Categories
Education Featured NewsTracker

State Ed Board Votes to Overhaul Teacher Pay System

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted Friday to overhaul the state’s minimum payment requirements for public school teachers.

The new payment plan, presented to the board by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and passed by a vote of 6-3, includes a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase to teachers’ minimum salaries, but opponents argue that changes to the pay schedule structure will end up severely limiting teachers’ earning potential over the course of their entire careers.

Under the current system, teachers receive up to 20 small salary bumps during their careers as they gain seniority and can also move up pay brackets for completing advanced degrees and training. The new system reduces the schedule to just a few different categories, leaving it largely up to local districts to decide how raises are awarded.

The board passed the plan over the public objections of Tennessee’s major teachers’ union along with many Democrats in the State Legislature. At the center of the debate is the way teacher pay categories are divided. During the SBOE meeting Friday, Commissioner Huffman and members of his staff laid out the details of their proposal while several dozen union members with the Tennessee Education Association packed the conference room to show their opposition.

Tennessee Education Association Vice President Barbara Gray was allowed to address the state board on their behalf and called on SBOE members to postpone action on the Department of Education plan.

While ostensibly an opportunity to debate and possibly modify the proposal, discussion was kept minimal.

Gray contended that the current minimum pay schedule was set up to “foster equity in teacher salaries among school districts and to provide professional pay for hard-working educators.”

“The overall effect of the changes proposed,” Gray told the board “is a substantial lowering of the state requirement for teacher salary,” a point that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman directly contradicted.

“Tennessee law forbids any district from cutting an individual teacher’s salary; it’s actually not allowable for a district to cut an individual teacher’s salary,” Huffman said. “Salaries will not go down,” he continued “I don’t understand how to be more clear about that.”

Huffman and board chairman Fielding Rolston, a vocal supporter of the alterations, repeatedly dismissed the assertion that lifetime earnings might decline under the new plan  — drawing boos and whispers from TEA union members — and suggested that arguments otherwise were deliberate distortions of the truth.

In his opening remarks, Huffman said he was “disappointed to see a lot of misinformation about the salary proposal,” while Rolston was less reserved, telling fellow board members “It’s extremely unfortunate that some of the misleading information, the inflammatory information that has been distributed is out there because I think it has led to a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers that is totally inappropriate.”

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture that proved little consolation for opponents, the board ultimately chose to include non-binding language to the proposal they voted on saying the new system could be re-evaluated in the future if the results were negative.

The changes to the teacher pay schedule come as an example of the larger push by GOP education reform advocates, including many in the Haslam administration and the General Assembly, to increased local district control and emphasize teacher performance over experience or advanced training.

Speaking to reporters following Friday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stressed both points.

“For too long in education, we have operated with the presumption that everybody performs at the same level, everybody is the same, there is no marketplace for people. Those are fallacies. Some teachers perform at a higher level than others,” Huffman said.

“Some folks would like to see a system continue that says ‘we’re going to treat you all the same no matter any of the other factors, we’re going to pay you exactly the same,’” the commissioner continued. “And we believe that school districts should be able to create systems that say ‘You know, not everybody’s the same. In our district, we have a challenge with X; we would like to fix X and use compensation as part of that.’”

The new minimum pay system is set to begin taking effect in the 2013-14 school year.

Categories
Education Featured

House Dems, TEA Blast Huffman’s Teacher Pay Proposal

Proposed changes to the way Tennessee public school teachers are paid have state House Democrats and teachers’ unions bristling.

During a press event at the state Capitol, party leaders on Thursday blasted a proposal from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that would alter Tennessee’s minimum teacher salary schedule and, according to opponents, drastically reduce the amount teachers earn over the span of their careers.

State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is set to present the plan to State Board of Education Friday, after which the board could vote to approve it.

Critics’ concerns about the plan include the reduction of seniority-based pay categories from the current 21 steps to just four possible raises over the course of a career. There would also be fewer pay increases available for teachers who earn advanced degrees.

Jim Wrye, a representative for the state’s main teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, described the proposal as a “fundamental gutting of that state minimum salary schedule.”

“We think that it’s going to increase inequities,” Wrye told reporters. “We think that it’s going to cause mid-career teachers to see no pay raises for long periods of time.

