Posts

Haslam: Let’s ‘Catch Our Breath’ on Education Reform in ’12

Gov. Bill Haslam says he put the brakes on a proposal to further open up school choice in Tennessee because the concept of vouchers has “too many unanswered questions” and the timing was off.

The plan to allow students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers like scholarships to attend the public, charter or private school of their parents’ choice was one of the most anticipated going into the next year’s legislative session, but the governor shut the door on that last week, saying he’d rather a task force delve into the subject for the next year.

“I didn’t think the timing was right,” the governor told reporters at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Nashville Tuesday. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Give us a chance to catch our breath here,’ which I thought, given everything that’s going on, was a fair request of them.”

The Republican-led legislature this year swept a pile of education reform bills into law, such as making teacher tenure more difficult to earn, eliminating collective bargaining and making it easier for students to enroll in charter schools. Meanwhile, the Department of Education this fall began implementing a new teacher evaluation system.

Although the Senate OK’d the vouchers bill in the spring, the proposal was left behind by House Republican leadership who opted to hold the bill over until 2012.

Haslam’s administration spent months trying to decide where it sat on the idea by studying how vouchers have been used in other states, whether they have worked well and what kind of effect they’ve had.

“We hadn’t really tried to say what would this look like in Tennessee? How much of the state’s money would go? What would be the ramifications of that?” Haslam told reporters.

The issue is now being passed off to a task force made up of education experts and some legislators who are expected to report back next fall — not far from the November election. A spokesman for the governor said his office does not yet know when the task force’s inital meeting will be.

GOP Support for School-Choice Legislation Lacking in House

Update: Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the formation of an “opportunity scholarship” task force intended to study the issue of vouchers “before legislation is pursued any further in this session.” The body is directed to report back to the governor’s office in “the fall of 2012,” long after the Legislature is expected to adjourn. The 2012 General Election is Nov. 6.

The governor plans to weigh in any day on whether to offer parents broader school choice options for their children next year, but high-ranking House leaders are hinting that idea is not in the cards for 2012.

Both the Republican Caucus chairwoman and the Education Committee chairman say they’d rather let the education reforms they passed this year soak in before pushing controversial legislation that would give parents in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga money to help send their children to different public, charter or private schools.

“We don’t need to be passing it yet,” said Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the Education Committee chairman who helped halt the legislation last spring. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of other people who feel the same way I do, that it’s a good year to learn as much as we possibly can and see if that’s something we really want to do.”

“We did do a lot last year,” said Rep. Debra Maggart, GOP Caucus chairwoman. “I do think that the voucher conversation is very complicated. … I think you’ll see a good conversation about it.”

Parents would have been able to use taxpayer-funded scholarships, or vouchers, to send their children to schools of their choosing under a bill that stalled last year as the Republican-controlled legislature overhauled teacher tenure, eliminated collective bargaining, opened up the doors to virtual schools and loosened enrollment restrictions on charter schools.

The measure passed in the Senate 18-10 mainly on party lines in the spring, but House Republicans put the brakes on the bill in favor of waiting until 2012 to take it up again.

“I think there are some people who want to say, ‘Let’s cool things down, let’s let things work,’” said Rep. Bill Dunn, who plans to take another stab at the voucher bill next year. “And then I think there’s another camp that says, ‘Hey, we have the momentum going. Let’s go ahead and fix everything that we can.’”

Dunn, R-Knoxville, plans to make the bill more attractive by beefing up accountability requirements on schools accepting students admitted via vouchers and by reducing the state tax dollars that would follow each student out of their district school as they enter another institution.

Although the measure has already cleared the upper chamber, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has introduced a new piece of legislation to allow school vouchers, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships,” although it currently lacks a House sponsor.

But the House plans to spend most of its time reviewing the reforms it wrote into law last year, said Montgomery, like tweaking the evaluation scores teachers need to earn tenure, reviewing specific pieces of the teacher evaluation reforms and assessing results of the wider charter school provisions.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has for months studied the voucher issue, and he has said he expects to announce his official position before the holiday.

Harwell Cautious on Vouchers, Ramsey Assertive

While Gov. Bill Haslam calls school vouchers potentially one of the most contentious legislative issues on the horizon, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said Thursday she doesn’t see passage of a voucher bill without a “great deal of discussion.”

Harwell said she would want a plan designed specifically for Tennessee, not just taking what other states have done.

