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Haslam Expects Voucher Dialog in ’13 Regardless If He’s On Board

Expect lots of discussion about whether taxpayers should send students to private schools on Capitol Hill next year, Gov. Bill Haslam said Thursday.

The governor said the state needs to have a serious discussion about a school vouchers program, but said he’s still undecided whether he’ll throw his full support behind a proposal due to him later this fall. A Haslam-appointed task force stopped short of firming up details of a proposed plan Wednesday.

“A lot of it depends on what it looks like. Let’s get the very best form, see what it looks like for Tennessee, then we as an administration will decide where we’ll be on that,” Haslam told reporters after a Nashville economic development announcement.

The state task force is still torn on key aspects of a proposal to use taxpayer money to pay for students to attend the private, parochial, charter or non-zoned public school of their choice. Major sticking points range from when the system would kick in to which students could cash in.

“You can get the policy right but still screw things up on the ground,” said Chris Barbic, a task force member and superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District, an arm of the state Department of Education charged with turning around failing schools.

Barbic, who founded a successful charter school in Texas before joining the Haslam administration in 2011, said he knows the state is juggling a handful of education reforms right now but said there’s no use in waiting to come up with a voucher plan.

“Parents get to figure out where they buy bread and toothpaste, and we’re going to limit their options on where they send their kids to school?” he said. “I have a hard time with that.”

The Republican-led General Assembly is anxious for the recommendations of the task force after the governor put off the issue of offering “opportunity scholarships” this year in favor of more study about what a voucher program would look like in Tennessee. Speakers of both chambers say they, too, expect vouchers to be a key issue in the 2013 legislative session.

Adopting a voucher concept would further the school choice movement in Tennessee, piggy-backing on a handful of charter school reforms over the last few years that lifted the cap on the number of allowed charter schools and opened enrollment beyond low-income and academically struggling students.

Choices are good, said Indya Kincannon, vice-chair of the Knox County Board of Education, who also sits on the task force. But the goal needs to be improving educational outcomes rather than simply offering choice, she said.

A teachers’ union representative said the state may be biting off more than it can chew, given this month’s fallout between the Department of Education and the second largest school district in the state over the high-profile denial of a charter school. On Capitol Hill there has been more talk of the state bypassing local school districts and taking over the entire approval process for new charters.

“The education reform plate right now is quite full,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union. “To be moving in the direction of trying to take more money from public schools, subsidize wealthy people for private school tuition, it’s definitely moving in the wrong direction.”

Among issues up for debate within the task force are:

  • Should students be eligible for vouchers based on their family’s income, their academic record or the performance of their school or district?
  • Which private schools could students attend? How long would such schools have to be operation to be eligible to accept vouchers? And how would they test students and report their progress to the state?
  • Should the state limit the number of vouchers issued? How many should the state permit?
  • Is there enough time to implement the plan for the fall 2013 school year? And should the program go statewide or launch as a pilot program?

The panel expects to meet again in late October to firm up recommendations to hand to the governor in November. Haslam has said the results of the proposal must show more than an “incremental difference” in education outcomes in the state to win his approval. The governor told reporters Thursday he’s not sure how to measure that, yet.

Pressure Builds Over State-Local Control of Charter Schools

Republicans who laud government that stays close to the people are finding themselves in a pickle now that a local school board has bucked state law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education ignored orders by the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district last week — the second such rebuff in a month. The Metro schools board contends that the first of five schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

The Great Hearts dispute has exposed Republican leaders to criticism that they espouse local control only when it suits their aims.

“This whole thing just flies in the face of Republican philosophy when you have the big bad state coming down telling the local school board they have to comply with the law,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has been resistant to the emergence of school choice.

Charter schools have enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and his education department. The administration’s agenda for reform has included tougher standards for teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

Metro schools’ refusal to grant Great Hearts permission to open a school has sparked statewide debate over whether local approval is best. Great Hearts announced that it would not challenge the Metro schools’ decision.

“It’s really been kind of shocking to watch a government openly acknowledge and violate the law,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Disgusted by the ongoing feud, Throckmorton and other charter school advocates are pushing for the state to assemble an outside agency to review and approve charter school applications, allowing charter operators to leap-frog over the local school district.

