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TNDP: Akbari Win in Memphis ‘a Rejection of Destructive Tea Party Agenda’

Statement from Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron; November 22, 2013:

Memphis — Following the announcement that Democratic candidate, Raumesh Akbari, won the special election race for Tennessee’s open State House District 91 seat, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron released the following statement:

Representative Akbari has won a clear victory, but it’s the people of Memphis who are the real winners. Today Memphis voted for a candidate who is ready to fight for opportunity, fairness and people who work for a living.

Rep. Akbari’s victory is also a rejection of a destructive Tea Party agenda that hurts working families. Memphis voters sent a clear message that they want a representative who will be a problem solver and a strong voice against the extremism at the state capitol.

Following after Speaker Lois DeBerry is a huge challenge, but Rep. Akbari is enormously talented and exceptionally bright. This awesome young woman is worthy of the mission ahead of her and all of Tennessee will benefit from her gifts.

TN House Dems Mourn Passing of State Rep. Lois DeBerry

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; July 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry passed away today from complications resulting from a four year battle with pancreatic cancer. In the years following her diagnosis, Speaker Pro Tem Emeritus DeBerry remained positive and upbeat while channeling her energy and passion into helping raise the awareness of this deadly disease.

Rep. DeBerry defied the odds which show that nearly 80% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer succumb to the disease within the first year. In 2012, three years after her initial diagnosis, DeBerry joined with Governor Haslam in proclaiming November to be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in order to promote awareness and support efforts to create better treatments for this aggressive form of cancer.

“Tennessee owes Lois DeBerry a debt of gratitude for her immeasurable contributions to improving the health, welfare, and well-being of the people of our state,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. “Lois was an irreplaceable member of our caucus and she will always have a place in our hearts and memories.”

In May of 2011, the legislature passed House Joint Resolution 516, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, which named honored Rep. DeBerry with the title of “Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus.” In accepting the honor of the position, DeBerry told her colleagues that “I’ve never done anything to get a return, every decision that I’ve tried make came from my heart.”

Through her status as Dean of the House, Speaker Pro Tem DeBerry acted as a mentor and leader for many legislators over her forty years of service to the state.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with Rep. DeBerry,” said Rep. Karen Camper. “When I first got elected she took me under her wing and helped teach me how to best represent the needs of my constituents. I know there were many other legislators like me over the years, both Democrat and Republican, who benefited from her wisdom and generosity. I am truly blessed to have known and worked with Rep. Lois DeBerry.”

In memory of Rep. DeBerry, donations can be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network at www.pancan.org.

Haslam, House Leaders Release Statements on State Rep. Lois DeBerry’s Passing

Statement from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; July 28, 2013:

“Coming in as a new governor, Lois quickly became one of my favorite people on Capitol Hill because of her wit, charm and dedication to her constituents. Lois was a history maker, a wonderful woman, a great legislator and a true friend. I will miss her.” — Gov. Bill Haslam.

Statement from the Office of Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell; July 28, 2013:

“Lois DeBerry dedicated her life to service. From the Civil Rights Movement, to becoming the first female African-American Speaker Pro Tempore, Lois always made public service a priority. The impact she has had on this great state, the lives of countless Tennesseans, and people all across the country is astounding. She certainly made her mark on history, and it was an honor to know her and serve alongside her in Tennessee General Assembly. I valued our friendship, and will deeply miss her sage advice, and her remarkable sprit and smile. Her dedication to children’s issues, women’s issues, and criminal justice reform have resulted in a better Tennessee. My thoughts and prayers are with her family.” — Speaker Beth Harwell

“Lois DeBerry was my friend and my mentor. From my first day on the hill in 1994, she was someone I could turn to in every situation. She taught me the importance of working across party lines to get things done for the state, but also to never be afraid to stand up for a cause–even if sometimes you stand alone. Lois was a fighter. She always fought and fought hardest for children. She fought for those on the margins of society and for the city of Memphis which she loved so dearly. Most recently she waged a courageous battle against cancer, inspiring everyone with her upbeat attitude and her determination to survive. I loved Lois DeBerry. Her absence will leave a hole in the House that no one can fill; we are a better state for the service she provided. God rest her soul and be with her family during this difficult time.” — Leader Craig Fitzhugh

