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School-Voucher Bill Moving Forward in Legislature

The debate on school choice is underway in Tennessee Legislature and one measure, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, is working its way forward.

Last week the Senate Education Committee approved the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire, on a vote of 8-0.

Senate Bill 999 would provide scholarships for private-school tuition to low-income students in the state’s worst-performing public schools.

The total number of vouchers the state would award would gradually increase from 5,000 available scholarships in the 2015-16 school year to a peak of 20,000 from the 2018-19 school year forward. The fiscal note on the legislation indicates a cost of $125,000 for the Department of Education to implement the policy.

The House companion legislation — HB1049 — sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, also easily cleared the House Education Planning & Administration subcommittee last week on a vote of 7-1, though not without debate.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat who is also a teacher, said the “gains and strides” made in education the last few years would be endangered by potentially removing $70 million from local school district. Dunlap said he’s “very, very concerned about the future of public education” as a result.

Rep. Dunn said critics of school vouchers, like Dunlap, appear more interested in protecting the status quo and putting “the emphasis on the system” rather than focusing on academic achievement outcomes.

“I’d like to put emphasis on the student,” said Dunn.

The Tennessee Education Association, many local school officials across the state and most Democrats in the Legislature have steadfastly opposed enabling parents to spend public monies on private education for their children.

“You’re taking away funding from an already underfunded school and putting it in vouchers. I don’t think it’s productive for public schools or private schools,”said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the Memphis Daily News in February.

A February 2013 MTSU Poll found that while 46 percent of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, 40 percent favor the idea and 12 percent were undecided at the time.

Dunn’s legislation is scheduled to be heard in full Committee next Tuesday. Gardenhire’s Senate bill is assigned to the Finance Committee, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

Another school choice proposal, sponsored by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has not received as warm a welcome.

Both Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey have said that Kelsey’s legislation is unlikely to be funded, even if it passes the Legislature.

Haslam told reporters during a press conference last week that Gardenhire’s proposal was in line with what he’s indicated the administration would be willing to fund, and as such, he intends to fund that legislation rather than Kelsey’s more expansive plan.

While both Kelsey and Haslam are supporters of vouchers, they have clashed over the scope of such legislation in the past. In 2013, Ramsey pointed the finger at Kelsey as to why the voucher bill failed in the Senate. Kelsey had indicated earlier that year that he wanted to amend Haslam’s proposal to extend it to more Tennessee students.

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 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.

Many Friends, Many Enemies

Updated at 3:38 p.m. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE: Prioritize Principals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TN Teacher Evals Discussed in WSJ

Two Memphis music teachers and Tennessee’s top education official are featured in a Wall Street Journal story today tracking teacher evaluation efforts across the country.

The story looks at the challenge of using tests in evaluating educators when standardized tests don’t generally cover social studies or science, focusing instead on reading and math. There’s also the potential for parent revolt, as in the case of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ failed attempt to test every single kindergartner one at a time.

Here’s the Tennessee connection:

Memphis music teacher Jeff Chipman is part of a small group of teachers piloting the new assessment based on student portfolios, and he acknowledges the district’s challenges.

“We are about teaching kids to perform and experience art, and that cannot be measured with a pencil-and-paper test,” he said. “We want to be evaluated on how we help kids grow, but we don’t want to turn the arts program into a testing machine.”

The story carries a photo of another Memphis music teacher, Anthony Q. Richardson, at the piano against the backdrop of instructional posters on rhythm, and Tennessee’s education commissioner chimes in to put a positive spin on the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

“No system is perfect, but the question is whether the one we have now is better and more fair than the previous one,” Commissioner Kevin Huffman tells the Journal. “And the answer is, indisputably, yes.”

Last year Tennessee adopted a plan for more frequent evaluations of teachers tied to student test scores along with a lengthier process to attain tenure. The policies stem directly from the state’s winning $501 million in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.

The state’s major teachers union – winded after a serious blow to its power last year – has continued to push back against the new system. Tennesseans, meanwhile, are withholding judgment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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