“Requiring a minimum for a salary has a real way of leveraging [state education] money to make sure that teachers across the state at least make a middle class wage,” he said.

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh expressed concern during the press conference that the revised pay schedule would make it harder for the state to attract talented teachers. “We break our commitment to teachers by doing this and we really put a chilling effect on recruitment of teachers,” the Ripley Democrat said. “Lord, we don’t pay them enough in the first place…I don’t know that we can get career teachers anymore.”

Fitzhugh also argued that the plan would discourage teachers from pursuing advanced degrees and career development training.

“There will be no more, to a great degree, incentive for teachers to get an advanced degree,” said Fitzhugh. “And what are you saying to our children? That advanced degree is no longer important. Going into higher education on an elevated basis doesn’t matter any more because we don’t even think it matters when your teacher gets a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. We’re not going to pay him or her any more for that.”

But that logic doesn’t quite fly with at least one Republican lawmaker. Reached by phone Thursday, GOP House Caucus Chair Glen Casada of Franklin told TNReport, “I know in the business world, you don’t get paid because you have an M.B.A behind your name.”

Casada said he did have some “reservations” about possible reductions in teachers’ minimum earning potential but echoed the line often touted by Republican education reform advocates that bonuses and raises should be awarded based purely on measured performance rather than experience or education.

Fitzhugh himself addressed that point Thursday. “I’m all for paying for productivity, paying for excellence, but you don’t do that at the expense of teachers, initially, by lowering their pay,” he said.

Categories
Education Featured NewsTracker

Legislative Subcommittee Hears from Parents on Textbook Bias

Some conservatives in the Tennessee Legislature are looking to change the way the state approves its public school textbooks.

Amidst recent complaints from parents of liberal and anti-semitic bias in school books, a Joint Government Operations Subcommittee voted Wednesday to effectively put the state’s Textbook Commision on notice, giving them one year to address concerns and propose solutions or face being dissolved in favor of another system.

The Education, Health & General Welfare Subcommittee periodically evaluates certain government entities, including the textbook board, and makes recommendations to either extend or scrap them.

During the subcommittee meeting, Wednesday, members of the State Textbook Commission, which includes educators and administrators, stressed to lawmakers that they evaluate books to make sure they meet educational benchmarks and put out a list of approved options but that school districts make the final purchasing decisions. Members of the Commission estimated that public school districts spend roughly $66 million annually on books in Tennessee.

It was the testimony from members of the public, however, that appeared to have the most impact on committee members’ thinking. Several parents spoke heatedly about what they say is an agenda, present in certain textbooks, that undermines Judeo-Christian and capitalist principles.

Julie West of the group Parents for Truth in Education quoted passages from social studies books that she argued glorified the communist ideologies of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a Christian Zionist activist with the group Proclaiming Justice to the Nations raced through several examples of what she sees as anti-semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric that condones radical Islam and terrorism.

Speaking to reporters following her testimony, Moore questioned the efficacy of the Textbook Commission’s approval process and called for an overhaul of the system.

“We are not wanting our way of life to be jeopardized because of the content that’s provided in this curriculum,” Moor said. “What worldview are [textbooks] being vetted from? Parents from Williamson County and across the state of Tennessee want to know because it doesn’t represent our values.”

Conservatives on the subcommittee emphasized that they didn’t believe the textbook board itself was responsible for perpetuating a bias, suggesting instead that commission in its current form simply didn’t have the resources to do the sort of value-based reviewing that they deemed necessary.

Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, one of the prime legislators raising the textbook issue, said he sees increased local control and parental involvement in decision-making as the best solution.

“We have to figure out a way so that the locals can reject curriculum that they find biased or not factual,” the Franklin lawmaker told reporters.

Asked where such bias was coming from, Casada said he thought that larger publishing companies that tend to dominate the market are usually based in more liberal parts of the country.

“Most of this is from the large textbooks that are predominantly Eastern Seaboard-based or California-based and they bring their own bias and that’s what we’re being exposed to in Tennessee,” Casada said.

Any final changes to the way the state approves textbooks would ultimately have to come in the form of legislation and pass through the entire general assembly.

