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ACT Gains Demonstrate Teachers Working Hard, Reforms Working, says Guv

If you ask Bill Haslam to interpret the significance of recent Tennessee ACT scores that show the most impressive statewide gains in a decade, he’ll tell you it shows teachers are doing a great job.

That, and it’s more evidence much-resisted education reforms initiated and implemented by his administration are creating positive results. Despite difficult workplace transitions, Teachers are adapting adeptly, and deserve praise, he said Wednesday.

“I think it’s further verification that we have great teaching going on in Tennessee schools, and we’re seeing the results of that,” the governor said following an event at Antioch High School to promote a new state program offering free community college to any graduating senior in the state.

Tennessee saw a gain of three-tenths of a percentage point in its ACT composite scores for all the state’s public and private school students, according to a news release from the state Department of Education.

The governor noted Tennessee is one of only 12 states that require ACT testing for all students — meaning the sampling wasn’t biased toward college-bound students.

This year’s increase is also the biggest jump since Tennessee “began testing all students in 2010,” according to the department.

The ACT gains, coupled with Tennessee’s designation last fall as the country’s most improved state on the so-called “Nation’s Report Card,” have Haslam confident his reforms are working.

Results like that “don’t just happen,” he said.

The Department of Education’s news release indicated “gains correlate with recent academic growth in high school on the 2014 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.” It adds that while academic improvement was evident across socioeconomic lines, the results “point to the continued need to close achievement gaps” among minority student.

Skeptics of the Haslam administration’s emphasis on wide-scale standardized testing — and his reforms in general — aren’t buying that the results mean Tennessee is on a sustainably productive path in public education.

“It’s great to see an improvement. But we need to be cautious about placing too much emphasis on those test scores,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association.

If the Haslam administration believes higher ACT and NAEP scores tell a complete story, many teachers “would disagree with that,” said Gray. Test scores don’t necessarily mean a better-educated student, she said.

“We know the students are being tested all year long, and they’re becoming better test takers because they’re being tested,” Gray said. “So, it’s important to me that we look at multiple measures of students’ achievement, to determine if the students really are achieving at a higher level.”

Critics of Huffman Want Decision from Haslam

Despite a recent opinion by Tennessee’s attorney general offering legal cover to the state Department of Education for its decision to delay release of student test scores, critics of the agency’s embattled commissioner aren’t letting up on their demand that he be cut loose.

And they want Gov. Bill Haslam to make a decision sooner this summer rather than later in the fall after the general election, as he’s indicated he intends to do.

“I haven’t sat down and had that conversation with [any of the commissioners] about the next four years, because it’s not appropriate,” Haslam said on July 8. “I’m in the middle of a campaign right now, and we will — this fall, if I’m re-elected, we’ll sit down with all 23, and see if they want to continue, and if that works for us.”

Kevin Huffman has been a lightning rod for criticism from both the left and the right. But by the same token he’s got staunch defenders among both Republicans and Democrats as well. Two of his biggest fans have been Tennessee’s GOP governor and the Obama administration’s education chief, Arne Duncan.

Haslam has been emphasizing improvements in test scores that have come about under Huffman, including Tennessee’s status as the fastest improving education system in the nation. The fundamental test of his administration’s education efforts ought to be student performance, the governor said, and in his estimation kids in Tennessee’s publicly funded classrooms are “learning more than they ever have before.”

However, opposition to Haslam on education — in particular, his embrace of both Common Core and student-testing as a means of evaluating the job teachers are doing — runs deep both among educators and conservative politicians who fear the state is giving up control of its education system to outside forces.

Citing a “complete lack of trust” in the commissioner, as well as alleging the manipulation of test scores, a letter sent to Haslam on June 19 demanded Huffman be replaced. Fifteen Republican members of the Tennessee General Assembly — 13 lawmakers in the House and two senators, endorsed the letter, which declared that mistrust of Huffman stems from his “actions and general attitude,” and that he’s demonstrated a “failure to uphold and follow the laws of the state of Tennessee in this latest TCAP debacle we are currently witnessing.”