Statement from the Office of Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick; July 28, 2013:

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Speaker Pro Tempore Emeritus Lois DeBerry, a legendary figure in Tennessee political history. I had the distinct privilege to serve with Lois in the House of Representatives for 9 years, and I enjoyed our friendship. Her knowledge, experience, and delightful personality will surely be missed. My thoughts and prayers are with her family during this difficult time” — Majority Leader Gerald McCormick

Finney, Kyle Release Statements on Passing of State Rep. Lois DeBerry

Statement from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; July 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Senate Democratic leaders issued the following statement on the passing of Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry:

“Lois DeBerry was a peerless leader for her community, her city and for all women” state Sen. Jim Kyle said. “It’s a uniquely American story – a woman who became frustrated with the conditions in her community and dedicated her life to making it better, rising to heights that no African American woman had seen before in Tennessee. We are deeply saddened by her passing.”

“Before I ever ran for office, I was motivated and inspired by the leadership of Lois DeBerry,” state Sen. Lowe Finney said. “She intentionally focused on tough issues, daring others to join her, and by her words could inspire people to take action and get involved. Tennessee has lost a great leader today.”

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

Updated Aug. 7, 2012: Sen. Roy Herron called and said he had planned to attend the conference but decided against it due to a family emergency.

Six Tennessee legislators leaving the General Assembly this year are expected in Chicago this week on what could amount to a taxpayer-funded junket.

Four retiring legislators and two state reps who lost their bids for re-election in last week’s primary have given the state notice they plan to get reimbursed for attending the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in the Windy City that began Monday, a trip that could cost as much as than $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

They are Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

One of the General Assembly’s highest-ranking Republicans says he trusts that the departing lawmakers have good reasons behind their decisions to make the trip.

“I know it will be beneficial to the others who attend to get the benefit of their wisdom and their years of service,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “I think discretion is the better part of valor with these things, and obviously they’ve exercised their discretion and think it’s fine to go. I’m not passing judgment on it.”

Legislators are permitted to let taxpayers foot the bill for out-of-state legislative trips, complete with a per diem, travel and lodging expenses. Even outgoing lawmakers are entitled, said Connie Ridley, director of Tennessee’s office of Legislative Affairs.

“Members of the General Assembly serve as a legislator until the general election in November,” Ridley said in an email. “They are no longer eligible for compensation of any form the evening before the November general election.”

Richardson says she may have lost her primary election, but she still has legislative responsibilities to handle at the conference.

“I signed up because I am one of the representatives, there’s just a couple of us, who represent Tennessee on the Health Committee,” she said. “These are working committees where we share what we’ve done, and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states. So, because I represent Tennessee on the health committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

A handful of retiring lawmakers are also on the trip, including Naifeh and Faulk, according to their offices. Herron and Harmon’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislators can collect a $173 per diem each of the four days of the conference, for $692 total. Registration to the NCSL event ranges from $549 to $690, depending on when lawmakers registered for the conference online. Guests were encouraged to reserve rooms in downtown Chicago with rates ranging from $199 to $227 a night if locked in prior to Aug. 1. Lawmakers can also be reimbursed for airfare, which runs about $300 roundtrip, and cab rides, which average between $25 to $42 from the airport to the convention site.

If lawmakers decide against splitting hotels and cab fare, the cost to taxpayers could approach almost $2,500 for the four-day, three-night trip.

But no money has left the taxpayers’ pocket yet, Ridley said. Lawmakers will have to submit receipts to have their travel expenses paid for once they return, although the conference’s registration will be billed directly to the state.

While the practice is legal and learning how other state legislatures are tackling difficult policy issues is valuable, sending outgoing lawmakers on an out-of-town trip is still “questionable,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government accountability advocacy group.

“I have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of those going who will not be coming back, whether by the election or their own choice,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to do something in public life, they could make good public use of that.”

Here are the other 22 lawmakers slated to attend, according to the office of Legislative Administration:

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory

Senate

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

TNGOP Slams Dems Voting Against Income Tax Ban

Press Release from the Republican Party of Tennessee, Jan. 19, 2012:

Once Again, Tennessee Democrats Stand Up For A State Income Tax

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding language to ban a state income tax. SJR 221, sponsored by Representative Glen Casada, passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 73-17-3.

