Lawmakers in Mad Dash to Compete in ‘Race’

The House Education Committee this afternoon approved its version of a bill designed to enable Tennessee to successfully chase down federal stimulus handouts. The Senate version passed that chamber’s education committee last night. Legislators say there’s still a long way to go in a short period of time.

State representatives and senators laboring over education laws in this weeks’ special session expect the legislation will pass — though members of both parties say they’re feeling rushed.

The House Education Committee passed the measure 21-1 Thursday afternoon after almost 10 hours of debate over the last two days.

“Once we get to the floor we’ll be okay,” said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory. “There will be some debate on the floor. Probably some lively debate on the floor but I expect it to pass on a pretty comfortable margin.”

The General Assembly is attempting to iron out any snags in Tennessee education law that could weaken the state government’s chances of scoring as much as $485 million in federal “Race to the Top” grant monies. The reform-based grant application is due in Washington by Jan. 19.

“We’re going fast on this. But what’s the biggest thing that happens when you’re going fast? Mistakes are made. You’ve just got to be real, real careful,” said Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.

State Rep. John DeBerry, Jr., a Memphis Democrat, criticized the plan to link student performance to 50 percent of a teachers’ evaluation during this week’s marathon Education Committee meeting that stretched over two days. He said lawmakers should tread carefully before “we’ll jump through every hoop” for millions of dollars for education from Washington.

“I agree with the lofty goal of trying to better education in the state of Tennessee, but the more we talk about this bill, the less I like it,” said DeBerry during the House Education Committee meeting Wednesday. “I categorically cannot consciously sit here and continue to listen to this without saying that we need to go back and think about this for a second. Because there is something very, very, very, very wrong going on here.”

Hill, who sits on the House Education Committee as well,  introduced several amendments to key legislation Gov. Phil Bredesen wants lawmakers to approve within the next few days. The committee reviewed roughly 16 total changes to House Bill 7010 in today’s committee hearing.

The bill, which lawmakers have debated for 10 hours in the education committee for a 21-1 vote, faces two more committees before a vote on the House floor.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said amendments won’t bog the bill down.

“It’s just all in how the dominoes fall,” said Brooks who chairs the committee. “We need to take sufficient time to be very thorough, be very careful, ask any and every question we need to ask. We don’t need to ever leave this meeting, and or this session saying, ‘I did not know what I was voting on.”

Bredesen called lawmakers into a legislative special session this week, saying “the stars have aligned” to dramatically improve the state’s public education system.

The two-term Democrat, who is serving his last year as governor, wants the Legislature to link student test scores to yearly teacher reviews — a practice now banned. He also wants the General Assembly to OK the creation of a state-wide “achievement” district that will take over operation of failing schools.

The ideas Bredesen is proposing aren’t particularly new, and they ought to be implemented even if they don’t come with massive federal aid, said Dr. J. E. Stone, president of the Education Consumers Foundation, a Virgina-based education think tank that develops school ratings.

Using the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System that tracks a student learning each year, Stone said his organization has developed a highly effective method for grading teachers using factors like student test scores, peer- and principal-feedback, and other factors.

Effective methods for measuring teacher proficiency based on student-achievement data have been floating around for years, he said.

“It’s an idea who’s time has come,” Stone said. “Basically, we have this huge body of data that’s probably being used by less than half the schools in the state.”

The state has been collecting the student data since 1993, but it is now illegal to use it for teacher evaluations of tenure. Education officials say the information is also difficult to digest because it uses complicated formulas.

In October, U.S. Senator Bill Frist and the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education came up with more than 60 recommendations for improving the education “pipeline.”

The SCORE report suggested Tennessee could lead the Southeast in education within five years if it adopts certain reform measures, like finding a more constructive way to use the mountains of data collected on student performance.

Lawmakers now have only a matter of days to approve legislation needed to set Tennessee apart for the “Race to the Top” grant competition. Turner expect to pass the bill in the House before breaking for the weekend.

Only the handful of states that show the most commitment to education reform will win the grant money, the Obama administration has said.

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