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Fitzhugh: State Charter Authorizer ‘Mother of All Unfunded Mandates’

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; April 3, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Republicans pushed through a state charter authorizer after killing an amendment by Leader Fitzhugh that would have set in place financial guardrails to protect local taxpayers from a tax increase.

“This bill, without guardrails, is the mother of all unfunded mandates. It will give a state bureaucracy the power to create an unlimited number of charter schools, which will result in massive tax increases on local governments,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. “I offered a common-sense amendment to help protect taxpayers, but the special interests behind this bill override common-sense.”

HB702 by Rep. White (R-Memphis) will create a new state bureaucracy to oversee appeals of charter schools denied by local school boards. In the third substantive change to the bill since it was introduced, the new language limits the panel’s authority to school districts which are designated “priority” districts. During the committee hearing, Leader Fitzhugh noted this would be duplicative and a waste of taxpayer funds. The Achievement School District already has the authority to authorize charters in districts who perform in the bottom five percent of the state.

“This is a bad bill that keeps getting worse as the sponsors wheel and deal behind the scenes to pass something – anything – regardless of whether it will improve the performance of students in our district,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville). “I am deeply disappointed that Commissioner Kevin Huffman worked behind the scenes to kill the amendment that would have protected taxpayers in Davidson County and across Tennessee. The fact that he refused to even meet with local school board members in Nashville shows his level of contempt for Davidson County taxpayers and elected officials.”

The charter authorizer bill passed out of the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee on a voice vote, and will move on to the full committee next week.

House Dems, Labor Advocates Request Haslam Delay Workers Comp Overhaul

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; April 2, 2013:

House Democrats are joining with workers’ advocates to ask Governor Haslam to delay HB194 until 2014, until the Department of Labor can get its house in order

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – House Democrats joined with workers’ advocates today to call on Governor Bill Haslam to delay the workers’ comp overhaul package until 2014. This call comes after a report by the Tennessee Comptroller which shows gross mismanagement in the Department of Labor, the division of government that would be tasked with taking over the workers compensation review process under Gov. Haslam’s proposal.

“The lives of too many working people in Tennessee are at stake for the Governor to rush through drastic changes to the workers’ compensation system,” said State Rep. Joe Towns (R-Memphis). “If we get this wrong, or the Department of Labor can’t handle the workload, the families of working men and women will go hungry as we sort out these new changes.”

The House Finance Ways & Means Committee is scheduled to hear HB194, the Governor’s proposed overhaul of the workers’ compensation system, today at 3PM. This legislation would take workers’ compensation claims out of the hands of an impartial court system, and turn it over a new bureaucracy within the Department of Labor.

“It is time for Governor Haslam to pump the breaks on this runaway freight train,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “This is an incredibly complex system that we are completely changing and it has simply sailed through the legislature with very little overview or review. Working families will suffer if we don’t slow down and get this right.”

On March 28, Comptroller Justin Wilson released a scathing report which showed that the Department of Labor’s “internal controls…were ineffective or non-existent” with regards to the state’s unemployment insurance system. Democrats worry that the same mismanagement could result in injured workers being denied legitimate claims, which could cause working families to go hungry or homeless as a result of the changes to our workers’ compensation system.

Gilmore, 5 Other Nashvilleans to be Honored by Teamster International Black Caucus

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; February 4, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Representative Brenda Gilmore (D-54) will be honored by the Teamsters International Black Caucus on Saturday, February 23, 2013. Rep. Gilmore is being honored for her tireless commitment to working families and African-Americans in Nashville and Tennessee.

“I am proud to be honored by a group of individuals so dedicated to improving the lives of working people in my district,” said Rep. Gilmore. “When working men and women join together with a common purpose, there is nothing that can stop them.”

Rep. Gilmore will be honored alongside five of Nashville’s Black History Leaders for their commitment to “Education and Accountability.”

Tommy “DR. B” Barnes
Retired Teamsters Local 480 BA & Member

Carolyn Hunter
Retired Teamsters Local 480 Pension Clerk

Gary Gray
Teamsters Local 480 Member UPS Massman

Sam Smith
Retired Educator and Coach of The Continental TBells

John Patton
Metro Police Officer and UNA football Coach

The 1st Annual Awards Banquet of the Nashville & Middle Tennessee Valley Chapter of the Teamsters National Black Caucus will be held at the Holiday Inn (Opryland/Airport) 2200 Elm Hill Pike on Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 7PM. Tickets to the banquet can be reserved by calling Tammy at (615) 316-1052.

House Democrats Demand Answers from K12 for Virtual Academy’s ‘Pitiful’ Math Scores

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; January 29, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Virtual Academy, the state subsidiary of K12, Inc., came under heavy scrutiny in a House Education Committee hearing earlier today over the poor academic results that have been seen in Tennessee and nationwide.
During the hearing Josh Williams, Head of Schools for the Tennessee Virtual Academy, and Megan Henry, Deputy VP of School Development for K12, Inc., struggled to explain why students in their program performed at much lower levels than the statewide average, and how they were going to improve results going forward.