The amendment will now have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in the next session. The amendment will then be placed on the ballot, coinciding with a gubernatorial election, to allow Tennessee voters to approve.  “I applaud our Republican leadership for moving us one step closer to solidifying the unconstitutionality of a state income tax. However, several Tennessee Democrats once again showed their liberal mindset by reinforcing their belief that government should not be restricted from  dipping into your paycheck,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“While Tennesseans work hard to get through this economic recession, Tennessee Democrats are content with duplicating President Obama’s philosophy of raising taxes to meet reckless government spending, instead of reducing government to meet current revenue,” said Devaney.

Democrats Who Voted Against Banning a State Income Tax: Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, Charles Curtiss, Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, Bill Harmon, Mike Kernell, Larry Miller, Gary Moore, Jimmy Naifeh, Joe Pitts, Jeanne Richardson, Johnny Shaw, Mike Stewart, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and Johnnie Turner.

School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

Tennessee lawmakers, who approved a slew of sweeping education reforms this spring, hinted this week at the Southern Legislative Conference that they’re not done yet.

The next battle appears to be over school choice.

“It is blatantly unfair that just because a parent doesn’t have the means that another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told TNReport while attending the conference in Memphis, which has drawn lawmakers from 15 states. “I hope we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

The Senate passed a plan in April to offer low-income students in the state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — vouchers to put toward their education at another public school in the district, a charter school or private school.

But leadership in the House refused to advance the bill last session and instead parked the measure in a study committee over the summer. Legislators have yet to tackle that issue, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships.”

The reason for the holdup on the legislation was that House lawmakers weren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with the voucher concept, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, the chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know the impact of what that type of legislation would be, and we need to know that before we start moving forward,” the Sevierville Republican said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is leading the charge for school vouchers, contends that Republicans still have the political will to pass another wave of education reforms despite this year’s contentious debates over removing teachers unions’ collective bargaining leverage, lifting restrictions on charter schools and making teacher tenure harder to earn.

“This is not the time to sit on our laurels,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “I think once the House takes a look at equal opportunity scholarships in particular, they’re going to see how successful it’s been and how popular it is in other states.”

Kelsey’s been teaming up with Michelle Rhee, a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She’s the founder of Students First, a nonprofit seeking to mobilize a national movement to improve education by focusing on good teachers, school choice, smart spending and family involvement.

Rhee, a major proponent of school choice, recently moved to Nashville so her two children can be closer to their father, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“I think the most important thing with any kind of choice, whether it be vouchers, whether it be charter schools, home schools, it has to be around accountability. We have to make sure that the kids are meeting a minimum threshold in terms of their learning gains,” she advised a room full of lawmakers at the legislative conference Sunday.

Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.

Another point of contention is giving families free reign to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.

After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse.

States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.

“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.

Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.

Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry, formerly the Tennessee House speaker pro tem before Republicans swept Democrats to the sidelines, says she’s in favor of school choice and charter schools, but she’s not ready for the state to pass out vouchers — especially once charter school enrollment is opened to all students under the bill the legislature passed.

“I don’t think we need to pass any more reform right now. I think we’ve over-reformed, so I think we just need to see if it’s working,” she said.

Prominent National Education Reformer Making a Home in Nashville

One of Tennesssee’s newest residents, who happens to be a rock star of education reform, told an attentive group of southern legislators in Memphis Sunday it’s time to bring back a culture of competitiveness to the nation’s education system.

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and founder of StudentsFirst, a reform-minded education organization, said it would be best to get away from the everybody-gets-a-trophy attitude with children nowadays and put some accountability into education, top to bottom.

Rhee, noted for her appearance in the documentary film “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” has moved to Nashville so her two daughters can be close to their father, Tennessee’s new education commissioner, Kevin Huffman.The girls will go to school in Nashville. But Rhee will spend only half of her time in Nashville, with plans to spend the other half in Sacramento, where her fiance lives.

Rhee is most noted for her time as head of the D.C. school system, although a published report early this year by USA Today raised questions about the authenticity of some academic gains on her watch. The lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers union, Jerry Winters of the Tennessee Education Association, was reported in the Nashville Scene to have called Rhee a “lightning rod on a lot of education issues, not a lot being positive.” Winters also said he was “disappointed” in Bill Frist for penning a Tennessean op-ed with Rhee this past spring.

