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Harwell Holds Forth — and Holds Out — on Education, AG Elections

House Speaker Beth Harwell said Saturday she believes there’s political momentum behind the idea of changing the way Tennessee selects a state attorney general, and movement of a bill or resolution addressing the matter is likely this session.

The Republican from Nashville also expressed admiration and support for Tennessee teachers — and added that she’s confident the House Education Committee she empaneled will competently and constructively take up collective bargaining issues in the state’s public schools system.

But Harwell, who delivered the speech to the Sumner County Republican Party and then took questions from the audience afterward, walked a tightrope on the specifics of both the teacher negotiation issue and the election of an attorney general.

Since winning the speakership Harwell’s been relatively non-committal on the attorney general issue.

“I hate to sound like a political science professor, but I can argue either side,” the former Belmont University political science instructor said on Saturday.

Making the attorney general stand for election would require amending the state constitution. A resolution to do just that passed in the Senate last year but never made it to the House floor. A number of different bills and resolutions are already floating around this session that alter the selection process of the state’s top lawyer.

Currently, the Tennessee Supreme Court selects the state’s attorney general. Forty-three states elect their attorneys general, while the others are appointed by either the governor or legislature, with Tennessee the only state using a Supreme Court appointment.

“My feeling is that constitutionally we should elect these judges and attorneys general, because they have so much authority and power,” said Harwell.

“The other thing I will tell you — having run for office many times and helping a lot of statewide candidates run for office — it’s extremely expensive to run for office,” the House speaker added. “When we get money involved, it does have a tendency to corrupt. You have to understand who would be willing to give to judges’ races and AGs’ races — those people who have vested interests.”

Harwell said safeguards would have to be put in place. “But believe me, I think the Legislature will address that this session,” she said. “You will see movement on that bill.”

Regarding education, Harwell said she hasn’t yet decided whether to support House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Debra Maggart’s proposal to legally bar local education districts from negotiating with a teachers’ union. The speaker said she would, however, “allow the legislative process to work” on the education proposal, adding, “We want to couch this with the idea that we are for teachers. This Republican Party believes in teachers.”

Maggart, whose district is in Sumner County, attended the event.

“We have, I think, the best education committee that has ever existed in the General Assembly,” Harwell said. “I broke up the Memphis control over it. I put some of our best and brightest on (the House committee). It is made up with some of our financial gurus on both the Democrat and Republican sides. We have elevated that committee significantly.”

Republicans have made no secret lately that education is a policy area in which they’re eager to flex their new-found muscle in state government following their historic gains in last November’s elections.

Prominent GOP lawmakers like Rep. Maggart and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey have said that while they don’t necessarily have it out for the Tennessee Education Association, they do believe the 52,000-strong teachers’ union has often in the past been a force of obstructionism working to block innovation and student-centered reform in Tennessee schools.

The TEA opposes various GOP backed bills that union organizers say will undermine teachers’ job security and benefits and hamper their ability to influence Tennessee elections and politics.

Harwell went to great lengths on Saturday to express support for teachers, but she found herself walking a tightrope on both the teacher negotiation issue and the election of an attorney general. She said she is open to discussion on ending negotiating rights with teachers but emphasized the importance of the role teachers play.

“Not a single legislator raises a test score of a child. Not a single one of us,” Harwell said. “But teachers do. So we want to be supportive of teachers every way we can be. I will tell you, having spent a couple of days in elementary schools and middle schools with some of the teachers in my district, that’s the hardest job in the world. To do it well is unbelievable.

“When you look at what’s best for the teachers, the statistics seem to indicate that those who do not have contract negotiation actually make more money than those systems that do,” Harwell added. “So that’s a positive for this. I guess I’m saying I’m keeping an open mind and want to continue to study and do what’s best for all.”

Without top-flight teachers, Harwell said, Tennessee’s workforce readiness will suffer. “Without the educated workforce, economic development will not happen in this state,” she said.

Harwell told her audience she did not want the Republicans to mishandle their authority, and she pointed to the contentious issue of the school systems in Shelby County. Memphis city schools are awaiting a referendum vote to dissolve their special district status and put them in with Shelby County schools. Republicans in the Legislature are working to extend the transition timetable for such a change to go into effect.

Harwell said she was in discussion in her office last week with Republican colleagues from Shelby County “who are going through quite an ordeal” with the school plan. She said she realized they didn’t need a single vote from Democrats to get what they wanted done. But she said after watching them she decided later to call them back into her office.

“I said, now look, I don’t want us to go in there and ramrod this thing. I don’t want us to treat the Democrats the way we were treated,” she said.

Harwell said Republicans need to take their party’s principles and instill them throughout government.

“I want people to know after two years, four years, yeah, the Republicans were in charge, and here’s what it meant,” she said. “We had less government. We understand that the government is best that governs least.”

She said many decisions in Washington are best left to state and local government. In that vein, she echoed Sen. Lamar Alexander’s call in the past for eliminating the federal Department of Education.

“We would have all the money we need for education, period,” Harwell said. “And guess what. They don’t touch a single child’s life. All week long, they won’t touch a single child in Washington, D.C. So let’s get that money back.”