The letter also questioned whether or not Huffman had the authority to waive the inclusion of TCAP scores, considering that a bill passed by the General Assembly in the 2014 session granted Huffman waiver abilities, but specifically excluded waiving requirements related to “assessments and accountability.”

But state Attorney General Bob Cooper recently released an opinion, requested by state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, that found Huffman in fact didn’t abuse his authority by waiving those requirements, that no state or federal law “would be violated by a delay in releasing TCAP test scores,” as long as the results were provided by June 30, which they were.

The attorney general’s opinion did little, though, to change the minds of Huffman’s detractors.

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald, said he “wasn’t surprised” by the attorney general’s office opinion, and said it didn’t really carry any legal weight. And anyway, “there are a lot of different issues” on which Hensley said he’s had problems with Commissioner Huffman.

Hensley, a member of the Senate Education Committee, indicated he stands by the letter’s main thrust. Huffman should “go somewhere else,” he said. “I just feel like the commissioner doesn’t listen to the superintendents and the teachers and the principles, and he doesn’t listen too much to the Legislature, either.”

Julie West, the president of Parents for Truth in Education, said that she thinks that Cooper’s opinion is just splitting hairs.

“The irony is Commissioner Huffman pushed for this, because he’s all about the testing, and when he doesn’t get the results he wants all of a sudden he wants to do away with that being factored in,” West said. “And let me say, if the Governor and the Commissioner were really as proud of TCAP scores as they want us to believe, it certainly would not have been announced during the Fourth of July.”

West said that she was not just in favor of Huffman’s resignation, but that he should be fired. West also said that part of the problem, and what was “more disturbing,” was that Cooper “seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be the attorney for the people of Tennessee, rather than a servant of the Governor.”

“I think that part of the issue is the people of Tennessee don’t have a voice in who the Commissioner of Education is, and don’t have a voice in who the Attorney General is,” West said. “And for that reason they don’t feel, or they seem to act in ways that don’t show a lot of concern for what we believe, and truthfully for what the law seems to be.”

West described her group as not of any particular political perspective, but just people who are not “tolerating” what’s happening to their kids under Common Core or Huffman’s education department.

And regardless of the attorney general’s view on the controversy over the TCAP scores, those on the left wing of Tennessee’s political spectrum still think Huffman needs to go, too. The Tennessee Democratic Party has regularly called for Huffman’s ouster, on the grounds that he is aloof and unresponsive to local teachers and education officials.

The governor owes it to the people of Tennessee to declare whether or not he plans to keep Huffman around, said Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron. That decision, Herron told TNReport, “is overdue, and should be both made and announced as soon as possible.”

“The commissioner has refused to listen to the teachers in public schools, and to the superintendents and schools boards who run those schools,” Herron said in a phone interview. “But the commissioner has united Tennesseans, from Tea Party Republicans to Tennessee Democrats, from 60 superintendents to thousands of teachers, who all agree it is past time for this commissioner to go back to Washington.”

Mary Mancini, a Democratic candidate for the Tennessee State Senate district being vacated by longtime state legislator, Sen. Douglas Henry, said that Haslam needs to either make his decision about Huffman, or “explain in non-political terms” why he has not made that decision yet, because she finds the education commissioner’s performance to be lacking.

“When looking at this job performance, it’s clear that [Huffman]’s just not working the way he should be; doing his job basically,” said Mancini. “He’s been difficult and unresponsive to legislators on both sides of the aisle. Somebody needs to hold him accountable, and both Republicans and Democrats have been trying to do that, and he’s been completely ignoring them, and unresponsive, and that’s not acceptable.”

And the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, believes that the TCAP delay is another in a line of issues with the state’s top education executive, said Jim Wrye, government relations manager for the TEA.

“The policies were placed in that it would be anywhere between 15 and 25 percent of a student’s grade, and that it wasn’t ready at the end of school just threw a huge wrench into what is one of the most important things — which are final grades — for students, and especially for teachers,” Wrye said.

Wrye, though admitting he’s not a lawyer, said that he found the AG’s opinion interesting  because “the idea that you could be exempted from student assessments was something that was prohibited in that flexibility bill. It was something we had discussed at length during the legislative session.”