The two daughters were with Rhee as she spoke to the Southern Legislators Conference, a meeting of legislators from several states, with an audience of about 150 people.

She even used the two girls to make her point about competitiveness. She said her girls have trophies and ribbons galore to show for their participation in soccer. But how do they actually perform on the field of competition?

“They suck,” Rhee said, getting no visible objection to that assessment from the girls, who sat halfway back in the room. She said kids have lost the spirit of competition and that the nation has to regain that in education.

Rhee used the example to get the point across that the idea that everyone performs well is not a healthy way to approach education. Rhee was highly complimentary of the education reforms the Tennessee General Assembly enacted this year, which included tenure reform, charter school expansion and a new way of negotiating with teachers that dramatically reduces the power of the big teachers union.

“I think they made tremendous progress this last year,” Rhee said of the Legislature after her speech. “We had very close partnerships.”

“We feel heartened by the progress that was made in the Legislature in this last session. We also know a lot of those legislators are really interested in continuing to push aggressive reforms next session, so we’re very much looking forward to continuing working with them.”

Rhee dived right into partisan politics and explained she was a Democrat and once held all views one might expect in order to fall into the party line, including opposition to school vouchers. She changed her mind on that.

“Because of partisan politics I really believed that vouchers were not a good thing and that we shouldn’t even ever discuss them,” she said. “That all changed when I became the chancellor of a school district in D.C. and we had a publicly funded voucher program in the city.”

After hearing family after family tell their stories, she had her change of heart.

Rhee said she began to assess issues, like whether to change teacher tenure law, with her two daughters in mind. She said public schools in theory are supposed to be “the great equalizer” but that that “is not the reality.”

“Give me the ZIP code and race of a particular child, and I can with very good accuracy already tell you what that child’s achievement levels are,” she said.

“It is the biggest social injustice imaginable, because it means we are still in this day and age allowing the color of a child’s skin and the ZIP code they live in to dictate their educational attainment levels.”

Several Tennessee lawmakers were in the audience for Rhee’s speech. Several asked questions, including Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, who asked about merit pay. Rhee said the vast majority of teachers don’t have a problem with being held accountable, that teachers should be involved in the process and that they just want it to be fair.

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, called Rhee’s speech “interesting.”

“Sometimes you have to look at other choices. One size does not fit all. I agree with that,” DeBerry said. “I’m just not sure whether I agree with her on the whole issue of how you get to creating a fair system for merit pay. There are a lot of pieces.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he thinks Tennessee legislators will be working more with Rhee.

“I look forward to working with her through this next session and advance even more reforms for education,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey pointed to a bill sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, that would allow parents to take state money and choose any school they want their child to attend.

“I think we will see that advance next year, because it is blatantly unfair just because a parent doesn’t have the means another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Ramsey said. “I adamantly believe in that. Hopefully we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

Ramsey said much of the work next year would be on implementing reforms put in place this year.

Superkids Waiting

Look! Look! Up on the screen!

A lot of lawmakers at the Tennessee Capitol think teachers’ unions are at least partly responsible for a lot that’s wrong with public education. And now they’ve got a movie to prove it.

More than a dozen members of the state Senate and House of Representatives sat in on a special matinee viewing of the 2010 film Waiting for ‘Superman’ in a Legislative Plaza hearing room one afternoon earlier this month. The screening was organized by Germantown Senate Republican Brian Kelsey and the film’s producers, who’ve shown the award-winning documentary to policymakers and education reform groups around the country.

Republican and Democrats alike who watched the movie all said afterward that they’re troubled by the state of education in America generally, and in Tennessee particularly. The film, they said, strengthened their resolve to effect positive change that is “about children, not adults,” a theme central to Waiting for ‘Superman’.

Another Inconvenient Truth

Released on DVD just last week, Waiting for ‘Superman’ follows the plight of several students and their families as they try to escape floundering public school systems by gaining entrance and new opportunities in more successful charter schools.

