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Unforeseen Hostility to Administration’s Class-Size Flexibility Plan Surprised Haslam

With two years of legislative political experience under his belt, the governor says he has a better appreciation for laying local foundations of support for statewide policy changes. That’s key to avoiding reform proposals getting unexpectedly derailed by grassroots resistance and intragovernmental opposition, Haslam told TNReport.

After finishing the first third of the term he was elected in a landslide to serve in 2010, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s been able to check off a handful of campaign promises from his to-do list.

But one of his biggest frustrations has been realizing that running government isn’t always just like running a business.

He says that’s particularly true in education, where his initiatives have at times faced opposition amid concerns about how they will be implemented.

“To realize this isn’t a company where we’re the main headquarters and we have all these regional offices out in the counties, and we say ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’ and they say, ‘We’re going to implement that,’” Haslam told TNReport during a sit-down interview this week. “I don’t say it so much as a disappointment but as a realization that if you have an effort, particularly related to education, it’s continuous.

“Your need to explain it, and to engage with that is continuous, if you really want to see the change actually implemented in the districts.”

Case in point: the governor’s class size proposal.

Early this year, Haslam unveiled a plan to give school districts the flexibility to adjust class sizes, which would free up money to increase pay for teachers in tough-to-teach subjects or difficult-to-staff positions.

But the plan went down in flames.

Democrats and the state’s largest teachers’ union relentlessly attacked the plan, polls showed almost nine in 10 surveyed thought class sizes should be kept the same or made smaller, and even Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to support the governor’s proposal.

At the local level, school officials were worried that any money saved from raising the average class size would give elected school boards and county commissions reason to reduce education budgets instead of plugging the money into better teacher pay.

“I understand where the governor comes from with his business background, but there are a lot of areas where government doesn’t operate like a business,” said Jerry Winters, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“The decisions that the Legislature makes on education issues obviously have a huge impact on local finances, and I don’t think the governor ought to be surprised that he’s going to get some push back from local officials when it has a big financial impact on cities and counties,” he said.

Due to dynamics within the education community, concerns run high when details about how a plan aren’t sold well enough to local officials or the public at large, said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist with the Tennessee School Boards Association.

“It’s not going to be a one size fits all most of the time. You’re going to need those local folks who are actually on the ground there who have the ability to take these new laws or mandates and adapt them so that they work best for their school system or county or city, whatever the case may be,” he said.

“And if they’re unclear or uncertain as to how that’s going to impact their district, then there’s going to be some concern. There’s going to be a little push back,” said Harrell, who is running as a Republican against Rep. Joshua Evans in Robertson County  in the August primary election.

While Haslam’s attempt at offering merit pay failed, his list of accomplishments so far is still quite long.

He has successfully pushed laws to make teacher tenure harder to obtain and reform the state’s civil service system, cut the tax on food and inheritances, and increase the money for state incentives to attract businesses. Meanwhile, the state has changed its purchasing practices and how it uses commercial space.

Haslam says he’s not done looking for a way to fund merit pay for teachers, but for now still isn’t sure how he’d pay for it or what he’d have to do to ensure any policy he hands down is put into play the way he intends.

“I’d still like to figure out a way to have some more flexibility for the locals who want it — which is how that was designed — but addresses their fears that it could mean less funding, which is not what we would ever intend or hope for,” said Haslam.

“We can’t create money out of nowhere so we have to figure out some other way to do that,” he said.

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