Categories
Business and Economy NewsTracker

Lawmakers Still Discussing Job-Search Incentives

State Rep. Charles Curtiss suggested this week the state could be doing more to encourage unemployment-benefits recipients to re-enter the workforce more quickly.

The Sparta Democrat raised the issue Tuesday during a Fiscal Review Committee meeting at the state Capitol, part of which included testimony from the interim head of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Management, the agency that handles unemployment claims.

The way he sees it, Curtis said, laid-off workers who receive consistent weekly benefits don’t have enough incentive to seriously look for a job. Even if it’s just enough to scrape by, Curtiss said, recipients will take their time finding work.

“There’s a lot of people, if they can live on $275 a week, they really aren’t interested in finding a job until that money runs out,” Curtiss told TNReport following the meeting. Even with state and federal requirements that workers prove they are actively searching for work, Curtiss said, the motivation still isn’t there.

“There’s a significant difference between going through the motions to look for a job—we’ve already got it in our rules, they’ve got to try three times in a certain period of time to make at least three contacts looking for a job,” explained Curtiss. “If I really don’t want a job, I know to ask for a job where I know I’m not going to get one. I’m trying to create an incentive where they are actually trying to find a job,” he continued.

Among the solutions that Curtiss suggested is a plan to front-load the benefits unemployed workers receive. “Maybe we need to give them $300-plus on the first few weeks and then start progressively giving them less money,” he said.

Curtiss also suggested the possibility of continuing to pay a portion of benefits to workers who take a low-wage job quickly rather than waiting around for higher paying openings.

“If someone’s got the opportunity to get a job that’s bringing in $25 or $50 or $100 more than they are actually getting on benefits, then maybe we let them take that job and we let them keep a certain percentage of those benefits for an extended period of time—maybe 60 days or 90 days—that encourages them, also, to take a job even though they’re not making much more money,” Curtiss told TNReport.

For his part, DOL Interim Commissioner Burns Phillips told Rep. Curtis that the department “welcome[s] all suggestions,” but, he said, “we are often restricted by what the federal government will let us do.”

Governor Haslam appointed Phillips to run the beleaguered agency in March following the resignation of previous Commissioner Karla Davis. Phillips spent nearly an hour in front of the Fiscal Review Committee Tuesday, updating lawmakers on the current state of the agency that has been the subject of scrutiny, investigations and allegations of mismanagement in recent years. Phillips emphasized recent improvements and praised agency staff, telling lawmakers “there is much, much good about the department.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has been leading the effort to tighten rules for administering unemployment benefits the past couple years. Last year the General Assembly toughened requirements on beneficiaries, like requiring them to keep a log of their efforts to find work.

Some 400 people were kicked off the program in a random check of more than 6,100 claimants during the first seven weeks the law was in place, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in December.

Categories
NewsTracker

Lawmakers, MADD Tout New Ignition Interlock Law

Members of Tennessee’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter were on Capitol Hill Tuesday to celebrate a new law that greatly expands the use of ignition interlock devices in the state.

The legislation, House Bill 353, is set to go into effect on July 1 and will make Tennessee the 18th state in the U.S. to require anyone convicted of a drunk-driving offense with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or higher to use an interlock ignition system in their vehicle. Once installed, the breathalyzer system confirms the driver’s blood-alcohol is below the legal limit before allowing operation of the vehicle.

Jan Withers, national president of MADD, was also on hand at a Legislative Plaza press event Tuesday to celebrate the new law. “Thanks to the work here in Tennessee, fewer families will have to find out that someone they love has died in a drunk driving crash,” she said.

“This legislation that was just signed into law is a key part of the [the] solution,” Withers continued. “Anyone who violates the public trust and drives drunk, after 30 years of prevention and education in this country, has earned the right for an alcohol ignition interlock device to be installed on their vehicle.”

The MADD representatives were joined by the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who guided the legislation to unanimous approval in both chambers earlier this spring.

Beavers and Shipley, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee where the bill originated, joined in praising both their colleagues in the General Assembly and the lobbying work of MADD.

“It was a remarkable journey that we fought really good fights over in the House and the Senate,” Shipley said. “We should be proud of these members, Democrat and Republican alike. It’s quite an accomplishment for our state.”