Details on how that system would operate are still in the works.

Throckmorton says local school districts should still be involved with discussions about pending charter schools. But politics are getting in the way of opening quality schools that could find more effective ways to teach children, he said.

Opponents of the idea say locally elected school board members — rather than a handful of appointed officials in Nashville — should decide whether a charter school is the right fit for the district and the community.

“I think people are wanting to make this an example to justify their intent to make a statewide authorizer,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association which is opposed to charter schools skipping over local officials. “Often you hear the best decisions are made on the ground. (State approval) would totally fly in the face of that mentality.”

Several top state officials are staying quiet on the matter, including Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who in August said the state would take “appropriate action” to see to it that Metro schools approved the charter school.

He declined to comment on the latest denial for Great Hearts, although emails obtained by the City Paper indicate he was keenly interested in getting the application approved and has engaged in discussions about the need for a statewide authorizer.

The governor’s office has also been silent on the issue, although officials say they were waiting for Haslam to return from his economic development trip in Japan last week. Prior to Metro schools’ first rejection of the Great Hearts application, Haslam said he saw no need to develop a state panel to approve charter schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham has also declined to comment.

But Republican legislative leaders who have repeatedly offered messages about the importance of local control hint that they’d be open to a plan giving the state more power.

“I am extremely dismayed that the Nashville School Board is focused on limiting parental choice and educational opportunity for children,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told TNReport in an email. “It is unfortunate that the board seems mired in the old education politics while the rest of the state is moving forward.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed, calling the decision by MNPS “simply a mistake for our children” and saying the Legislature “will revisit this issue” when they come back in January.

“We believe in local government and local school boards. But when they don’t give opportunities for our children, then that’s a problem,” she said.

Charter schools are privately-owned but publicly-funded. Supporters say they offer more flexibility to innovate and create choice and competition, while detractors say they drain public money and students, leaving traditional public schools with the students hardest to educate.

Charter school performance is generally mixed. Last school year, two charter schools ranked among the best performing institutions in the state, while five other charter schools reflected some of the worst student academic records statewide.

Tweaks to State Teacher Evals Planned

Tennessee education officials are revising the freshly implemented teacher evaluation system following criticism that it fails to adequately grade teachers who instruct in subjects not tested at the state level.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says he expects to reveal by mid-July how the department wants to assess teachers of subjects like art or younger age groups not subject to standardized testing. He declined Wednesday to comment on the changes, saying it was still subject to “internal discussion.”

The Department of Education is expected to announce that revision before it releases its own study of the evaluation system next month, said Huffman. He said he expects several of their proposed changes to kick in for the upcoming school year.

“We’re trying,” Huffman said, “to improve a system that has not generated the kind of student results we all wish it would. So it’s incumbent on everyone in the system every year to get a little bit better.”

Teachers now have half their evaluations based on student test scores. Of that, 35 percent is based on student improvement as measured by the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System — which relies on standardized state tests — and 15 percent is based on test scores from the course.

The other 50 percent of the evaluation is based on teacher observations.

The evaluations are used to determine whether to grant teachers tenure, and successive poor evaluations can lead to dismissal. They were first used in the 2011-12 school year.

Teachers and their advocates have complained that the evaluations give an inaccurate assessment of teachers in classes not subject to standardized testing.

The criticism emerged last year and was pointed out again in a recent report from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a non-profit advocacy group that spent the spring surveying teachers across the state and talking to educators nationwide about how to most accurately grade teachers.

Teachers in subjects not tested can opt to have that portion of their evaluation rely on school-wide test scores or other big-picture measures, which they argue they can’t directly control.

“This whole idea of using school-wide data to evaluate teachers is just ludicrous,” said Jerry Winters, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. “I think that’s a huge weakness in this system. It puts the whole evaluation process, in my opinion, in jeopardy.”

Winters says the evaluation system could make it easy for school leaders to remove teachers in subjects like music and history when their low evaluations are based in part on test scores they had little to do with.