In September 2013, 63 school superintendents from around the state signed a letter criticizing the education reform policies being implemented by the state’s top education office. And later in 2013, teachers’ unions across the Volunteer State cast votes of “no confidence” in Huffman.

However, Huffman has enjoyed some recent support, with a petition of support recently announced that, as of press time, features over 400 signatures from Tennesseans, including Kate Ezell, a consultant associated with the Tennessee Charter School Incubator as a funds-raiser from September 2011 to January 2013.

State Ed Board Votes to Overhaul Teacher Pay System

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted Friday to overhaul the state’s minimum payment requirements for public school teachers.

The new payment plan, presented to the board by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and passed by a vote of 6-3, includes a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase to teachers’ minimum salaries, but opponents argue that changes to the pay schedule structure will end up severely limiting teachers’ earning potential over the course of their entire careers.

Under the current system, teachers receive up to 20 small salary bumps during their careers as they gain seniority and can also move up pay brackets for completing advanced degrees and training. The new system reduces the schedule to just a few different categories, leaving it largely up to local districts to decide how raises are awarded.

The board passed the plan over the public objections of Tennessee’s major teachers’ union along with many Democrats in the State Legislature. At the center of the debate is the way teacher pay categories are divided. During the SBOE meeting Friday, Commissioner Huffman and members of his staff laid out the details of their proposal while several dozen union members with the Tennessee Education Association packed the conference room to show their opposition.

Tennessee Education Association Vice President Barbara Gray was allowed to address the state board on their behalf and called on SBOE members to postpone action on the Department of Education plan.

While ostensibly an opportunity to debate and possibly modify the proposal, discussion was kept minimal.

Gray contended that the current minimum pay schedule was set up to “foster equity in teacher salaries among school districts and to provide professional pay for hard-working educators.”

“The overall effect of the changes proposed,” Gray told the board “is a substantial lowering of the state requirement for teacher salary,” a point that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman directly contradicted.

“Tennessee law forbids any district from cutting an individual teacher’s salary; it’s actually not allowable for a district to cut an individual teacher’s salary,” Huffman said. “Salaries will not go down,” he continued “I don’t understand how to be more clear about that.”

Huffman and board chairman Fielding Rolston, a vocal supporter of the alterations, repeatedly dismissed the assertion that lifetime earnings might decline under the new plan  — drawing boos and whispers from TEA union members — and suggested that arguments otherwise were deliberate distortions of the truth.

In his opening remarks, Huffman said he was “disappointed to see a lot of misinformation about the salary proposal,” while Rolston was less reserved, telling fellow board members “It’s extremely unfortunate that some of the misleading information, the inflammatory information that has been distributed is out there because I think it has led to a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers that is totally inappropriate.”

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture that proved little consolation for opponents, the board ultimately chose to include non-binding language to the proposal they voted on saying the new system could be re-evaluated in the future if the results were negative.

The changes to the teacher pay schedule come as an example of the larger push by GOP education reform advocates, including many in the Haslam administration and the General Assembly, to increased local district control and emphasize teacher performance over experience or advanced training.

Speaking to reporters following Friday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stressed both points.

“For too long in education, we have operated with the presumption that everybody performs at the same level, everybody is the same, there is no marketplace for people. Those are fallacies. Some teachers perform at a higher level than others,” Huffman said.

“Some folks would like to see a system continue that says ‘we’re going to treat you all the same no matter any of the other factors, we’re going to pay you exactly the same,’” the commissioner continued. “And we believe that school districts should be able to create systems that say ‘You know, not everybody’s the same. In our district, we have a challenge with X; we would like to fix X and use compensation as part of that.’”

The new minimum pay system is set to begin taking effect in the 2013-14 school year.

House Dems, TEA Blast Huffman’s Teacher Pay Proposal

Proposed changes to the way Tennessee public school teachers are paid have state House Democrats and teachers’ unions bristling.

During a press event at the state Capitol, party leaders on Thursday blasted a proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that would alter Tennessee’s minimum teacher salary schedule and, according to opponents, drastically reduce the amount teachers earn over the span of their careers.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is set to present the plan to State Board of Education Friday, after which the board could vote to approve it.