“My personal thought on vouchers is if we’re going to proceed we need to be very careful. There are a lot of questions,” Harwell said. “We’ve put a lot of additional work on our public school teachers for this evaluation process. To allow children to come out and go into a private system where those teachers don’t have to have the same system, I think it’s sending a mixed message to our teachers.

“I would say we have a lot to do in public education yet, and I’d like to stay focused on what we’re doing in our public schools. We have an excellent public charter school bill in this state that I’d like to see continue. Because I think they’re more of the answers to our public school needs.”

The Senate passed a school voucher bill in the last legislative session. But the House balked, putting off its bill for 2012. The concept in HB388 is to provide children from low-income families in the state’s four largest counties the opportunity to receive a scholarship, commonly called a voucher, to attend a school of their choice, including another public school in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The debate has been intense, as many advocates for public schools say vouchers would only subsidize private schools that want the money. Proponents of vouchers say they are a way to give families choice among options they otherwise would not have.

“I think there are House members that have very legitimate concerns,” Harwell said. “I haven’t polled it. I don’t know whether the support is there (to pass it) or not.”

Harwell said the bill presents broad possibilities.

“The way the bill is drafted, I think many of our sponsors think, ‘Well, this will allow them to attend perhaps a Catholic school or perhaps a Baptist school.’ And that’s fine. But it would also allow them to attend a Muslim school, and I could go on and on.

“I think there are some questions that haven’t been fully vetted yet on vouchers, and I’d like to continue to study it.”

Should the voucher issue be hotly debated, it would follow a legislative session in 2011 in which education dominated discussion, with the Legislature making changes to teacher tenure and teachers’ collective bargaining status. Heading into the last session, many people expected the focus to be on the jobs picture and how the economy would impact the state budget. But education measures captured most of the attention, sometimes in combative ways.

Meanwhile, Harwell said it’s important to “stay the course” on the new teacher evaluation process the state has adopted.

“It’s a necessary component to the Race to the Top funding we received,” Harwell said. “We can’t back away from the importance of evaluations. We need to know who our good teachers are and who aren’t.”

The evaluation process has created considerable backlash over time constraints and fairness issues. Harwell endorsed adjustments to the process that Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman initiated that will streamline the process, mostly for principals.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday that after the first year of the evaluation process there may be adjustments but that once the state gets through the current year that most teachers will say the system is helping them.

“I don’t see us backing down,” Ramsey said. “We’re getting national attention right now in the state of Tennessee for some of the education reforms we’re doing.”

Ramsey said he talked Thursday to Michelle Rhee, a nationally recognized education reform advocate who heads the reform-minded StudentsFirst organization.

“Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in the state of Tennessee, some education scholarships,” Ramsey said.

“If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don’t have the means to allow them to go to an alternative then we need to start with a small, pilot project, much along the lines of what Sen. Brian Kelsey is bringing forward, and be able to allow those students to have some choice. It’s just unfair that they’re trapped in these schools.”

He said Rhee’s organization is willing to help with public relations where he says Republicans have been mischaracterized as “beating up on teachers.”

Haslam Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Gov. Bill Haslam again Monday defended the use of the state’s new teacher evaluation system and reminded everyone that the whole idea didn’t start with his administration.

Haslam made the point during a press availability on Capitol Hill after a ceremony for veterans. He told the Rotary Club of Nashville later Monday that change is “painful,” and he said after the speech he was making a particular reference to the evaluations with that remark.

Haslam also said Monday he will not state a position on school vouchers until later this year, although he told the Rotary audience the voucher issue is “probably going to be one of the most contentious” when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The issue of teacher evaluations has been on the front burner in the Legislature with lengthy hearings on the process last week. The system has prompted many complaints among teachers and principals. The Haslam administration has basically stayed the course on the system, which is in its first year, even though Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman gained approval to tweak the system with some changes meant to make evaluations less time-consuming.

Tennessee’s success in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition included a plan to evaluate teachers every year. Tenured teachers will be evaluated with four observations, and those without tenure will be evaluated six times. Haslam pointed out that the process goes back to the application for the federal funds won by the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“Remember how we got here. This was part of the Race to the Top application,” Haslam said. “Everybody agreed evaluations were really at the heart of that. The evaluation process was a work in progress for a year before this.

“It spanned administrations.”

He said it’s still early.

“This is November. We started it in September. It’s not like we have a really long track record,” Haslam said. “It takes a little bit of adjusting to get used to the evaluation. The first evaluation, because it is the one with lesson plans, does have the most paperwork involved in it. When we get past that, the evaluations after that will look a little different.”

Legislators are hearing from their constituents about the impact the evaluation system is having on schools.