The SCORE report suggests that school districts give those teachers the option to be graded more heavily on their classroom observations than test scores.

“I don’t really see any other way of doing that,” said Lt. Gov Ramsey, who said he could go along with that plan. “The observer has a lot of power, or flexibility… but I do think that observation on teaching methods is about the only way to evaluate that.”

Huffman declined to comment on the merit of SCORE’s suggestions, saying only that those issues were being discussed and recommendations would be made public before the agency submits its report to the Legislature July 15.

With “room for improvement” in today’s evaluation system, House Speaker Beth Harwell expects to see some level of testing required for each subject in order to give all teachers exams to base a portion of their evaluations on.

“You can’t hold teachers accountable for a subject outside of their own. That’s first and foremost,” she said.

Harwell predicted some changes would call for legislative action next year, but doubts lawmakers will reach beyond what the Haslam administration ultimately recommends.

“The whole point of the evaluation system was not to punish anyone, but to look for ways to make our educational system better,” the governor said last week.

“The intent was to make certain that the evaluation process next year is better than this year,” Haslam told reporters. “The alternative is just saying, ‘Everything’s not perfect. We’re going to throw it away.’ I reject that idea. So the idea is, we’re going to work to make it better.”

Winters says anything short of substantive changes this year will mean “we’re going to have a lot of folks throw up their hands in frustration.”

SCORE handed the Haslam administration seven recommendations. The other six include:

  • Train future teachers and school leaders on the evaluation system.
  • Pair teacher evaluations with “meaningful” professional development training.
  • Keep accountable the school leaders charged with assessing teachers and developing effective teaching.
  • “Re-engage educators” in districts where teacher evaluation faltered in first year.
  • Link implementation of teacher evaluations and Common Core standards, which have been adopted by the great majority of the states to set educational benchmarks in English, reading, math and science.
  • Drive continued improvements at state, district and school levels.

Many Friends, Many Enemies

Updated at 3:38 p.m. 

Rep. Debra Maggart insists she’s a shoo-in to win her GOP primary against retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Courtney Rogers.

But that’s not stopping the House Republican Caucus chairwoman from asking party bigwigs like Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to take the time to campaign locally on her behalf.

While Haslam has indicated he’d probably be inclined to support any GOP incumbent this election season, Maggart in particular was “critical” to the administration’s legislative efforts this year — “really helpful,” the governor told reporters recently.

“As a caucus leader, sometimes when you’re the leader, you take a little added heat and pressure from folks. And we wanted to support her, and it worked out well,” Haslam said.

Over the past two years Maggart has deeply angered two influential constituencies that, while they may not typically be aligned politically, do share a recognized ability to get sympathetic Tennesseans to the polls on issues they hold dear.

Those two groups are stalwart gun-rights advocates and unionized teachers. And both would love to see Maggart spend the 2012 general election season wondering what she needs to do to make a political comeback in 2014.

Both the Tennessee Firearms Association and the National Rifle Association have made their displeasure with Maggart widely known.

Maggart, along with other high-ranking House GOP lawmakers, prevented a bill from coming to the chamber floor that would have granted legal protections for certain government-licensed gun owners to keep a firearm stored in their vehicles parked on their employers’ property — even over the objections of the employers themselves.

The NRA and TFA described the legislation as necessary to ensure a gun-owning employee can enjoy a “safe commute” to work and not be subject to an employer’s demand that he or she choose between keeping a gun locked in the car or keeping a job.

Should such a powerful incumbent as Maggart fall in the primary, it would send a message to other Republicans that snubbing the NRA and TFA comes at a cost.

For the Tennessee Education Association, a Maggart loss in the primary would offer a glimmer of hope in what has otherwise been a dismal past couple of years legislatively.

The union is still fuming over Maggart’s instrumental leadership in eliminating collective bargaining for teachers in 2011 and would delight in playing a role in her ouster in 2012, said TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters.

The association has yet to endorse a candidate in the District 45 primary but is considering pointedly reminding Sumner County teachers that they’ll soon have a golden opportunity to cast a powerfully meaningful vote against Maggart, Winters said.

