires participants to maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service per term enrolled. Tennessee Promise protects taxpayers from being left on the hook for the cost of the program by including language authorizing the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) to make adjustments to award amounts in the unlikely event that revenue from the state lottery reserve fund is insufficient to cover its full cost.

According to the White House blog, under the President’s proposed initiative, “Federal funding will cover three-quarters of the average cost of community college. Participating states will be expected to contribute the remaining funds necessary to eliminate the tuition for eligible students.”

Statement from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; January 9, 2015:

Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) supports President Obama’s intention to expand access to higher education, which the President plans to announce in Tennessee today.  Congressman Cohen is pleased that many aspects of the President’s plan are similar to the Tennessee HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program that Congressman Cohen, as a Tennessee State Senator, led the 2-decade fight to create.  The Tennessee Education Lottery has provided more than $3 billion in education funding to Tennessee students.  However, Congressman Cohen has expressed his concerns that the President will today highlight the new Tennessee Promise program. Footage of Congressman Cohen speaking on the House floor this morning about the President’s visit to Tennessee is availablehere, and columns penned by the Congressman about the flaws of Tennessee Promise are available here and here.

“I share the President’s goals of making college more affordable and ensuring educational opportunity for all. However, his plan has more in common with the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program that I worked to create than the Tennessee Promise program,” said Congressman Cohen. “Tennessee Promise is not what it appears to be. It is a last-dollar scholarship without standards to attain assistance and without reasonable standards to maintain that assistance. In taking its funding from the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program, Tennessee Promise takes money from achieving low-and middle-income students and directs it to more affluent, non-achieving students.”

By requiring students to maintain a reasonable minimum grade point average (GPA) and achieve high standards in order to continue to receive assistance, President Obama’s community college proposal is more closely aligned with the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program that rewards high school performance than the Tennessee Promise program which is a “last dollar” scholarship program. The bulk of the education dollars that Tennessee Promise depends upon are federally funded Pell Grants and HOPE Education Lottery scholarships.

However, because of overly cautious estimates when the enacting legislation was passed and since, the Tennessee General Assembly has never fully funded the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program but has, instead, allowed excess funds to sit idle in the state’s coffers, encouraging politicians to raid the HOPE scholarship funds for purposes other than intended and understood by Tennessee citizens. The current and largest, most damaging raid on lottery funds is the Tennessee Promise program is fully funded by lottery revenue. The excess funds could have been used to increase the means-tested portion of the HOPE Education Lottery scholarship program, making the funds more effective in helping those who need it most.

“By highlighting the Tennessee Promise, an unproven $14 million “last dollar” scholarship program rather than the proven $250 million Tennessee Education HOPE Lottery program, the President is looking at the hole and not the donut,” said Congressman Cohen.

Statement from the Tennessee Republican Party; January 9, 2015:

Just as predicted by Tennessee Republican Party ChairmanChris Devaney in his op-ed in yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel, PresidentBarack Obama will in fact propose two years of paid tuition for graduating high school seniors during his visit to Knoxville later today.

The TNGOP released the following statement from Chairman Devaney about the proposal:

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but the President’s attempt to repackage the Tennessee Promise into a national initiative only gets it half right.

“While Tennessee was able to create the program without new appropriations or increased taxes, President Obama appears to be keen on maxing out America’s credit cards and forcing states to pay a portion of it as well. White House aides are already describing the cost as ‘significant’ to American taxpayers.

“In contrast, Tennesseans aren’t losing a penny on the Tennessee Promise. Without a realistic way to both balance our federal budget and ‘show us the money’, the President just looks eager to pile up more debt.”

Background

  • As reported by Tennessee news outlets, The Tennessee Promise “is a last-dollar scholarship. The state will pay any excess tuition after other financial aid, besides loans, has been utilized at the state’s community and technical colleges. The program is funded through a $300 million transfer from the reserve account of the Tennessee Education Lottery and a $47 million endowment that was created by the General Assembly in 2013.”
  • Chairman Devaney’s KNS op-ed stated, “(I)t should surprise no one if the President proposes a federal version of it (the Tennessee Promise). But, to do so in any meaningful way, he would have to get America’s financial situation to look more like Tennessee’s prudent fiscal state.”
  • The Hill reports White House aides describing the cost of the President’s proposal as “significant” to American taxpayers.

Excerpt from the Kingsport Times-News, “Ramsey: Obama no help to Tennessee Promise,” Jan.9, 2014:

…(Lt. Gov. Ron) Ramsey and Republican members of Congress charge the federal government can’t and shouldn’t pay for a nationwide tuition-free program, which Obama has billed “America’s College Promise.”