Critics’ concerns about the plan include the reduction of seniority-based pay categories from the current 21 steps to just four possible raises over the course of a career. There would also be fewer pay increases available for teachers who earn advanced degrees.

Jim Wrye, a representative for the state’s main teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, described the proposal as a “fundamental gutting of that state minimum salary schedule.”

“We think that it’s going to increase inequities,” Wrye told reporters. “We think that it’s going to cause mid-career teachers to see no pay raises for long periods of time.

“Requiring a minimum for a salary has a real way of leveraging [state education] money to make sure that teachers across the state at least make a middle class wage,” he said.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh expressed concern during the press conference that the revised pay schedule would make it harder for the state to attract talented teachers. “We break our commitment to teachers by doing this and we really put a chilling effect on recruitment of teachers,” the Ripley Democrat said. “Lord, we don’t pay them enough in the first place…I don’t know that we can get career teachers anymore.”

Fitzhugh also argued that the plan would discourage teachers from pursuing advanced degrees and career development training.

“There will be no more, to a great degree, incentive for teachers to get an advanced degree,” said Fitzhugh. “And what are you saying to our children? That advanced degree is no longer important. Going into higher education on an elevated basis doesn’t matter any more because we don’t even think it matters when your teacher gets a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. We’re not going to pay him or her any more for that.”

But that logic doesn’t quite fly with at least one Republican lawmaker. Reached by phone Thursday, GOP House Caucus Chair Glen Casada of Franklin told TNReport, “I know in the business world, you don’t get paid because you have an M.B.A behind your name.”

Casada said he did have some “reservations” about possible reductions in teachers’ minimum earning potential but echoed the line often touted by Republican education reform advocates that bonuses and raises should be awarded based purely on measured performance rather than experience or education.

Fitzhugh himself addressed that point Thursday. “I’m all for paying for productivity, paying for excellence, but you don’t do that at the expense of teachers, initially, by lowering their pay,” he said.

State Employee Retirement Reboot Headed to Haslam

An overhaul of the state’s pension fund that changes the contribution system for future employees to one more closely resembling private-sector retirement plans has passed the Tennessee General Assembly.

The bill, HB948/SB1005, sponsored by Rep. Steve McManus,R-Cordova, and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, intends to change the state employee retirement plan to a hybrid system to safeguard against possible future insolvency, as faced by many other states around the country.

The legislation, which goes into effect July 1, 2014, would require new state employees going forward to contribute a portion of their income to their pension fund. The employees can also decide whether to choose their own investments, or allow the state to continue managing the pension investments.

It applies to government employees hired after the law takes effect; current state employees and retirees would remain under the old plan.

“The fundamental goal of a hybrid plan is to require employers and employees to share in the investment risks and costs equitably,” McManus said on the House floor, after explaining the new contribution and benefit rates under the measure.

McManus added that another purpose of the bill was to allow Tennessee to continue to provide competitive benefits for “career public employees,” while protecting the state from “unfunded liabilities.”

The proposed change to the state’s pension fund received some pushback from Democrats on the House floor.

Although this legislation might be good for some states around the nation, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said that he did not think that it was necessary to make these changes to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System.

“This is a $35 billion TCRS that we collectively, and through the years, have worked hard to maintain,” said the Ripley Democrat. “It is in good shape. And, if we had to do something to split it and start over with new-hires having only a partial defined contribution plan and a partial defined benefit plan, that would be fine. But ladies and gentlemen, at this stage in the game, we don’t need to do that.”

However, according to McManus, the desire to overhaul the pension program comes from several factors considered by the Treasurer’s office.

These factors include things such as the volatility of the financial markets, new federal requirements for pension fund reporting and the strain placed on these programs by the increased life-expectancy of Americans.

The changes to the pension fund are also opposed, for reasons similar to those voiced by Fitzhugh, by representatives from state employee advocacy groups, such at the Tennessee Education Association.