“We’ve got a lot of teachers who identify as Republicans, but I think that they are starting to be much more aware of how individual legislators vote on these education issues,” he said.

Primary elections are open in Tennessee, meaning that voters can cast ballots in whichever party primary they choose.

Rogers, Maggart’s primary opponent, told TNReport she likely herself would have gone along with moves to reduce the TEA’s influence in contract negotiations. But Rogers added that she is “concerned about our teachers” and believes it “important that teachers are taken care of and feel that they’re appreciated.”

Maggart insisted to The Tennessean newspaper recently that attention surrounding her race is somewhat overblown, saying “I don’t know if I would characterize it as a legitimate primary challenge.”

The representative, who contacted TNReport after this article was posted, took issue with the suggestion she predicts she’s a “shoo-in” for re-election. But she stressed that she’s “confident” voters in her district will keep her in office because she’s been active in her community, worked hard to champion conservative issues in the Legislature and had been consistently involved in the Republican Party — credentials she says Rogers lacks.

“I have a good idea about what makes a legitimate candidate,” she said, adding Rogers had only $3,600 in her campaign war chest as of March. According to campaign finance records, Maggart had $86,000.

Maggart also said she’s long been active within GOP and said Rogers is new jumping on the Republican band wagon.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to get involved in the Republican party,” Maggart said. “I believe the people in my district know that I’ve done a good job.”

But Maggart still asked Haslam to headline a reception and fundraiser for her last week and asked Ramsey to come, too, to attend and lend his support. He said “it felt good” to be there for Maggart’s event, adding there was a “huge crowd.”

“Obviously, for some reason, Debra became the focal point of NRA’s misplaced anger, and so it doesn’t surprise me at all that her opponent got the endorsement,” said Ramsey.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, says she, too, is confident in Maggart’s re-election and doesn’t take any issue with lawmakers soliciting primary election support from the governor.

“I think he wanted to indicate his support to Debra, who’s been supportive of some of his initiatives, and I think that was a very gracious use of his time,” said Harwell.

Haslam said he hasn’t gone through the list of Republican incumbents with primary challengers to determine which ones he’ll spend his time campaigning for.

“Right now, there’s certainly not an incumbent that we’re planning on working against,” he said.

Asked if she worries all the notable politicians lining up to support the incumbent will ultimately prove an insurmountable advantage for her opponent, Rogers said not really.

“I don’t think any one of them votes in this district,” she said. “I’ll just take it with a grain of salt.”

SCORE: Prioritize Principals

Tennessee’s in the throes of implementing various teacher- and classroom-focused reforms, but an area that’s fallen through the cracks is better training and support for school principals, reports an influential state education advocacy group.

Cultivating good principals and continuing to train them are among the top four education issues the state needs to focus on in the next year, concluded the State Collaborative for Reforming Education in the 2011-2012 installment of its “State of Education in Tennessee.”

Prominent education-focused lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they agree.

“Any school you go into, you’re going to find that that school is just as strong as that principal,” said Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the House Education Committee Chairman.

Over the last year, SCORE says the state has made “little progress” on developing a strategy for grooming and developing people to lead schools, that “more work remains to ensure that there is a statewide pipeline of effective school and district leaders.”

“District partnerships with colleges and universities, as well as non- profits and businesses, provide opportunities for building leadership pipelines that can be leveraged to broaden the pool of candidates to lead schools throughout Tennessee,” the SCORE report’s executive summary suggests. “In particular, small and rural districts should consider creating a principal pipeline through consortia models in collaboration with institutions of higher education, as these systems often lack the personnel or capacity to build effective pipelines of their own.

Better prepping of principals is an issue Tennessee’s faced for several years, said Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, who heads the Senate Education Committee.

“It’s not fair to people to put them in positions that they’re not prepared for, and we want to make sure that our principals are prepared for the jobs that they must do, that we expect them to do,” Gresham said.

The lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers’ union agrees.

“You cannot have a good, strong school without a good, strong principal,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. “Particularly with the emphasis on teacher quality and evaluation, you’re going to have to have principals who know what they’re doing and have the time to do it, which is a huge problem right now.”