The White House said the federal government would pick up 75 percent of the program’s $60 billion cost and the final quarter would come from states that opt into the program.

“They don’t worry about paying for it,” Ramsey said of the Obama administration. “They say ‘It’s a good idea, let’s do it and let our grandkids pay for it.’ If they take over our Tennessee Promise, we’ll wonder: What happened to that program?”

Ramsey also suggested Obama’s Knoxville appearance might caused problems for Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” Medicaid expansion plan.

“Barack Obama has like a 32 percent approval rating in the state of Tennessee, and he and the governor are going to be on every (state) newspaper,” Ramsey said. “That doesn’t help perception, and in politics perception is reality.”

Passage of Citizenship Civics Test May Become a Prerequisite for Earning High School Diploma in TN

The Tennessee General Assembly will be one of several state legislative bodies this year to consider requiring that, in order to graduate, high school students pass the same civics test that immigrants take to earn U.S citizenship.

Gerald McCormick, the state’s House majority leader, is sponsoring the bill. Too many kids are graduating high school who “don’t have a basic understanding of their government and of their country and of their state.”

“I think it’s important that high school students go out into the world somewhat informed about their government, so that they’ll be more likely to become active in the community,” the Chattanooga Republican told TNReport this week. He added it would be “a very basic requirement that reflects what our new immigrants coming into the country have to know.”

Oftentimes new immigrants seem more knowledgeable about American history and government than people born and raised here, McCormick said. “And probably a lot of them are more appreciative of the opportunities here, because they’ve seen places where they don’t have the types of opportunities that we have here, and we take them for granted sometimes.”

The legislation — HB0010/SB0010 — would require students who attend and graduate high school after January 1, 2016, to pass the 100 question civics exam by getting at least 60 questions right. Schools would be required to provide as many opportunities as needed for each student to pass.

According to the bill’s official summary, “No student may receive a regular high school diploma unless the student has passed the test.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris is sponsoring the legislation as well.

An editorial from the right side of the Chattanooga Times Free Press opinion page lauded the legislation, pointing to the abysmal answers by average Americans to U.S. History trivia questions on the “Jaywalking” segment of Jay Leno’s TV show.

Additionally, at least seven other states will likely consider similar legislation this year.  States where legislation was announced last fall include Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah.

The legislation has been pushed by the Civics Education Initiative, a partnership between the Joe Foss Institute and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, which launched its effort to encourage better civics education for American students on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 2014.

‘Listening’ Tops Priority List for Lipscomb’s Dean McQueen in New Role as TN Education Dept Chief

Gov. Bill Haslam’s choice to take over for departing state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is a resident Tennessean and a Nashville university professor who says she’s passionate about bringing out the best in both students and teachers.

Candice McQueen, dean of the Lipscomb University College of Education, was named the next head of the Tennessee Department of Education Wednesday. She’ll assume Huffman’s duties on Jan. 20.

Huffman, who moved to Tennessee in 2011, often clashed with teachers and local district administrators as he served as point man for the Haslam administration’s education overhaul. He announced last month that he wouldn’t be sticking around for the governor’s second term.

Haslam is hopeful that McQueen, who is quite literally a teacher’s teacher, can ease some of the resentment felt by those who believe Huffman neither put enough energy into understanding day-to-day classroom challenges nor adequately consult with teachers and local district officials about their concerns over new policies.

“Lipscomb’s college of education has consistently produced some of the very best teachers in our state,” said the governor as he introduced McQueen during a state Capitol press conference on Dec. 17. Haslam indicated he’s optimistic McQueen’s background and experience will ensure she earns’ teachers’ respect while demanding they commit to maximum professional effort.

“There is nothing really that is more critical to us than making certain that our teachers have the right preparation and we have someone leading our department that can play a leadership role there,” said Haslam.

McQueen herself taught kids in elementary and middle school, he said — so she therefore “brings the experience of being a teacher, as well as preparing teachers to teach.”

McQueen listed “listening” as her first priority. She said she “looks forward to actually driving across the state, and meeting with the great people that are working as educators.”

“I want to meet with superintendents, certainly legislators, and I want to listen to parents and school leaders to hear from them what is working, and what do we still need to do,” she said during her prepared remarks. “We are going to stay focused on what we know already works, and we are going to continue to make the progress we have already made in Tennessee.”

In general, McQueen said she believes “Tennessee is headed in the right direction, and we need to remember that.”

