Frist: To the Top

Tenure reform for teachers has passed both houses of the Legislature, but in the eyes of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, what’s going at the Capitol is part of a much bigger picture.

On Thursday, Frist and his education reform organization SCORE — the State Collaborative on Reforming Education — released a list of marching orders it sees as vital to the effort to transform education in Tennessee. The report on the state of education in Tennessee keeps the pressure on state officials even as some of the organization’s recommended reforms are already gaining ground in the Legislature.

Frist expressed support for Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to reform teacher tenure in an interview with TNReport, and he described education reform in broad, sweeping terms that lend insight into why the transplant surgeon, also formerly one of the most powerful politicians in America, is so involved in education nowadays.

“Within education, you can do Pre-K and do higher education, but then if I have to ask myself based on these experiences of having done a lot of health care and a lot of policy and a lot of legislation, how can you best spend your time, it comes by K-12 education,” he said.

“If you win there, if you can be productive there, you can literally change the course of the history of the United States of America. That’s why I’m there, and not there for a month, not there for a year, but for many years and as far as the future I can see now.”

Frist served two terms in the Senate. He was at one point considered a potential presidential candidate. Frist contemplated running for governor at a time when he basically needed only to announce his candidacy and otherwise potentially serious contenders would have stood aside.

But he chose instead to focus on curing Tennessee’s education ills. The reason, he said, was because that one issue touches so many others — among them jobs, workforce training, rising health care costs, and U.S. global competitiveness — “big problems that really hit the greatness of America.”

Frist said he contemplated how he could have best have an impact. His conclusion: “It all — all — comes back to education.”

Education & Jobs

The SCORE report said Haslam and other leaders must keep education reform at the top of their agenda by emphasizing the connection between education and jobs (pdf). It said Tennessee should focus on developing a pipeline of district and school leaders, saying research has shown that the quality of the leader has a large impact on how much students learn.

The report said the state must place a “relentless focus” on improving instruction, saying that even with debates in the Legislature over tenure, collective bargaining and teacher evaluations, it’s easy to forget the quality of instruction in the individual classroom.

The report then puts the heat on the Tennessee Department of Education and its incoming commissioner, Kevin Huffman, due to take the job in April. The report said the department must change from a “compliance-oriented” organization to a “service-oriented” operation.

Despite his obvious prominence in the Republican Party, Frist asserts that SCORE is “religiously nonpartisan.”

“Education is a nonpartisan issue,” he said. Frist sees Haslam, a Republican, as picking up where Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen left off.

“What Gov. Bredesen was able to accomplish was getting rid of the hypocrisy of false standards and putting in accurate standards,” said Frist. “What Gov. Haslam is doing is taking the same concept, the same philosophy, to the next step.”

‘Probably Not a Lot’ of Bad Teachers: Frist

The state has been through a lot since the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an “F” in education in 2007. It has adopted the Tennessee Diploma Project meant to update standards. It adopted a “First to the Top” reform package in a special legislative session that resulted in, among other things, teacher evaluations being based on student achievement. That package was passed in order to apply for federal “Race to the Top” federal stimulus funds, and Tennessee won $501 million. Half of those funds were allotted to local districts, and half were designated for the state level.

Now, the Legislature is embroiled in an effort to remove the teachers’ union’s collective bargaining power, SB113, an issue Haslam has only recently spoken up on. The governor has sided more with a compromise measure in the House than the hard-line effort in the Senate.

Tenure reform and dramatic changes for charter schools have been high on Haslam’s priorities and have so far seen much smoother sailing in the Legislature.

Frist said he likes the tenure proposal and has made his own video backing the effort. He was asked Thursday if there are too many bad teachers who should be shown the door.

“Probably not a lot,” he said. But if a teacher, year after year, on average leaves students less educated than when they entered the class, the teacher probably should not be teaching, he said.

On collective bargaining, Frist said, “It’s very important for teachers to have an appropriate voice. When that voice becomes so ingrained it hurts students, for example, restricts the number of days a student can be in a classroom — at a time other countries are going in the opposite direction — the system needs to be reformed.”

He said he is “very supportive” of Haslam’s charter school proposals. Haslam has called for lifting the cap on charter schools and allowing a state-run achievement school district to establish charters, rather than just local school boards. A $40 million public/private partnership to expand charter schools was recently announced.

Frist worked on the federal No Child Left Behind law while in Washington and has called for updates in the law, which is up for re-authorization.

“I think it was reasonably successful,” he said. “But what it clearly did is set the stage for what we’re doing in Tennessee today.”