“I understand. Before, if you got evaluated twice every 10 years and now you’re looking at this new process, that’s not something necessarily, ‘Oh boy, I’m really excited about that,'” Haslam said.

“But I do think, again, back to what’s at the heart of the change we need, why we won Race to the Top, was this idea of making certain we’re doing everything we can to encourage great teachers to be in the classroom. And the evaluation piece is a key part of that.”

Disgruntlement over the evaluation system has been so pronounced some observers have suggested that the state should hold off on actually acknowledging the findings in this first year, but Haslam remains steadfast. At the same time he dismissed any notion that changes in the basic concept might jeopardize the $500 million the state won in the Race to the Top competition in 2010.

“I don’t want to cast the political argument, ‘If you all change it we’re going to lose our funds.’ I don’t think that’s a fair argument for us to be making,” Haslam said. “I think it’s more about putting in jeopardy the pace that we need to change.”

The Haslam administration has stayed in the background thus far on the school voucher issue. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would allow children in the state’s largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton — to apply for funds to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The issue has pitted those who favor school choice against those who are protective of the public school system.

Haslam was asked Monday why he has not taken a stand on vouchers yet.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do our homework to see: Do we know enough to make that call?” he said.

Haslam pointed to the need to study the experiences of other states who have tried vouchers in order to make the right decision. A voucher bill passed the Senate in the last legislative session and is expected to be considered in the House next year. The House version, HB388, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.

School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

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

The next battle appears to be over school choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education Progress Report: Incomplete

Lawmakers have spent much of the year squabbling over education overhauls for how school systems, teachers and their unions operate in Tennessee.

Democrats and leaders with the state’s largest teachers’ union are fighting the GOP-driven proposals but lack the political muscle to pose a serious threat to Republicans who control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office.

Republicans have picked up some education bills and dropped others like hot potatoes. Some of those lawmakers have splintered off and opposed prime education reform bills, thickening the political plot as the legislation inches closer to passage.

Meanwhile, officials with the Tennessee Education Association say teachers feel beat up by this year’s line-up of bills targeting them and their profession.

Here’s a progress report on where the key education bills are in the legislative process:

Leaders Say They’re Done Bargaining Over Collective Bargaining (SB113/HB130):

After four substantial rewrites, the newest version of a bill to do away with teachers’ collective bargaining privileges is now facing a vote on the Senate floor. House Speaker Beth Harwell and House sponsor Debra Maggart — who originally sided with Gov. Bill Haslam in favoring a scaled-back collective bargaining bill — now say they’re both happy with the latest version because it melds drafts from the two chambers and completely bans unions from negotiating teachers’ contracts. Haslam has yet to weigh in on the newest version. The Senate passed the bill on Monday, 18-14.

Teacher Tenure Revamped (SB1528/HB:2012):

Check this one off the list. Haslam signed into law a series of changes to teacher tenure, chiefly by giving schools the ability to take away tenure from under-performing teachers as defined by a new evaluation system. Democrats said they generally agreed with the bill but bitterly fought to delay its implementation until schools can give the newly designed teacher evaluations a test run. Republicans forged ahead anyway and the bill will kick in for the next school year.

Charter School Expansion A Slow Grower (HB1989/SB1523): Haslam is a huge proponent for charter school expansion, but his plan to open up enrollment and lift the cap on the number of charter schools is moving slowly through the Legislature. When we last left this bill, both versions had made their way out of the education committees, however they still face the two Finance Ways and Means committees, scheduling committees, then votes on the chamber floors.

Vouchers Go To Summer School (SB485/HB388): This bill went largely unnoticed until it landed on the Senate floor last week and narrowly won a majority vote. The bill would allow students to switch to a private, parochial, charter or another public school via a state-issued scholarship. Less than a week later, House Republicans kicked the bill into a summer study committee, essentially killing the measure for the rest of the year.

Managing the Memphis Merger (SB25/HB51): The Legislature kicked off this legislative session by passing a bill slowing down the merger between the Memphis City Schools system and Shelby County Schools after Memphis officials decided to disband the district. Democrats loathed it, Republicans loved it, and Haslam has already signed it into law.

Dues Deduction Dead, For Now (HB159/SB136): On top of pushing bills attempting to marginalize the Tennessee Education Association, Republicans also attempted to ban teachers’ automatic payroll deductions to pay their union dues. There’s not enough time to push that bill this year, according to Rep. Glen Casada, who was carrying the bill. The Franklin Republican said he missed the deadline to take up the bill in a subcommittee but vows to bring the measure up again next year.

