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General Assembly Wraps Up, Major Ed Items Left Undone

The GOP-run Tennessee Legislature called it a year Friday, closing up shop on the earliest date in over two decades.

And in typical fashion, the ebbing hours of the session were a whirl of harried debate and last-minute spatting between the House and Senate.

One of the big items on the Tennessee General Assembly’s education agenda for the year was unceremoniously tossed aside in the waning hours of the session with signs that the proposal failed as a result of a legislative game of chicken between chambers.

The so-called “charter authorizer” bill aimed to give the state the power to overrule local school districts if they decided to reject an applications for new charter schools in their area.

Pushed for heavily by charter school supporters, the bill initially called for the creation of an independent, state-appointed panel to hear such appeals. But after facing some resistance in Senate committees, it was watered down significantly, moving the authorizing power under the State Board of Education.

House Bill 702, sponsored by Memphis Republican Mark White, had strong support in the lower chamber throughout the committee process and was a priority item for House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

But the Senate version, carried by Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, always appeared to be a tougher sell in the upper chamber and there were whispers, Friday, that Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville was delaying action on the bill as a way to press the House to pass one of his legislative priorities, a plan for judicial redistricting in the state.

That bill, SB780, failed spectacularly in the House Friday afternoon by a vote of 66-28 and Gresham subsequently took her bill off notice.

Questioned by reporters following the session if the failure of the two bills was related, Ramsey replied obliquely, “Somewhat, that’s about it. It wasn’t retaliation. I thought the judicial redistricting bill should pass and it didn’t, so that’s where we are.”

The failed charter authorizer bill is one of a few big-ticket pieces of education legislation that didn’t make it out of the Assembly this year. Earlier in the session, Gov. Bill Haslam abandoned a plan to give public school children vouchers to pay tuition at private schools after fellow Republicans in the Legislature insisted on trying to broaden the program beyond the governor’s liking.

At a post-session press event, Haslam mentioned both proposals saying “The two things I was, personally, most disappointed in, would be the voucher bill and the charter authorizer.”

“I do think it’s important, particularly the charter authorizer” Haslam continued. “A lot of the great charter operators we’re trying to attract to Tennessee—they’re not going to come invest all the time unless they know that they have a realistic chance of getting approved and so that’s been, I think, a key motivation for me in having the charter authorizer passed.”

The governor suggested he’d like to see both issues taken up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2014.

Mark Engler contributed to this story.

Haslam’s Voucher Plan Scrapped

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has axed his own school-vouchers proposal for the remainder of the legislative session.

Sen. Mark Norris, who was carrying Haslam’s “Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act,” told reporters Wednesday that the governor decided not to move forward with Senate Bill 196 because some GOP lawmakers refused to back down from their plan to amend the administration-backed measure.

Some Senate Republican have said they’d like to expand the number of students eligible for taxpayer-funded school-choice vouchers beyond what the governor’s legislation offered.

“As majority leader, I had tried to give as much time as possible for reason to prevail, but rather than fewer amendments we received word that there would be more amendments, all of which attempted to broaden the governor’s initiative beyond what he feels is appropriate,” said Norris, a Collierville Republican.

The governor “wanted a more measured approach to introducing vouchers to the state of Tennessee and he didn’t want it to become a political football at the expense of the children it was design to serve,” Norris continued. “If they won’t run their own bill, they shouldn’t try to hijack the administration’s.”

School vouchers would let certain students put state education money toward tuition at private schools. The Haslam administration’s more modest plan would have given vouchers — or “opportunity scholarships”  — to students attending the bottom five percent of Tennessee schools whose family income level already qualified them for free school lunches. The number of vouchers would have been capped at 5,000 for the 2013-14 school year and risen to 20,000 by 2016.

“The administration studied this issue for a year and brought a diverse group of stakeholders to the table throughout that process,” a spokesman for Gov. Haslam said in an email following Norris’s announcement. “As a result of those efforts, the governor believes his proposal fits in best with the state’s overall education reform efforts. Throughout this process, he wanted his bill to be considered on its merit and for substantially different proposals to be considered separately.”

Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, an outspoken supporter of vouchers on the Senate Education Committee, indicated to reporters in the past that he intended to offer amendments broadening the governor’s plan.

Wednesday, Kelsey called Haslam’s decision to pull the bill a “minor setback.” He went on to suggest that school-voucher legislation may still make its way to the Senate floor before the sessions adjourns for 2013.

“Other vehicles out there…are available for helping low income children, this year, receive opportunity scholarships, and I am fully committed to pursuing those other vehicles,” he said.

Kelsey was short on specifics as to what those “other vehicles” might be, but indicated he could try to modify other legislation that has already passed out of the Education Committee when it reaches the full Senate floor.

Legislature May Reach School Choice Accord in 2013

One of the GOP’s strongest advocates of school choice in Tennessee believes the political environment may be ripe for passing voucher or “opportunity scholarships” legislation next year.

Germantown Sen. Brian Kelsey said he’s hopeful that the governor-appointed task force report released late last month will provide the foundation for a policy that can gain support in both chambers of the Republican-run Tennessee General Assembly.

In the past, legislation giving parents access to taxpayer-funded scholarships for sending their children to private schools has passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Kelsey said he expects Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration officials to play a central role in education policy discussions related to school-choice vouchers in the coming months, and that that could have the effect of comforting Republicans who’ve been hesitant to jump on board with the experiment.

“House members were not familiar with this concept back in 2011 when we first presented it to them,” said Kelsey. “House members are much more comfortable with the idea of giving low-income children more options.”