She noted the state’s top national status in 2013 as most-improved in the area of student achievement. Both McQueen and Haslam lauded Commissioner Huffman for his focus on lifting learning expectations in Tennessee classrooms.

But McQueen also shares the governor’s worry that too many young adults in Tennessee often lack adequate academic preparation to successfully make the jump from high school to higher ed. “I know firsthand what college readiness looks like from my experience,” McQueen said. “I also know the struggles, the financial implications and the sense of failure that occurs when students come to college not prepared.”

“Every Tennessee student needs to be college- and career-ready when they leave high school,” she said.

And therein lies one of the areas that’ll likely provide McQueen an early political challenge. “I want to make sure that we have standards that are at the level they need to be to ensure that more students are ready for college, and what is after college,” she said.

Over the past year, Common Core has become what’s likely the hottest topic of controversy in American public education. McQueen will be dealing with many Tennessee lawmakers, parents, teachers and local school board members who oppose the nationally focused K-12 math and reading benchmarks.

Like the governor, McQueen has been a vocal backer of Common Core. How she handles diverse viewpoints on the thorny issue may set the tone for her tenure as the state’s highest education official. When the matter came up during her first Q&A with the press Wednesday, McQueen said she’s steadfastly “in favor of high standards,” but added that “the forms that they take is somewhat irrelevant.”

Common Core in Tennessee is currently undergoing a review that the Haslam administration initiated this fall in response to growing public and political dissatisfaction with it. And McQueen was among several outspoken Common Core promoters the governor picked to serve on the review committees assigned to “gather input and make recommendations” about Common Core and academic standards in general for Tennessee’s government-run K-12 system.

The goodwill, deference and confidence she can expect from lawmakers in her first year on the job — particularly among Republicans who made opposition to Common Core an issue during the last legislative session and the subsequent election season — may depend a lot on how McQueen navigates that minefield.

Asked by a reporter if she thinks Common Core has been “misunderstood,” McQueen hesitated for a moment, then responded, “Potentially misunderstood.”

“That’s a very difficult question, because that would be individually dependent on whether that’s been misunderstood, or folks feel like they haven’t understood it well,” she said.

McQueen added, “I think that at this point we need to be talking about the standards review process and making sure that’s done remarkably well, and that at the end of it we are very proud of the work that’s been done, and we have Tennessee academic standards that are in place that we can all share in responsibility for assessing and doing and working and making sure our classroom teachers are doing those things well.”

Haslam Encourages More Input from Higher Ed on K-12 Standards

Gov. Bill Haslam told an audience in Washington, D.C. gathered this week for a White House-sponsored discussion on innovations in higher learning that professionals in the post-secondary education world should give more input on K-12 performance standards.

Haslam said higher ed’s expertise in the area of student academic preparedness is sorely needed to help simmer down rancorous disputation over Common Core, the nationally focused education standards program that’s been the subject of a bipartisan backlash in Tennessee and across the country.

The governor described the Common Core battle as “a huge argument going back and forth.”

“Unfortunately, it has mainly turned into a political argument that is taking place on talk radio,” he said.

Voices of reason need to make themselves heard above the din of discord, suggested the governor. And higher ed is one of those that needs “a louder megaphone in the discussion,” he said.

Haslam was invited to the White House’s College Opportunity Summit specifically because of Tennessee’s new program to offer free community college to all the state’s graduating high school seniors, and more generally because the Republican governor has become something of the U.S. education czar’s pet.

Tennessee’s governor appeared on the stage Thursday with four other panelists: Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore County; Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University; Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist and robotics inventor; and Candace Thille, an assistant professor specializing in online learning at Stanford University. The talk was moderated by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council

Haslam delivered the biggest laugh line of the session when he self-deprecatingly remarked that his role in the discussion was “to bring down the IQ of the panel.”

In describing the state’s free-community-college initiative, Haslam said encouraging more students to go to college is only the first step in promoting higher academic achievement. A key aspect of the “Tennessee Promise” is that it provides incoming freshmen with academic mentors to help them acclimate to and hopefully blossom in the campus environment — often an entirely foreign place to students who may be the first in their families to attend college.

Haslam said giving students guidance on even “really simple, practical things” can make a huge difference. “The free tuition is a big deal, I think an even bigger deal is that we have set up a mentor program that is fairly low-demand for the mentors, but incredibly helpful to the mentees,” said the governor. “We have been piloting this for six years in (Knox County), and those students – and almost all of them are first-generation college students — are getting their 2-year degrees at a higher rate than the the average of the students not involved in the process.”