Political Contribution Confusion (HB160/SB139): A proposal pitched earlier this year that would have banned unions — like the TEA — from giving money to political candidates has since morphed into a bill that allows corporate campaign giving. Casada, who is sponsoring this bill, too, said he backed off the original plan in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a federal ban on corporate contributions. Instead of imposing a ban on unions, like he originally planned, he wants to lift restrictions on corporate giving and allow legislators and the governor to accept political contributions during the legislative session. That measure is still making its way through House and Senate legislative committees.

TEA Serving on Retirement Board (SB102/ HB565): A measure to take away the Tennessee Education Association’s guaranteed seat on the state’s Consolidated Retirement Board has already passed the Senate and is on its way through the House. Like many other education bills, the Senate vote fell on party lines. The measure allows the Senate and House speakers to appoint any teacher they want to the board, regardless of his or her union affiliation.

House Skips School-Voucher Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This legislature has burned a lot of bridges.”

Senate Chooses School Vouchers

Republicans approved a plan in the Tennessee Senate Thursday allowing dollars derived from taxpayers to follow low-income students and fund their tuition in the public or non-public schools of their parents’ choosing.

The bill, SB485, would apply only to the state’s four largest counties, including Shelby, Davidson, Hamilton and Knox Counties. It constitutes the state’s first official foray into the realm of school vouchers.

The “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act” passed Thursday allows low-income students to use public funding to attend private, parochial, charter or different public schools, opening up a larger discussion on school choice.

“It’s going to give them more choices of where they want to go to school,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, the bill’s sponsor and a Germantown Republican who for the last four years has been pushing the concept. ”They can take these scholarships to whatever public charter school, whatever parochial school, whatever independent school whatever public school within their own system that they want to go to,”

Gov. Bill Haslam touched on the discussion about school choice earlier this year in proposing that the Legislature allow any student — regardless of income level — to enroll at a charter school. Children from low-income families would still be priority enrollees, according to to the legislation. That proposal is still working its way through the committee system.

Shortly after swearing in as governor, Haslam characterized vouchers as “an interesting concept” but said he wouldn’t make the issue a part of his education agenda.

Senate Republicans approved the measure Thursday 18-10 — capturing just one more vote than the 17 needed to approve legislation — falling mainly on partisan lines with only one Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry, voting in favor.

Four legislators abstained from voting on the bill, including three Republicans — among them, outgoing Speaker Pro Tem Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, who is slated to head up the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a non-profit now led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“We don’t really have clear information on what it means when significant populations of children leave a system. And we don’t know for sure that that will even happen, but because we don’t know those answers right now, I was a little bit uncomfortable voting for it today,” she told TNReport, adding that she still has “very good feelings” about the bill.

SCORE hasn’t taken a position on the bill, but a spokesman said the organization believes choice is an important piece of any comprehensive education reform.

The other lawmakers who declined to vote on the bill were Republicans Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville and Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman and Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate.

Top Republicans say they favor the idea of school choice, although House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick said his chamber is running out of time to advance its copy of the bill, adding “I don’t know that we’re in an urgent rush to get that done.”

The measure now sits in the House Education Subcommittee which is scheduled to hear the last 37 bills on the agenda next Wednesday before shutting down for the year.

Democrats argued the arrangement would draw too much money out of the traditional public school system. Every time a student takes the scholarship and moves on to a different school, half the government dollars allocated to educating that student will stay with the local school district. The other half of those funds follow them to their new school.

The voucher bill is another one of several “divisive ideas that get us nowhere,” Sen. Andy Berke, a high-ranking Senate Democrat, said on the Senate floor.

“It seems to me it’s not going to be a windfall for that school system,” he said. “They’ve got to come up with the money from somewhere.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said she’s not worried about using government dollars to pay for the students’ private or alternative school experience because parents will keep the schools in check.

“Keep in mind, that parent is a tax payer and that’s their child,” said Harwell reacting to questions about how to keep private institutions honest if they receive public dollars. “If they care enough to make an active choice in where their child attends school, I suspect they’re going to hold a high standard there as well.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who said he was under the impression that the House version of the bill would have no problem advancing, said he’d personally work on making sure the bill survives the last committee meeting next week.

Superkids Waiting

Look! Look! Up on the screen!

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

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

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

Another Inconvenient Truth

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

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

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

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

Wanna Be Your Superhero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform Eradicators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kryptonite Sold Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Legislative Locomotive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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