Other issues identified by SCORE include policy leadership, focused professional development for teachers and strengthening training for the state’s future teachers, according to the group’s report, issued Tuesday.

SCORE is soliciting feedback and data on the state’s new teacher evaluation system, in use for the first time this school year. The group’s study, which is due to the governor by June 1, is in response to anxiety among educators, who point to numerous weaknesses and concerns about how they’re graded.

Montgomery says the results of that study will also help determine how the state — including the Legislature — can give principals more of the tools they need.

“That’s going to help us and give us a lot of the information. Where are the weak links? Where do we need to really concentrate our effort to get the best bang out of our buck, so to speak?” he said.

TEA Opposes Haslam’s 2012 Education Reforms; GOP Lawmakers Moving Forward Nonetheless

Lawmakers say they’re hearing concerns about the governor’s plan to authorize more local control on class size and teacher pay, but they predict the outcry will not be as heated as last year’s.

“We’re going to work real hard to get some consensus. Everybody may not agree 100 percent, but I think we’re going to be doing some moving here before we do anything to make sure everybody’s kind of on board and is fairly happy with it,” said House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville. “If everyone is unhappy with it, we may have even done a pretty good job.”

Gov. Bill Haslam wants to give local school districts the discretion to disregard existing pay scales based on longevity or degree accumulation and instead set their own teacher salary plan. He also wants each district to have the power to set class size restrictions for itself.

“The change in anything is painful. It is. I understand that. We’re in the middle of some of those growing pains right now. The worst thing in the world to do would be let our foot off the pedal,” Haslam told civic and business leaders in Cookeville Monday.

Lawmakers last year raised the bar on how teachers reach tenure, built in grading scales to measure teacher performance and eliminated mandatory collective bargaining over teacher contracts.

Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said members of her education committee haven’t dug through the governor’s new bills yet, but she’s heard some public criticism of the legislation centered on potential changes, in particular with respect to class sizes.

“Most teachers and parents are concerned about the classroom issue. They want effective teaching, and an effective teacher can just do more with fewer students,” said Senate Education Committee member Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “People see that more as a direct problem for results than the merit pay issue.”

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says it’ll push back against the governor’s latest initiatives as vigorously as they did with last year’s GOP-sponsored reforms. In 2011, the TEA held protests and rallies that turned out teachers by the dozens to sometimes thousands.However, the legislation they were protesting passed, albeit without much Democrat support.

“I think it’s a huge political battle that’s shaping up,” said Jerry Winters, the TEA lobbyist. “It caught us off guard. I think it caught a lot of legislators off guard.”

Haslam Cool to State ‘Authorizer’ for Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam led the movement this year to take the shackles off Tennessee charter schools so they can play a bigger role in education, but he says he’s as yet unwilling to grant them their next wish — a statewide board to OK their applications.

Charter school advocates argue they’d rather have the state or some independent body OK their applications instead of local school boards, which they see as too hesitant to embrace nontraditional education initiatives.

But Haslam said he won’t give away powers now reserved for local school districts to anyone else — at least until he can gauge how successful his developing charter school reforms turn out.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve put in place. Let’s see how this works for a year or two before we do anything else,” the governor said.

Lawmakers this year removed the caps limiting the number of charter schools operating in the state and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Critics of charter-school expansion, like Jerry Winters, executive director of Tennessee’s largest teachers union, charge that the state is essentially writing charters a “blank check” to do what they want.

Officials also gave the state’s Achievement School District the power to approve charters in areas serving students who attend the state’s 13 lowest-performing schools.

But leaders in the charter school community, who met on Capitol Hill Friday, want more. They say a state-level process for “authorizing” or approving charters will create the operational stability the current system lacks. Applicants now who are denied locally can appeal the decision to the state Board of Education.

“We have a number of districts that don’t like charter schools but they have applications,” said Matt Throckmorton, who heads up the Tennessee Charter School Association. “It’s a situation where if we had a statewide authorizer, we could have a very consistent high-standard, high-quality application process, and therefore the applicants that are approved in those communities will be good charter schools and will be accepted much quicker.”

About a dozen charter school leaders rallied around that idea, although final details of what the association will pitch next legislative session will be worked out by the end of the year.