“And I have nothing but praise for MADD. Y’all have been awesome,” Shipley continued.

But while the sense of accomplishment at the Capitol was effusive, more skeptical voices in the legal community worry about the efficacy of ignition interlock. Furthermore, the increased focus on the devices puts an unfair burden on lower-income offenders because of the hefty cost of such systems, say some.

Lee Martin, a Nashville defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, told TNReport he believes the new law will merely help “keep the honest people honest.”

“If someone wants to drink and drive badly enough, they’re going to do it,” he said. “People drive all the time without drivers’ licenses. People are still going to be able to drink and drive if that’s what they want to do.”

Martin argued that coming out as tough on DUI’s is “a very easy proposition for politicians,” who in turn run the risk of oversimplifying the issue.

“Most of your DUI people are first-time offenders — they’re going to be in trouble one time in their life, they’re going to learn their lesson and they’re going to be finished with the court. That’s your typical DUI offender and they’re really just making it more burdensome folks who just can’t afford it,” Martin said.

“I think there probably are some positive aspects to the interlock device, but it’s not going to cure the problem,” he added.

Discussion on drunk driving appears likely to resurface in the coming legislative session given recent federal recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that encourages states to consider lowering blood-alcohol limits from .08 to .05 percent.

According to a report from WKRN-TV in Nashville, at least two state lawmakers, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby and Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, have said they would support legislation, bringing Tennessee in line with the NTSB’s recommendations.

However, none of the lawmakers present Tuesday, nor any representatives from MADD, offered definitive support for lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit in Tennessee.

Rep. Shipley told reporters that he’d consider a move to further lower legal BAC if it were phased in over several years to address what he sees as possible financial and logistical hurdles in implementation.

Jan Withers, the MADD National President, was unwilling to give an opinion, instead emphasizing the organization’s “laser-beam focus” on interlock systems, which she contends is the way to “save the most lives right now.

Categories
Business and Economy NewsTracker

Volkswagen Layoffs Loom Amid Questions Over New ‘Clawback’ Rules

Earlier this spring, executives with Volkswagen announced their plan to cut hundreds of jobs at their Chattanooga manufacturing facility due to slower-than-expected sales of their midsize Passat model.

The company confirmed this week that 500 contracted employees are being eliminated.

The job losses put the German automaker in line to become the latest in a string of companies to yield disappointing results after taking large, state-funded corporate incentives including tax-breaks and free land.

Volkswagen’s cutbacks come at the same time that the state is getting set to implement new rules that the governor and many state lawmakers say are aimed at holding companies responsible if they fall short on jobs promises in Tennessee. But some policy watchers worry that the law change will have little effect.

Senate Bill 605, which had huge bipartisan support in the General Assembly and was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last month, would require the state Department of Economic and Community Development to include a so-called “clawback provision” – no jobs, no money – in future agreements with companies that accept taxpayer cash to expand their businesses in Tennessee.

During a committee hearing on the bill well before Volkswagen announced its intended layoffs in Tennessee, Senate sponsor Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, described the premise behind the law with some seeming prescience:

“In the past, we have allocated money in budgets that would go to specific economic development projects, for instance a Volkswagen or a Hemlock or whoever the case may be…If you’re five years into an agreement – and you still have another so-many-millions of dollars to pay – and let’s just say some company says, ‘We’re not bringing those 450 jobs like we said we would.’ Well, that’s kind of why we passed that budget to begin with, to bring those 500 jobs.”

“I think it’s at least reasonable to let the (ECD) commissioner have that authority so he can at least have that discussion when they’re talking with those companies,” Finney continued.

But it’s unclear how much of a guarantee the new rules will actually provide. While new agreements will have clawback measures on paper, the final version of SB 605 was watered down to give ECD officials the last say on whether or not to actually enforce them.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told TNReport in early April that he was confident the bill is balanced enough to avoid scaring off businesses while protecting taxpayers.

“[ECD officials] need to keep as much flexibility as they can, but I think the will of the General Assembly and of the people is to put as many clawback provisions in their as possible,” the Chattanooga Republican said. “We don’t want to run off 10,000 jobs either but I think, in most cases, companies are going to agree to some kind of clawback provision.”