Calling the math scores “pitiful,” Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) asked for an example of which of the 30 states K12 operates in would be considered their “shining star”. In response, Deputy VP Henry pointed to states such as Colorado and Georgia which she claimed had “some good academic results.”

Both Colorado and Georgia’s virtual schools programs have come under fire for poor performance results and accountability in recent months. In November of 2012, the Georgia Department of Education threatened to pull the Georgia Cyber Academy’s charter for reasons such as the “failure to obtain individualized education plans special education students are taught from, problems in resolving parental complaints and failure to offer the individualized instruction special education students are eligible to receive under federal law[1].”

In Colorado, their Virtual Academy operated by K12 – which has been in operation for 12 years – has been criticized for “a pattern of multiple years of low growth, low proficiency, failure to close student achievement gaps between student sub groups and unacceptable graduation rates,” according to the Adams 12 Five Star Charter School Liaison Patti Gilmour[2].

In addition to questions about performance, Rep. Harold M. Love Jr. (D-Nashville) questioned why the costs of tuition are higher in Tennessee than in other states, asking, “does the internet cost more, does it cost more for computers?” The Representative of K12 responded that “each state is funded differently, some states are funded at a higher level, and some states are funded at a lower level.”
North Carolina recently voted to cap state payments to K12 at $3,504 per pupil[3], compared to the $5,302 per pupil that is paid in Tennessee, raising the question as to what extra value Tennessee is achieving with the extra $1,798 per student.

Calling the poor performance over the last year “unacceptable,” Rep. Pitts asked that the K12 administrators “dig down, because we have done a lot over the last 5 years in education reform in this state, and this is a setback, so I would admonish you to pay attention.”

Video of the House Education Committee hearing can be found here: http://wapp.legislature.state.tn.us/apps/videowrapper/default.aspx?CommID=840000

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If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Press Secretary Sean Braisted at 615.741.1100 ext. 44424 or email at sean.braisted@capitol.tn.gov.

[1] Washington, Wayne. “Georgia DOE blasts Georgia Cyber Academy, threatens to pull charter in report.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. November 20, 2012. http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local-education/georgia-doe-blasts-georgia-cyber-academy-threatens/nTBmZ/

[2] Hood, Grace. “Colorado Virtual Academy Answers Tough Questions on Operations, Academic Performance.” KUNC Public Radio. January 17, 2013. http://www.kunc.org/post/colorado-virtual-academy-answers-tough-questions-operations-academic-performance

[3] Ovaska, Sarah. “Online charter schools to get less money, show results.” The Progressive Pulse. January 10, 2013. http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2013/01/10/online-charter-schools-to-get-less-money-show-better-results/

Rep. Gilmore Travels to Regional Green Schools Event

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; December 12, 2012: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (December 12, 2012) – Rep. Brenda Gilmore (D-54) joined fellow lawmakers from around the country at the Green Schools Regional Roundtable on November 29, 2012 in Lancaster, Penn. The conference, sponsored by the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, examined effective policy solutions from around the country that put children’s health and education first.

“This was a great opportunity to see some of the innovative policies put in place by other states and cities to create a more energy efficient school system,” said Rep. Gilmore. “Not only can we protect the environment, but by investing in green technologies, we can devote more money to teaching our children down the line.”

The Center for Green Schools, which put together the conference, was established to drive the transformation of all schools into sustainable and healthy places to live, learn, work and play.

House Dems Unveil ‘Alternative’ Plan for State’s ‘Excess Money’

Democrats in the House of Representatives are looking to dish up a bigger slice of tax cut for Tennesseans who purchase their groceries in the state.

During a Legislative Plaza press conference Thursday, Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, caucus chairman Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, and other party members laid out a plan to put ballooning state revenues toward restoration of rations to existing government programs in addition to further reducing the state’s tax on food items.

The Democrats’ “responsible alternative” to Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget offering hinges on their calculations that the state has “over $200,000,000 in excess revenue not being accounted for in the administration’s budget.” Fitzhugh said the $200 million figure Democrats are using is based both on higher-than-expected revenue collections over the past year, and the assumption that the economy will continue improving.

“I am not saying you should spend it all, but a budget should have the plan for what you are going to do with it — if you are going to place it in the rainy-day fund, if you are saving it for a project next year, if you are going to refund it in the way of tax reductions, something,” he said. “It should have some plan attached to it — that’s the whole purpose for having a budget.”

“The economy is better, but it is certainly not out of the woods yet,” added Fitzhugh, a banker and lawyer from Ripley. “And to just sit on $200 million dollars doing nothing except earning a treasurer’s rate, which as we know is not much right now, it seems not as responsible as we could be.”