Sister Sandra Smithson of the Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville made it clear the authority shouldn’t rest with those in charge of failing schools.

“We need multiple authorizers, or at least one or two other choices as possibilities, and people with proven track records in education for bringing about substantive change,” she said. “I do have a problem trusting myself to a system that doesn’t work.”

The decision to authorize charter schools should stay within the district, Lee Harrell, a lobbyist with the Tennessee School Boards Association, told TNReport. He said he’s afraid the discussion is beginning to pin one type of school against the other.

“I fear we would abandon the mentality of traditional schools and charter schools working together,” said Harrell.

The Volunteer State is home to 41 operating charter schools with four others preparing to launch next school year.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report.

House Reverts to Scaled Back Collective Bargaining Plan

House Republicans are, for now, sticking with a bill that limits labor union influence in teacher contract negotiations with local school boards.

But even though House Bill 130 doesn’t entirely eliminate formal collective bargaining, Democrats suspect that’s the direction things are headed once the bill reaches the House floor.

A House Education Committee voted 11-6 Tuesday to advance a measure that restricts the issues teachers’ unions can haggle with school districts over. The unions could negotiate issues such as pay, benefits and working conditions but could not bargain over issues including merit pay — for example, when teachers get paid extra to work at troubled schools.

Rep. Debra Maggart, the sponsor of the bill, shook off criticism from Democrats that she may be watering her proposal down now but ultimately plans to trade the bill in for the more sweeping Senate version later.

“I don’t know that anything here is a ploy. I am just trying to do my job as a state representative,” said the House GOP caucus chairwoman. “I would prefer to ban collective bargaining. That was my original intent, but again, I’m at the will of the body.”

The Legislature has spent weeks juggling multiple versions of the collective bargaining bill — with opposition from Democratic lawmakers like House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, who supports the current law mandating collective bargaining in districts where teachers have unionized.

“What does this bill do for our students? It does absolutely nothing except antagonize the teachers,” the Democrat from Covington said.

Naifeh, who has led the charge against the plan, suggested that any effort by Republicans to beef up the bill once it gets to the House floor would be met by even more anger than if they moved it through the committee system.

“That will just make the public even more upset. It will make the teachers more upset, and maybe, if it’s that bad, we can come back next year and fix what we have done,” he said.

The Senate has already passed SB113, which repeals the 1978 mandate that school boards formally negotiate teacher contracts with a union. While the Senate’s bill removes the requirement that school boards collectively bargain contracts with a union, it does require that school boards discuss labor issues with teachers and any unions looking to represent them.

That plan won just enough votes to pass in the full Senate.

In the House, though, the bill has met resistance not just from the minority party but liberal Republicans as well.

Although Republicans have a 64-34 majority, some in the GOP have shied away from the Senate plan, which raises questions as to whether it has enough support to pass.

A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in the finance committee last week to refer the bill back to the Education Committee, delaying the bill’s progress to any full House vote.

One of the chambers’ highest ranking Republicans, GOP Leader Gerald McCormick, told reporters he was unsure whether the plan has enough support to pass this year. Speaker Beth Harwell later offered a slightly different take, saying she believes doing away with collective bargaining still has a “razor fine margin” of support.

Any rollbacks or restrictions on collective bargaining are staunchly opposed by the major teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association.

The union’s lobbyist said he believes the decision to pass a bill out of committee that still mandates limited collective bargaining is a tactic to keep the issue alive and on the move toward the House floor.

“I believe they clearly are intent on passing something and this was just practical on their part,” said Jerry Winters, the TEA’s chief lobbyist.

House Skips School-Voucher Bill

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was moving right along with discussion of his school-choice legislation in the House Education Subcommittee meeting Wednesday when the panel’s chairman suddenly called for a 10-minute recess.

That recess turned out to be a Republican caucus meeting in the office of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

And when members returned to the hearing room, a couple Republicans — Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee — expressed their belief that Dunn’s bill ought to be sent to a summer study committee, an oft-used maneuver that puts an issue off for another day yet doesn’t kill the legislation.