It is directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, a film credited both with dramatically raising the public’s alarm over global warming and bestowing environmentalist sainthood on Al Gore, Jr.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ takes its title from a comment made early on by one of its main figures, a successful charter-school founder in New York named Geoffrey Canada.

“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist, because even in the depths of the ghetto, you just thought he was coming,” recalls Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Wanna Be Your Superhero

Memphis Democrats John DeBerry, Jr. and Lois DeBerry (no relation) were among those who attended the screening of the film in Nashville. Both indicated they found it provocative and moving.

During a panel discussion on the the film and its lessons for Tennessee, Lois DeBerry, the former Tennessee House speaker pro tem of 24 years — the first African-American woman ever to win that post — became too emotional to speak and had to temporarily withhold her remarks until she collected herself.

“In 2011, I just can’t believe that we’re no further along in educating our children,” she said a while later. “Our children deserve better than this. And as Tennesseans, we can do better than this.”

Lois DeBerry’s obvious frustration, sadness and anger, said Rep. John DeBerry, are feelings shared by most who care deeply about the plight of children, particularly poor children, in failing American schools. “Many of our hearts are broken by what we see happening to many of our children, especially in urban areas,” he said.

“I think that basically we have been in denial in urban areas. For too long we’ve kind of put our head in the ground, and refused to take the bitter pill that there are some drastic and immediate changes that have to be taken,” he added.

DeBerry, Jr. spoke of a “a big pile of money” in public education, and of the many adults eying it, intent on acquiring or controlling how it gets spent. But the providers of education services are not, he said, “as important as the end product.”

“That end product is a student who can think, who can read, who can reason and who can perform in today’s world,” said DeBerry. “The rest of the world is, excuse the expression, kicking our butts, with a whole lot less money, because their education systems look at the child — at the recipient and not the provider. We’ve got too much attention on the providers, and not enough on the recipient.”

Added Lois DeBerry: “Children are waiting for a Superwoman and a Superman, without politics. They are waiting to be educated.”

“You ask me why charter schools are good for Tennessee? It’s because of what we saw in that film,” she said. “Because our kids, all of our kids, no matter where they come from, deserve the very best education that we can give them. And God is going to hold us responsible if we don’t do it.”

Reform Eradicators

Waiting for ‘Superman’ isn’t just about charter schools. It also analyzes the role teachers’ unions play in American schools. And they come off as an obstinate force of obstruction, fundamentally hardwired to resist innovation and experimentation that potentially threatens the status quo.

The movie leaves the audience with the impression that teachers’ unions at minimum hold dual and conflicting loyalties. Union leaders say they have the best interest of students at heart. But oftentimes, the film argues, unions use their considerable political muscle to protect sub-par teachers from professional competition — or even from having to meet basic, on-the-job performance criteria as a condition of continued employment, an otherwise commonplace reality in private-sector working environments.

The system of teacher tenure, for example, is alleged by many who speak in the film to be a nearly impassible roadblock to reforming failing schools.

“In universities, professors are only granted tenure after many years of teaching, and a grueling vetting process, and many don’t receive it,” narrates Guggenheim. “But for public school teachers, tenure has become automatic.”

Geoffrey Canada says in one scene, “You can get tenure basically if you continue to breathe for two years. You get it.”

“And whether or not you can help children is totally irrelevant,” he adds. “Once you get tenure we cannot get rid of you. Almost no matter what you do, you are there for life, even if it is proven you are a lousy teacher.”

Some of Tennessee’s most powerful GOP education-oversight lawmakers are vocal advocates of lessening teachers’ union influence in education policy discussions. And a common sentiment expressed by them after watching the film was that no “sacred cow” will stand in the way of their reform proposals this session.

The nation is watching Tennessee as a result of the state winning more than $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding last year, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. That means bold steps are necessary, both to prove the state is serious about reform, and to enact solutions to problems that others around the country can look to emulate, she said.

Gresham said Waiting for ‘Superman”s portrayal of teachers’ unions as an impediment to education reform rings true to her. It naturally follows that undermining what gives unions their power is key to limiting their capacity to disrupt or thwart brave new initiatives, she said.

“The issue of collective bargaining has to be met head-on, and for many of the reasons that we saw in this film,” said Gresham.