“It puts an employee’s retirement security in jeopardy,” said Jerry Winters, a former lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association who now works on government employee retirement issues. “Again, the only good thing here is that the current participants are protected, but going forward, I think young people are going to have to really look at where they’re going to be 20 and 30 years from now.”

The bill passed the House 71-16., and passed the Senate 32-0.

It’s now headed to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

TEA: Haslam Voucher Agenda Sends ‘Mixed Message’

Press release from the Tennessee Education Association; January 29, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In his “State of the State” speech last night before Tennessee’s General Assembly, Governor Bill Haslam devoted a lot of time to public education, but left the audience with a mixed message on his plans for our schools.

“While I am pleased that the governor devoted such a large portion of his address to public education, it is troubling to see his voucher agenda moving forward,” said Gera Summerford, Sevier County teacher and Tennessee Education Association president. “Gov. Haslam spoke emphatically about his commitment to public education. Then his next point was about taking money from our public schools to give to private schools. To me, that sends a very mixed message.”

“School voucher programs divert critical funding from public schools.”

Tennessee public schools have among the top graduation rates in the country and, at the same time, one of the lowest rates of funding per student, thereby demonstrating their efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars. On the other hand, school voucher programs in other states have wasted taxpayer money by supporting substandard and unaccredited programs due to inadequate oversight.

“No credible study or research has ever proven the effectiveness of school vouchers or demonstrated any improvement in student achievement over public schools,” added Summerford.

“In addition to the financial drain, school vouchers leave many students behind – including those with greatest need – because vouchers divert tax dollars to private entities that are not required to accept all students nor offer the special services students may need,” the TEA president continued. “In the more than 50 years since school vouchers were first proposed, vouchers still remain controversial, unproven and unpopular.”

“We applaud the governor’s continued effort to direct more money to public schools, but let’s not take one step forward and two steps back. It is not the taxpayer’s job to support private entities. Let’s keep public money in public schools, supporting initiatives like the governor’s proposal to update technology and improve school safety,” Summerford concluded.

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.

The Winding Political Path of Gerald McCormick

The first powerful person to help Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick in a political campaign was the governor at the time — Ned McWherter, a Democrat.

That’s because McCormick was a Democrat, which might surprise many followers of the Republican lawmaker, who has emerged as one of the key voices on Capitol Hill.

It was 1992, and McCormick, a Chattanoogan, a University of Tennessee graduate and a Gulf War veteran, was running for the first time. He lost. After his defeat, Republican organizers in Chattanooga, including Zach Wamp, told McCormick a lot of the positions in McCormick’s message sounded like they belonged in the Republican Party. Wamp should know. He had once been a Democrat, a Jimmy Carter supporter.

“It was true. I was a very conservative Democrat,” McCormick said.

So McCormick became a Republican.

“They invited me in. I did it and have not regretted it since. They opened their arms up. The Republican Party in Hamilton County in particular has been really good to me,” McCormick said.

“I saw Governor McWherter several years ago when I was elected to the Legislature. I reminded him who I was. He said, ‘It’s really good to see you. Glad to see you made it to the Legislature finally.’ I said, ‘Governor McWherter, I just want you to know I did make it to the Legislature, but I was elected as a Republican instead of a Democrat.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s all right. Everybody has to be something.'”

McCormick said he felt more comfortable with a limited-government philosophy, and he notes Ronald Reagan, also once a Democrat, is another example of switching to the Republican side. McCormick said he believes former Democratic Gov. Buford Ellington — elected to the office twice, serving from 1959-63 and 1967-71 — would probably have had a hard time today being a Democrat.

McCormick had been campaign chairman for Republican Rep. Bobby Wood of Harrison, and when Wood retired from his seat after 28 years, McCormick ran for it and was elected in 2004. He has since climbed to one of the most powerful positions in the state.

He began to see trends turn Republican in the Legislature after the 2006 election. He had been the assistant majority leader and wanted to run for speaker this year, but after gauging his level of support and recognizing that others, like eventual Speaker Beth Harwell, had more seniority, McCormick went for the majority leader’s position successfully. At 49, he now guides a Republican contingent that includes moderates and conservatives, not an easy mix to control.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation with TNReport.com, McCormick talked about the collective bargaining issue that became so prominent in the General Assembly this year, the changing roles of the majority and minority parties in the Legislature, his personal background and his thoughts on Gov. Bill Haslam.