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said Haslam’s point about getting college professors and university curriculum designers more involved in discussions about K-12 academic standards makes obvious sense. The better prepared students are before they get to college, the better their chances of post-secondary success, he said.

“When we think about how to move the needle in terms of college attainment or education attainment in Tennessee, there is probably no other one thing that we could do that would make a bigger difference than to have students ready to go to college when they come to college,” said Morgan. “Right now, 70 percent or so of students who come to our community colleges aren’t ready for college level work.”

Timing Not Right to Promise Teacher Pay Bump: Governor

Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s Republican governor, told reporters this week he’s not presently comfortable pledging a pay raise to teachers in 2015.

On the one hand, the governor on Wednesday said he acknowledges that “we’re asking more of them than ever.” And rewarding teachers for gains students are making is something he wants to see happen.

But, Haslam added, “It is too early to say what we will have funds to do.”

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is calling on the governor and lawmakers in the GOP-dominated General Assembly to OK a six-percent across-the-board boost in pay for pubic school educators.

“Governor Haslam has said he intends to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in terms of teacher pay,” said TEA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder in a press release. “Teachers are eagerly anticipating his budget hearing on Friday to see if he will start living up to that promise.”

The association asserts that teacher salaries haven’t kept pace with inflation since Gov. Haslam took office in 2011. Crowder alleges there’s an ongoing “povertization of the teaching profession in Tennessee.”

“When you factor in rising insurance premiums, some Tennessee teachers’ salaries are worth less now than they were when Haslam took office,” she said. “We are hopeful that the governor will rectify this situation and include a desperately needed raise in his proposed budget.”

Last year Haslam said increasing teacher compensation at a rate that leads the nation is one of his administration’s education policy priorities. However, a pay raise didn’t ultimately make it into the state government’s school spending package. “We were restricted by budget funds, what we could do,” Haslam said this week.

The governor added that as far as raises go, he’d still “like to do that” in the coming year. “But the ability to do that, and to what degree — obviously we will have to wait and see, and it’ll depend on the revenues of the state,” said Haslam.

The governor is in the midst of holding public hearings on various department budgets. He’s scheduled to hear the Department of Education’s spending proposal on Friday afternoon.

Obama Praises Lamar Alexander for Being ‘Focused on Getting Stuff Done’

Fresh off a successful re-election campaign in which Lamar Alexander promised that going forward he’ll be a pugnacious foil to Barack Obama’s liberal agenda, the president praised Tennessee’s senior senator by name at a bill-signing this week.

In the Oval Office Wednesday, President Obama described Alexander and Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, as “some pretty productive legislators who actually have focused on getting stuff done,” USAToday reported.

The occasion was the president penning his signature to the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014. The legislation is a “reauthorization” of an existing program that a press release from Sen. Alexander’s office said will “expand access to and improve the quality of child care for the more than 1.5 million children.”

Alexander said the program, which the release described as having “been due for reauthorization since 2002,” would “help nearly 21,000 Tennessee families not only afford to enroll their children in child care, but be able to choose the care that is best for their family.” In a Nov. 17 floor speech just prior to the measure passing 88-1 in the Senate, Alexander said the CCDBG Act exemplifies legislation that Republicans “especially like” because it “is a block grant to the states, which gives states flexibility with a minimum number of federal rules.”

It also “includes vouchers” that the recipients can use to “choose among (their) various options for child care,” he said.

“It is exactly the kind of legislating that we ought to be doing in the internet age,” said Alexander. “It doesn’t mandate from Washington, it enables from Washington.”

Obama indicated that it tends to please him when Democrats and Republicans work together to send him legislation.

“I love signing bills,” the president said, adding that he’d “like to do it more often.”

Obama’s remarks could indicate he also likes the prospect of working closely with Alexander when the GOP takes charge of the Senate in January and, as is widely anticipated, Tennessee’s ranking U.S. Senate lawmaker takes over for Harkin as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

At the signing ceremony Harkin noted to President Obama the CCDBG Act was the 21st bill over the past two years that he and Alexander had teamed up on to guide through the HELP committee and get passed into law. Obama responded, “Well, that’s because you and Lamar are some pretty productive legislators who actually have focused on getting stuff done.”

Throughout his re-election campaign bid, Alexander and the TNGOP portrayed the former governor as a stalwart opponent to the president. On the other hand, Alexander’s unsuccessful challengers in the primary and general election, former Republican state Rep. Joe Carr and Democrat Gordon Ball, a Knoxville attorney, argued that Alexander has in fact tended to operate and vote more cooperatively with the administration than he was letting on in his campaign.