Kryptonite Sold Here

Teachers’ unions and their supporters have denounced Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The National Education Association has even set up a special resources page of anti-Superman criticism.

Waiting for ‘Superman’, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, “demonizes public education, teachers unions, and, unfortunately, teachers.”

“Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” said Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

And as with An Inconvenient Truth, the integrity of Guggenheim’s latest offering has been called into question by the film’s detractors.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is merely “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions,” said a Huffington Post reviewer. “It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change.”

Another professor, Diane Ravitch, an education policy researcher at New York University with ties to the center-left Brookings Institution, wrote in the New York Times last month that Waiting for ‘Superman’ may indeed represent “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” And she acknowledged that the film is “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization” in the “clash of ideas occurring in education right now.”

But she claims the film is more the stuff of “right-wing” fantasy than responsible documentary.

“The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false,” wrote Ravitch.

“(W)hile teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers,” she continued. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”

Ravitch’s conclusion is that expanding market-style competition in America’s public education systems could produce disastrous results. “The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success,” she wrote.

A Legislative Locomotive

The Tennessee Education Association says the GOP’s push to undermine unions this session is rooted in a desire for “political payback” stemming from the TEA’s admitted preference for Democrats when disbursing union political contributions. And to that end, Republicans have proposed ending automatic payroll deductions of government employees’ union dues, which could over time have the effect of drying up a lot of the TEA’s own financial support.

But there’s more to this political beef than campaign cash. Many Republicans blame unions for much of what ails inner city public schools. GOP lawmakers suggest unions have willfully perpetuated failing education systems, which has exacerbated urban poverty and social dysfunction, which in turn undermines the ability of families, neighborhoods and communities to promote and sustain institutions of educational excellence.

“Teachers’ unions have had this death-grip, this ‘let’s-stop-everything’ mentality. And look at where it has gotten us. We are in the cellar not just in the nation, but in the world as far as developed countries’ systems go,” said Knoxville GOP Sen. Stacey Campfield. “The teachers’ unions say, ‘Just leave things the way they are and somehow things will magically change.’ Well, it is not going to change. We have to make changes if we want to see the situation change.”

“The time is now, and if the union doesn’t want to be a pat of it, well then I’m sorry, but maybe they have to be put aside a little bit,” said Campfield, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Kelsey, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, is — along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville — sponsoring school-voucher legislation this year called the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

Kelsey, Ramsey and many other Republicans — as well as a few Democrats — also support expanding the number and role of charter schools in Tennessee, including in the state-controlled “achievement district” that will likely include a number of failing Memphis schools. Finally, there appears to be broad GOP support for making it more difficult for a teacher to earn and maintain tenure, and for prohibiting local school districts from collectively bargaining with teachers’ unions.

Kelsey maintains that his intention for organizing the Waiting for ‘Superman’ screening for lawmakers was not to denigrate teachers in general. In fact, the opposite is true, said Kelsey: He wanted to inspire lawmakers to propose and support reforms that reward teachers who embrace the challenge of producing better educational results.

“Our research has shown us that having a great teacher in the classroom is the No. 1 way to improve education,” Kelsey said. “And in fact, we undervalue great teachers.

“On the other hand, often, very often — and we have seen this in Tennessee — teachers’ unions are holding us back from educating children,” said Kelsey.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey said the political fact on the floors of both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature is that the GOP is going to drive the debate and agenda on education reform this session. That agenda will involve expanding school choice and forcing education providers to compete for taxpayer dollars, he said.

“I’m a big proponent of competition,” said Ramsey. “That’s the reason I think charter schools are a good way to go. I do think that these scholarships that we are talking about in those failing schools to allow parents to take their money and allow for competition…is a step in the right direction.

“There’s not one magic bullet, I think this film pointed that out. It’s a combination of a lot of things that can improve school systems.”

And Republicans are keenly aware that they couldn’t really ask for a friendlier legislative climate for enacting their favored programs and initiatives, he said.

“The spotlight is on us,” said Ramsey. “In the past we may have used excuses that bills were killed in some committees in the House, or that the governor wouldn’t sign a bill. Republicans, for the first time in the history of this state, have the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate and the governorship. We can’t make excuses any longer, and I think that the time is right, right now, to reform education in Tennessee.”