The bill, HB388, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would allow low-income students in the state’s biggest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — to be given a “scholarship” to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a non-public school.

The bill passed in the Senate last week 18-10.

But in sorting through just who stood where on the bill, the word “comfortable” kept coming up in the House subcommittee discussion.

“I think if we go to the summer study committee, actually look at it, have the opportunity to bring in people from other states who have been shown the success of it, everybody gets more comfortable,” Dunn said after Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s the key word down here. You may have all the facts on your side. You’ve just got to get people comfortable.”

Montgomery said during the proceedings if he had a better “comfort zone,” knowing what impact the measure would have on local school authorities, he could move forward with the bill.

When the Senate voted last week on its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson of Knoxville abstained, saying she was “a little bit uncomfortable” with the bill because of unanswered questions about the impact on a district like hers.

Kelsey has said he is confident that “once the House studies the issue and feels comfortable with the issue they are going to come to the same conclusion we did in the Senate.”

It appears that in broad terms, state government is testing its own comfort level with where it is on education reform.

The Legislature has taken bold steps, enacting tenure changes for teachers, challenging teachers’ collective bargaining rights, considering lifting limits on charter schools and now entertaining one of the hottest potatoes of school reform — vouchers. It’s hard to see where the education reform train stops or if the concept might actually be slowing down given Wednesday’s move on vouchers.

At one point early in Wednesday’s hearing, during discussion of a bill on licensing non-traditional teachers, Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, blurted out, “I think we’re doing too much reform around here. I think at the end of the year, all the bills will run into each other.”

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for Tennessee Education Association, added later that unionized teachers “are feeling pretty beat down right now.”

“This has been a tough session,”Winters said. “They feel pretty put upon. They feel pretty singled out. And they feel there’s a lot of punitive things happening that are not good for relationships.

“This legislature has burned a lot of bridges.”

Senate Version of Ban on Teacher Collective Bargaining Advances

As expected, Senate Republicans had no trouble approving the latest version of a bill to ban collective bargaining among Tennessee teachers.

The Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 Wednesday to adopt fresh wording requiring school boards to create a policy manual outlining how they’ll determine issues like teachers’ salaries and benefits in an attempt to alleviate concerns about cutting out teacher input.

“This will basically assure statutorily that the door cannot be closed on these teachers and they’ll have the ability to provide that input,” said Sen. Jack Johnson who is spearheading the push to eliminate unions’ ability to negotiate teachers’ working contracts.

The newest incarnation of the bill requires school boards to seek public comment on the policy manuals, which will outline the process for deciding labor issues, including pay rates, benefits, student discipline procedures, working conditions and leaves of absence.

The state Board of Education, Department of Education and Department of Human Resources will all have a hand in developing a sample manual local school systems can adopt.

Democrats remain unsatisfied with the bill, despite the new language. Sen. Andy Berke said the new bill swaps out voices of teachers for input from Nashville “bureaucrats.”

“It would be hard to imagine, but I actually think I like this version of the bill worse than I liked the first one, and believe me I did not think that was possible,” said the Chattanooga lawmaker.

Teachers feel betrayed, according to Tennessee Education Association Lobbyist Jerry Winters, who said the new bill creates “some illusion of input” from teachers.

“We view that no one really is a winner here. Certainly I don’t think school boards are a winner. I know that teachers are not a winner and frankly students are not winners here because what you are doing with this process is taking the biggest advocate for students who are their teachers and actually diminishing, significantly diminishing, their role in policy,” he told the committee.

Berke and the TEA both admit they can’t stop Senate Republicans from voting to ban collective bargaining. But House GOP members have been more skeptical of a repeal and have yet to take up the amendment. The House Finance Ways and Means Committee is set to hear the bill May 3.

The House version allows teachers unions to negotiate scaled-back labor contracts, a concession backed by Speaker Beth Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam and designed to attract broader support from lawmakers hesitant to delete collective bargaining from state code. Harwell hinted earlier this month that she likes the Senate’s amendment.

Haslam said Wednesday he still hasn’t taken a position on the Senate’s amendment but plans to meet with legislative leaders Thursday to discuss it.