Kelsey sees more scholarship money being available for kids, and also pointed to a growing consensus that any voucher law should apply to all 95 counties, not just the four counties with the highest number of low-income students, which was a plank of the 2011 bill.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said the state Senate again will work aggressively to pass a law on school vouchers.

“It’s blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure simply because of the zip code they’re born in, and their parents, if they choose, ought to have a choice,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “I’m in favor of it, and I think you will see the Senate take the lead in that.”

He also criticized public school officials who have been opposing vouchers.

“It’s not going to hurt public education. It’s really not. It’s just that they don’t want competition,” he said. “They throw up every red flag, every red herring they possibly can as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t want competition.’”

Voucher programs in the state have faced heavy opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, who served on the governor’s nine-member opportunity scholarship task force, said he has “no idea” what shape legislation may ultimately take. He said, though, that he thinks any child accessing tax dollars to go to private school ought to face the same testing that public school children undergo to gauge their achievement progress.

“I feel very strongly about that,” Nixon said.

Nixon said he could see himself supporting a voucher program in Tennessee if it is limited to lower-income children and is used as “another arrow in the quiver for students in low-performing schools to have an opportunity to improve their education and outcomes.”

He said he does not favor opening vouchers up for all students in the government’s school system.

“I am a public school educator. I believe in public schools,” he said.

Opportunity scholarships are apparently popular with Tennessee voters. Nearly 60 percent of them support school vouchers, according to a survey released jointly over the summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, both supporters of school choice.

Trent Seibert and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

Harwell: Widespread Hunger in TN House for Another Slice Off State’s Fat Grocery Tax

Lowering the sales tax on food, overhauling workers’ compensation, the possible expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee and school vouchers will likely be top topics for debate, state House Speaker Beth Harwell said Thursday when discussing the GOP’s 2013 legislative agenda.

“I’ll think we’ll make another move to lower the sales tax on food in the state,” the Nashville Republican said, pointing to Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to lower the tax bite to 5 percent — equal to about $9.60 less in taxes for a household in a year, based on average spending of $3,838 a year for groceries. State lawmakers cut the rate from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent this year.

“Workers’ comp is something the governor is probably going to have on his agenda,” Harwell said. “And we’ll see a lot of other legislation coming from individual members, I’m sure.”

Regardless of the issues, it’s all but certain that the GOP will have its way, with both the Senate and the House enjoying supermajorites — the ability to pass legislation without a single Democratic vote — and Republican Bill Haslam in the governor’s office.

“Our Republican caucus is as united as I’ve ever seen it,” Harwell said.

That’s not to say that Tennesseans won’t see some fireworks from Democrats. Issues such as school vouchers and charter schools will largely affect the state’s large urban areas that have strong Democratic control, and certainly Democrats will make a way to have their voice heard.

Harwell did not take a position on either vouchers or an expansion of Medicaid.

“The whole issue of vouchers is one that the legislature will spend a considerable amount of time debating and discussing,” Harwell said.

On Medicaid: “My first-blush reaction is that I’m not in favor of expansion. However, when you look at the numbers there is some justification financially as to why we might want to expand it.”

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

Forrester: Gotto’s Support for School Vouchers ‘Punishes Our Children’

Press release from the Tennessee Democratic Party; October 4, 2012:  

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Rep. Jim Gotto’s support for private school vouchers could break the backbone of the middle class: Tennessee’s public schools.

“Jim Gotto’s support of private school vouchers amounts to a tax break for wealthy Tennesseans and it’s paid for by diverting millions away from the schools our working and middle class families rely on,” said Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “Instead of handing out vouchers of false hope that fail to even cover the cost of tuition at many private academies, we should renew our commitment to student achievement by strengthening the schools we have, keeping class sizes small and empowering great teachers.”

Currently school districts in Tennessee get a set amount of funding for each student enrolled. In general terms, a new voucher program could provide parents with a coupon worth around $7,000 to spend on tuition at a private school — though the private schools could still reject their child’s application. One of Gov. Bill Haslam’s top education deputies says the trouble is many private schools in Tennessee cost double or triple the value of the voucher, leaving poor and working families a choice only on paper.

“Gotto’s support for private school vouchers looks like virtual schools 2.0, another multi-million dollar waste of our tax dollars that punishes our children and rewards special interests,” Forrester said. “If we want our children prepared to compete for the jobs of the future, we cannot afford to waste one more dollar on unaccountable schemes that defraud taxpayers and shortchange our children’s future.”

In June of this year Gotto accepted a $1500 contribution from Students First, an education reform group that pushes for school voucher programs in a number of states.

WSJ: Unholy Alliance of Business, Labor Killed School Vouchers Bill

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial today lambastes Tennessee chambers of commerce and unions for helping squash a bill that would have opened up access to school vouchers for poor students in the large urban school districts.

Senate Bill 485 by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, won approval last month in the Senate but was then sent to a summer study committee by the House, meaning it can’t pass this session.

The Journal lays some of the blame at the feet of the teachers unions but saves the real zingers for the business community, calling out the chambers in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga for opposing the bill:

The Tennessee chambers aren’t nearly as opposed to public money going to private institutions when they receive the checks. A study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research discovered that over the past several years the Chattanooga Chamber has received $450,000 in state and local funds. The Nashville Chamber has received nearly $3 million in taxpayer subsidies.

We doubt a single child of officials in these chambers of commerce attends a school in the poor parts of Memphis or other places where dreams die before high school. Yet these captains of industry are willing to deny that choice to others. Business executives who really want to make the U.S. more competitive ought to stop contributing to lobbies that want to preserve the dreadful status quo.

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.”