The Democrats unveiled a roughly $100 million wish list of government programs and spending they’d like to see added to the new state budget, including more money for college scholarships, community colleges, technology centers, TennCare, K-12 education and assistance programs for the disabled.

“The alternative budget is balanced; it does not use all the excess revenue available and maintains a $50,000,000 contribution to the state’s rainy day fund. The plan also calls for using cash in lieu of proposed bonds on capital outlay projects, saving taxpayers 30 percent to 40 percent in interest rates over the life of the bonds,” according to a press release issued by the House Democratic Caucus.

“It’s not just spending for the sake of spending — it is spending that we have done before,” said Fitzhugh.

And they want to phase in a full 1-penny-on-the-dollar cut in the grocery tax over the next four years.

Earlier this month the House of Representatives voted 96-0 to cut Tennessee’s tax on grocery purchases from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent. The Senate’s version of the measure  hasn’t yet reached the chamber floor. Gov. Haslam has indicated he’s open to cutting the grocery tax further in coming years should the economy keep improving.

House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart said Thursday the majority party isn’t too interested on first glance in the extras Democrats say they’d like to plate up in the 2012-2013 budget.

“As usual, when additional money comes in, the first thing Democrats want to do is find new ways to spend it,” the Hendersonville Republican said through a spokesman. “While they have a right to propose initiatives for worthy causes, (House) Finance Chairman Charles Sargent has worked with the administration to develop a comprehensive balanced budget plan that cuts taxes and reduces wasteful government spending while meeting the priorities of Tennesseans.”

Fitzhugh indicated it probably wouldn’t shock him if Republicans don’t adopt the Democrat’s alternative budget. Nevertheless, he noted that at least with regard to the grocery-tax cut that’s already passed in the House this session, Republicans were initially resistant to the plan before ultimately coming around to support it.

“I don’t want to get ‘D’ and ‘R’ here, but the original food-tax proposal was a ‘D’ proposal,” Fitzhugh said during the press conference.

The House Democratic leader later told TNReport.com that while Republicans and Democrats may differ philosophically over the relative equity and benefits of large, targeted tax cuts for the few — namely, cutting the estate tax, which the House also voted to do last week — versus lightening burdens like the food tax that all Tennesseans bear, both parties agree that it’s always good to find ways to encourage Tennesseans to shop here rather than across state lines.

Justin Owen, president of the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee in Nashville, said his organization is primarily interested in finding creative and sustainable ways to “cut government spending, not enhance it,” so they don’t find the Democrats’ proposals for increased program funding all that appetizing.

“When government collects more revenues than projected, it should return it to taxpayers, not spend it,” he said. And as far as the debate over what kind of tax cut ultimately provides the state with greater economic benefit, “a food tax cut will not make anywhere near the economic impact as eliminating the death tax or rolling back the Hall tax (on stock income and dividends),” Owen said.

But the Democrats’ idea of increasing the size of the food-tax cut certainly ought to be considered seriously, he said.

“Cutting the tax on food to be competitive with bordering states is a worthy endeavor,” Owen said. “A lower food tax could potentially lead to other states’ residents shopping for groceries in Tennessee rather than the other way around.”

Dem Chairman Turner: Republicans ‘Don’t Want Public Education to Exist’

Press Release from the House Democratic Caucus, May 19, 2011:

Bill would strip the ability of Tennessee teachers to effectively negotiate contracts

(Nashville) – The Tennessee House of Representatives passed an anti-teacher bill Wednesday that continues an effort to strip teachers of their ability to effectively negotiate for better classrooms for students and better working conditions for their profession.

“This bill is a dishonest effort to reach an agreement with the Senate that will destroy all rights of more than 52,000 Tennessee teachers to negotiate for better classrooms, wages and learning environments for Tennessee students,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner (D-Old Hickory). “This is an attack on Tennessee teachers; nothing less.”

The anti-teacher bill, which is expected to pass the full Republican-controlled legislature in another form, will decrease the rights of teachers to effectively negotiate a contract covering their salary, benefits, working conditions, school safety, class size, planning time, time to teach, length of the school day, scheduling and other priorities.

“This is a political game; the Republican majority is calling it a ‘reform,’” Turner said. “They simply don’t want public education to exist in this state at all. This is a vote to take away our teachers’ ability to better their careers, their family life and most importantly the learning environment of Tennessee students.”

The bill will now head back to the Senate and subsequently a conference committee with the House. The conference committee is expected to fully strip the rights of teachers to better their careers and the learning environment for Tennessee students.

Opponents of the bill argued that the brightest college students will simply choose professions other than teaching, or move out of Tennessee.

“We’re asking all citizens, especially our teachers, their families and their friends to call the state legislature and ask their House and Senate members to vote against the final form of this bill.”