Repeatedly in the interview, McCormick spoke of the heavy responsibility of being the majority party in governing and said the voters could “pitch us out” as fast as they threw the Democrats out of power.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in a separate interview with TNReport, said, “I think Gerald did a really good job this year. It was his first term, as my first term as minority leader, we were sort of muddling through together.”

Fitzhugh said he particularly appreciated the way McCormick handled the contentious issue of extending unemployment benefits, an issue Democrats felt strongly about.

Fitzhugh did refer to McCormick as “mercurial” and even compared him to temperamental House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner. McCormick readily admits he will mix it up with the best of them.

“Rather than ‘mercurial’ I would say ‘passionate,'” McCormick said. “Mike Turner is the same way. He’s a very honest person. If he’s mad at you, he’ll let you know. I’m the same way. I feel like people need to know. If you’re upset with them, it’s better just to tell them and have the discussion right away rather than letting it fester.

“That’s been my approach to life. It usually works. Sometimes it backfires a little, and sometimes maybe I should count to 10 before I say something.”

McCormick was one of the most notably irritated Republicans on the tumultuous day in 2009 when Rep. Kent Williams, a Republican from Carter County, made a deal with Democrats that resulted in Williams being elected speaker of the House.

“I shared my feelings with Speaker Williams at the time,” McCormick said. “It’s not personal. It’s really not. He broke his word, and he affected a lot of people’s lives.

“We had people who had literally rented apartments on the idea that he was going to vote with the majority and elect Jason Mumpower speaker. We had people who had quit jobs and moved up here, and he didn’t tell us the truth. I thought he needed to hear it very soon and very decisively that I disagreed with what he had done.”

McCormick said he and Williams are on good terms now. He even messaged Williams a happy birthday last month.

McCormick said while he and Fitzhugh have policy differences that Fitzhugh has been very effective for the Democrats, particularly on budget issues.

McCormick admitted he did not foresee the collective bargaining bill — which diminished the Tennessee Education Association’s power to negotiate for the state’s teachers — as becoming the dominant issue it was this year.

“In a broad philosophical sense, I don’t think government employee unions ought to be negotiating with other government employees with the taxpayers’ money,” McCormick said.

“Having said that, I’ve never said that on the campaign trail before and have never been elected on that basis, so I tried to take it slow and analyze it as we went along. In the end, we probably did the right thing, in that we lessened the influence of the teachers’ union over education policy while still keeping the teachers involved.”

The Legislature wound up with a “collaborative conferencing” law that watered down the TEA’s power.

The bill on collective bargaining was resented by teachers who crowded the halls of the Capitol and marched on Legislative Plaza this year.

“I’m surprised at how the volume has turned down so soon after we passed the legislation,” McCormick said. “We had a lot of noise in the beginning. As more people understand it, I think they have become accustomed to it and are more comfortable with it.

“Really the only people who are bitter about it are the union activists, who quite frankly did a better job of taking care of themselves than they did the average teacher out there in Tennessee.”

McCormick said the teachers union had become “virtually a financial arm of the state Democratic Party.”

Times have changed substantially since 2004 in terms of Republican strength in the General Assembly.

“It’s a lot different being in the majority,” McCormick said. “Now, you have the responsibility of actually governing. When you’re in the minority, you don’t, and you can pretty much throw grenades and see where they land and not have to worry about implementing the policy. Now, if we come out for a policy, we actually have the votes to pass it, and we have to make sure it’s a responsible policy and one that we can implement.”

He understands the Democrats’ predicament.

“You have to remember they were in the majority for a century or more. They’re not used to not getting their way,” he said.

“Most of the time we could ignore them. I don’t think it’s the right thing to do, on a number of levels. They got elected by the people of Tennessee, too. From a practical standpoint, if they get up and walk out, we won’t have a quorum. I don’t think they’re going to do that, as long as we treat them fairly.”

He remembers quite well another time and another political landscape at the Capitol.