But for those who question the state’s aggressive attempts to lure certain companies to Tennessee using taxpayer money, the scale seems to still be tipped too far in favor of companies, leaving the state’s taxpayers on the hook.

Reached via email, Trey Moore at the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee told TNReport that “while the intent of the bill seems to be good, the final language appears to give ECD the discretion of whether to ‘clawback’ funds in the event a company reneges on its end of a deal. Since discretion is susceptible to political influence, a mandatory clawback provision is more appropriate when you’re dealing with taxpayer money.”

The new legislation goes into effect in July but would not apply to deals reached before then, including that between the state and Volkswagen.

Categories
Featured Tax and Budget

Republicans At Odds Over Collecting Internet Sales Tax

The U.S. Congress is mulling a bill that would allow states to charge online shoppers a sales tax just like they would pay in brick-and-mortar stores. But that prospect has many of Tennessee’s Republican politicians, both in Washington and Nashville, at seeming odds.

Dubbed the “Marketplace Fairness Act of 2013,” the law would give Tennessee the power to collect sales tax from online retailers when state residents buy from them.

Internet sales-tax supporters like U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who helped shepherd the bill through the Senate earlier this month, contend that the change would put online businesses on an equal playing field with physical retailers.

Currently, consumers who shop online are technically supposed to file a sales tax on those purchases themselves, but very few actually do, giving Internet stores a price advantage.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, appearing alongside Alexander at a groundbreaking ceremony in Clarksville, Friday, echoed the senator’s support for the measure.

“The reality is it’s not a new tax; It’s due us.” Haslam, himself a Republican, told reporters. “It’s a tax that all these retail stores around here, they’re all paying when folks shop there and it’s really an unfair advantage. So we want those folks to collect the tax that the state is due.”

But some GOP lawmakers from the state aren’t so sure.

In Washington, the state’s House delegation appears fractured, with some Tennessee representatives opposing the bill and others saying they are unsure how they might vote.

Glenn Jacobs, a professional wrestler turned political activist, caused a buzz last week when the libertarian website Reason.com reported that he’s considering a primary run at Alexander. Jacobs, known to WWE fans as “Kane,” has been rattling the Tennessee establishment GOP’s cage in recent weeks with pointed criticisms at state leaders like Haslam, Alexander and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey for their support of an Internet sales tax.

Some state lawmakers from the Republican supermajority meanwhile have been suggesting they would only go along with an online sales tax if rates were cut somewhere else, making the whole enterprise “revenue-neutral” for government and Tennessee shoppers as a whole.

State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains says he opposes the legislation, in part, because he’s concerned about Washington overreach in state revenue matters.

Niceley told TNReport he sees the Marketplace Fairness Act as “a way for the federal government to get their greedy, grubby hands on our sales tax.” But in the case that Congress does pass the law, Niceley says he’s already working on a bill to make sure it remains a wash for consumers.

“If they want to pass the internet tax, fine. We’ll cut it somewhere else,” Niceley said.

“Our first thought is take the sales tax off food. If they are going to pass this internet tax in the name of fairness with the bricks-and-mortar stores with the internet sales, then in fairness to the public, we need to make it revenue-neutral and take the tax off of food.”

Shelbyville state Sen. Jim Tracy and Lascassas state Rep. Joe Carr, both of whom are running in next year’s Republican primary against incumbent U.S. Rep Scott DesJarlais, have each said they favor the tax being revenue-neutral in Tennessee. DesJarlais hasn’t publicly stated a position on the Act.

During a recent campaign event, Tracy told a crowd, “We don’t need additional money at the state level…we need to cut spending at the state level.”

Tracy said if the Act passes he’d want to see state lawmakers and the governor “adjust the sales tax on groceries, do away with the Hall income tax, do away with other taxes.”

“At the state level, if it brings in additional revenue, it’s got to be revenue-neutral,” he said.

Friday, Gov. Haslam declined to say what he thought about such a plan.

“We haven’t even gotten the money yet, it’s a little early to start talking about what we’ll do with it,” the governor told reporters. “Until we have the funds, then we’ll have a discussion about what we do with it.”

“There’s a lot of discussion, we think it’s somewhere in the $350-400 or 450 million a year,” Haslam continued. “But right now there’s a lot of work to do in the House so it’s a little premature to talk about what we would do with the money.”

Categories
Education Featured

Campfield Wrestles With Higher Ed Officials Over UT’s ‘Sex Week,’ Liberal Lecturers

Members of the state Senate Higher Education Subcommittee were at the Capitol for a hearing Thursday and Knoxville Republican Stacey Campfield seized the opportunity to spar with administrators from the state’s public university systems over how schools allocate student activities money.

Top on the agenda for Campfield, an outspoken social conservative who seems to never stray far from the limelight, was the so-called “Sex-Week” put on by student groups at the University of Tennessee Knoxville back in March.

The event, which included talks and events related to sexuality and reproductive health, was organized by student groups and initially received funding from the university’s student activities budget, but after Campfield and other conservative lawmakers cried foul, that money was pulled.

Still, the senator challenged representatives from the UT system and the Tennessee Board of Regents Thursday to explain their reasoning for initially approving what he characterized as “obscenity.”

Beyond the specifics of Sex Week, Campfield, who also sits on the state Senate’s full Education Committee, charged that the state’s public universities displayed a liberal bias in the speakers and events they funded on campus. Campfield read aloud a list of dozens of speakers that student groups had brought to UT campuses in the past three years, claiming that only one was conservative.

“I hate to say it but I’m not seeing much diversity there,” Campfield said. “I’m seeing a whole bunch of left. Except for maybe one person three years ago you had the former chairman of the RNC speak…that was the only one I could find who was clearly, I would say, right-leaning.”

“Looking at the facts of all the speakers, I’m saying there’s probably some content bias,” he continued.

Yet beyond the list of guest speakers, Campfield couldn’t offer evidence that schools discriminated against or denied funding to right-leaning student groups.

For their part, university officials maintained that their policies for allocating money aren’t based on the content or political leaning of groups or speakers.

University of Tennessee President Joe Dipietro told reporters after the hearing that student groups of all stripes are treated equally in the UT system.

“We have a process for them to be recognized as an registered organizations,”Dipietro said. ”We have a diverse population of people around our universities, both conservative and liberal.”

After spending close to an hour and a half on the issue, the subcommittee ended with a resolution to recommend that the full Senate Education Committee consider imposing policy changes during next year’s legislative session.

Categories
Featured Liberty and Justice

Matheny to Chair New Subcommittee on Federal Powers, State Sovereignty

State Rep. Judd Matheny has plans for a small group of fellow House legislators to start dissecting federal laws that affect Tennessee and analyzing them to determine whether they adhere to a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

Speaking to members of the strongly conservative Tennessee Republican Assembly last month, Matheny, who chairs the state House Government Operations Committee, said that even with a GOP supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly, more work remains to be done to ensure that the Volunteer state “protects the rights and privileges of citizens,” from what he sees as federal overreaching.

The seven-term lawmaker and former speaker pro tem told the TRA that he is in the beginning stages of setting up a new House subcommittee to vet federal laws and policies that affect Tennessee and opine on their constitutionality.

The so-called Balance of Powers Subcommittee, Matheny said, came out of a failed bill with the same name from the 2013 session that he carried with state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. The legislation would have given the assembly the statutory responsibility of similarly vetting federal rules.

Matheny explained that if lawmakers approached the committee with a specific state/federal issue, the committee would “rip it apart, tear it apart; we’re going to decide is it constitutional, does it violate our state’s rights.”

“And if we believe that it does,” Matheny continued, “we’re going to issue a report to both speakers, we’re going to issue a report to every member of the General Assembly.”

The Tullahoma Republican spoke candidly about how he sees the ideological breakdown amongst his Republican House colleagues, including those he thinks would be sympathetic to his ideas and those who aren’t conservative enough for his tastes.

Last year Matheny publicly mulled over the idea of challenging Nashville Republican Beth Harwell for the House speakership, but later backed off the bid. Matheny himself then lost the pro tem post in a challenge from Curtis Johnson, a Republican from Clarksville.