“When I started out, Jimmy Naifeh was the speaker of the House. Quite honestly, I couldn’t imagine a situation where anybody else was the speaker of the House,” McCormick said. “He was so dominant, and so effective, not necessarily doing what I wanted him to do, but the trains ran on time when he wanted them to.”

McCormick was a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the Gulf War. A sergeant, he was sent to the war soon after the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Because of his area of training, which came at Fort McClellan in Alabama, McCormick saw some of the planning for the war and was in one of the first units to go, spending about six months there.

A native of Jackson, McCormick grew up in Memphis, went to Germantown High School and attended the University of Tennessee, where he met his future wife, Kim, a Chattanoogan. Upon graduation they moved to Chattanooga. McCormick admits he got homesick for Memphis in college and wanted to go to Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, but his mother insisted he stick it out at UT, where he took a lot of political science and history courses.

He has worked a lot of jobs, including roofing and fast food. He picked up garbage on the side of the road while with a temporary employment agency. He eventually worked for the Hamilton County assessor of property, where he was trained to be a commercial real estate appraiser, and he transitioned into being a real estate broker and developer, his current profession.

When he’s not working on real estate projects, McCormick is in a position now in Nashville that puts him on the front line of government power, including leadership meetings with the governor.

“I’m very impressed by a number of aspects of Governor Haslam’s style of operating. No. 1, I think he is absolutely completely honest. I don’t think we will ever see any kind of a personal scandal or a political scandal surrounding Bill Haslam,” said McCormick, who had supported Wamp in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

“He acts in a small group exactly how he acts in a big group. He’s a very nice, decent person.”

He cited an example of Haslam’s style, where McCormick was making points about the political aspects of a specific issue.

“He cut me off. There were about four of us in the room,” McCormick said. “He pointed to each one of us, and he said, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What’s the right thing to do? Don’t worry about the politics of it.’ I think he really believes that.”

Maggart: TN Made ‘Stronger’ by Teachers Union Collective Bargaining Repeal

Press Release from the TN House Republican Caucus, June 1, 2011:

(NASHVILLE, June 1, 2011) – House Majority Caucus Chairwoman Debra Young Maggart (R—Hendersonville) released the following statement after Governor Bill Haslam signed the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011 into law:

“Tennessee is a stronger State today because of this new law.

“Our Republican Majority set out to reform education by giving a voice to all teachers and prioritzing student achievement. We have done just that.

“A quality education is the lynchpin for building a better society. It leads to high quality jobs, a well-trained and better equipped workforce, and makes Tennessee an even more attractive destination for top companies. By removing barriers in communication and rewarding the hard work of our high performing teachers, we are securing a brighter tomorrow for Tennesseans.

“With the signing of this law today, individual achievement is the hallmark of education in Tennessee.”

TEA President to Haslam: Veto Collective Bargaining Bill

Press Release from Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford; May 23, 2011:

Tennessee’s Teachers Ask Governor to Veto Bill

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Monday, May 23, 2011) – The following message was sent by Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford, a high school math teacher from Sevier County, to Governor Bill Haslam concerning the Professional Educators Collaborative Act of 2011.

Dear Governor Haslam:

The Tennessee Education Association is completely dismayed that this entire legislative session has been an attack on teachers and our Association. At the top of the list is HB 130/SB 113, legislation which repeals the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act (EPNA) and replaces it with a process of “collaborative conferencing.” Professional negotiations has worked well for over 30 years and passage of this legislation has nothing to do with education reform and everything to do with partisan politics. The negative impact of this Session on teacher morale cannot be overstated — teachers feel totally demoralized and disrespected!

On behalf of the 52,000 members of the TEA, I would ask that you show your support for responsible education reform by vetoing this legislation. Your leadership can send a strong message across the state that you stand with Tennessee’s teachers – the very teachers who stepped forward only last year to win $500 million in Race To The Top funding for our state. The teachers of Tennessee deserve  better than the treatment afforded them by the majority of this General Assembly. Please help us work toward real education reform by vetoing this regressive, demoralizing bill.

Sincerely,

Gera Summerford

President