“Some of our most conservative people are in the dark and we are trying to emerge from that,” Matheny told the TRA crowd on April 20. “We have probably 25 to 28 of our 70 members who are like us, they being in this room. We have another 20 or so — 25 — that can go either way based on the merits of the arguments or how convincing we can be. And then we have another 20 or 22 that need to go.”

But beyond obliquely calling for primary challenges to more moderate members of his own caucus, Matheny hopes to further his conservative agenda by setting his sights on policies from Washington.

The Balance of Powers Subcommittee has only had one organizational meeting so far and hasn’t looked at any specific issues, but Matheny told TNReport last week, “We’re going to look at executive orders, we’re going to look at mandates, we’re going to look at legislation.”

Pressed for specifics, Matheny said “I’m not sure if these are going to be on the calendar or not, but an example would be the Common Core standards, educational standards that the state is adopting…those are a potential. Executive orders on gun control have been another example that have been brought forward.”

Yet even while Matheny described his new committee to TRA members as “revolutionary” and the first of its kind in the country, it remains unclear how effective it will be.

“We’re not going to do actions that are binding, we’re not going to amend bills,” Matheny told TNReport.

With only enough power to offer recommendations, any substantive actions to address federal policies still rests with General Assembly leadership and the body as a whole, including a Democratic superminority and more liberal Republican legislators.

Categories
Education NewsTracker

Turkey Trip Not Too Worrying to Lawmakers Concerned About Foreign Influence

Judd Matheny, chairman of the Government Operations Committee in the Tennessee House of Representatives, has concerns about anti-American ideas percolating into taxpayer-funded schools.

In the stated interest of addressing that potentiality, the Republican from Tullahoma sponsored successful legislation in 2012 giving local school boards the power to limit the number of foreign teachers working in Tennessee charter schools.

The legislation was presented to Matheny by the Tennessee chapter of the Eagle Forum, a socially conservative lobbying group. At the time, the Eagle Forum was raising the alarm in opposition to the work of a Turkish Muslim Cleric named Fethullah Gülen, whose organization runs charter schools in multiple countries, including several in the American Southeast.

Now, as fate would have it, a group associated with Gülen is footing the tab for a troupe of Tennessee lawmakers to embark upon an all-expense-paid expedition to Turkey. The purpose of the journey is to foster economic ties between the Volunteer State and the predominantly Islamic transcontinental republic.

According to a recent report from News Channel 5’s Phil Williams, lawmakers planning to attend the 12-day junket include Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah; Rep. Roger Kane, R-Knoxville; Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis; Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis; Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis; Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis; and Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Mt. Juliet.

While Matheny says he is still uncomfortable with foreign influence in Tennessee schools, including from Gülen, he appears to be giving his fellow lawmakers the benefit of the doubt.

Asked recently about his legislation in relation to the upcoming Turkey trip, Matheny told TNReport he believes “some of the Gülen schools…have brought in more foreign teachers than we would like to see in Tennessee.”

“I am very concerned about the proliferation of charter schools that are of non-United States origin and perhaps teach things that are contrary to our constitution here within our borders,” Metheny continued.

But Matheny also said that he’s not overly concerned about his colleagues being influenced by a free getaway.

“I’ve not talked personally with very many legislators that are going. Those that I have talked to seem to be in the frame of mind that they want to do the proper due diligence on both sides,” he said. “They also understand that those trips are not totally focused on charter schools.”

Matheny said that he had been invited on a past trip put on by the same group and declined the offer, but he was quick not to appear hostile.

“Turkey is a great ally, it’s not a country that we want to snub. It’s not a country that we don’t want to foster great relationships with,” he said. “I’m more worried about what’s happening domestically and what’s happening to our children. We want to make sure they are solid Americans.”

State Sen. Bill Ketron, who sponsored Matheny’s bill in the upper chamber, expressed similar sentiments, telling TNReport:

“I do not have a problem with it.  It is important that we have dialogue with decision makers abroad.  This is a cultural exchange and educational trip.  I have confidence that my colleagues will use good judgement as far as any potential effect on issues here in Tennessee.”

Bobbie Patray, state president of the Tennessee Eagle Forum declined to comment on the upcoming trip, saying only that TNReport should talk to the lawmakers who are attending.