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Education Featured Tax and Budget

Higher Spending Requested for Higher Ed

Tennessee higher education officials, sensing the wind in the back of the state’s education reform efforts, boldly made their request to Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday for a budget increase of $28.7 million.

Haslam has asked all state agencies to submit a contingency plan for 5 percent reductions, and the state’s higher education schools complied with an outline that would trim $55.1 million from their books.

But leaders of the state’s public colleges and universities seized upon the initiatives from K-12 education and higher education like the Complete College Act as a means of persuasion with the governor. The $28.7 million request represents a 2.7 percent increase in funds.

“This is an interesting time,” Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told Haslam during a budget hearing. “We have a new way of looking at it.

“The state has higher education serving the needs of the state. We have a new master plan. We have a new funding formula that reinforces that master plan based on outcomes. We’re seeing positive movement.”

Rhoda said there are indicators of more students completing degrees, better retention rates and improvements in the amount of remedial and developmental courses that have been falling to higher education. But even as a higher ed official, Rhoda pointed to the significance of what the state is doing in K-12 as the foundation for improvements in higher education.

“The reforms in higher education are great, but the bigger context is how it fits the other reforms in K-12,” Rhoda said. “For us to succeed really is predicated on those improvements in K-12. Just suffice it to say we very much support those.”

Rhoda sat between Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan and University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro at the hearing at the Capitol in Nashville. All three seemed keenly aware of the daunting financial obstacles facing students and families in affording college. THEC approved its budget request last week, but it came along with proposed increases in tuition that would range from 3-10 percent depending on the schools in the state’s higher education system.

Morgan made a pitch similar to Rhoda’s.

“The combination of Race to the Top, the Complete College Act, the talk is right,” Morgan said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy out there and discussion going on and realization that it really is about the state’s future.”

The education officials knew they were preaching to the choir in Haslam, who has made the ties between education and job growth a major theme in his first year in office. But it didn’t make the governor’s job any easier in funding education requests. Haslam cut the budget for higher education in his first year in office by 2 percent, or $20 million.

But the three educators brought even more ammunition to the table. DiPietro pointed to efforts to operate more efficiently in universities. Morgan said the costs at schools actually haven’t gone up at the pace of what students are experiencing in paying tuition.

Rhoda broke down funding trends for Haslam. He told the governor that 10 years ago a university’s funding came roughly 60 percent from the state and 40 percent from the students, while community colleges received about 70 percent from the state at that time.

Now, the figures have been reversed, Rhoda said. The state provides about 36 percent while student tuition and fees cover 53 percent. Rhoda, like Morgan, said cost itself is not increasing for the schools. The change, he said, is in the mix of revenue, where students are having to pay more for their share.

Haslam told reporters after the hearing that he believes there will have to be some tuition increase but that he hopes to limit it. He said he didn’t anticipate being able to grant the colleges a $28.7 million increase but that he didn’t believe he would have to hold them to a 5 percent decrease either. Haslam also pointed to capital needs at colleges and universities.

Haslam said the recent improvements in revenue figures could help the state address a $360 million budget gap.

“I’m really, really hopeful we don’t have to go 5 percent,” Haslam said. “Some of those cuts are tough.

“I feel a little better now than I did three weeks ago, but I can’t sit here today and tell you it will be 3 percent or 1 percent, instead of 5. I just don’t know that yet.”

The state reported that revenue collections for October were $791 million, 8 percent above October in 2010.

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Business and Economy News

Governors Visit TN, Focus on Jobs

Governors attending a regional summit of the National Governors Association in Nashville Monday see themselves as being on the front line of job creation in America.

They also see a federal government that is not.

“Our states can be great laboratories for democracy at how we can solve some of our nation’s problems,” Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma said. “I get really frustrated that Washington doesn’t always deal with solutions to the problems. They spend a lot of time being partisan, debating, but here in our states we’re able to work on those exact solutions to help bring some ideas forth.”

The official theme of the NGA initiative headed by Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska is “Growing State Economies.” Heineman is addressing what he says is the foremost issue facing the nation.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi went right at Washington for taking its eye off the ball, in his estimation.

“Governors are more focused on job creation and economic growth than anybody else in government because we deal with it on a daily basis,” Barbour said. “When jobs are lost in Mississippi or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Nebraska, the governor knows about it the day it happens.

“When jobs are created, we also are the first ones to try to get out there and pat the people on the back and tell them they need to do more of it. Unfortunately, the federal government is not focused enough on job creation. For the first few years of this administration, most of the time was spent on health care.”

Barbour said it is a case of a “more-than-one-year-long absorption of the federal government’s attention to create a government-run health care system that is going to make health care more expensive.

“Ironically, the effect of that on job creation, our No. 1 priority, is that when employers don’t understand and have no way of knowing the obligations and costs of providing health care for their employees, how do they create more jobs?”

Uncertainty has been one of the key elements of economic discussions across the nation. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who hosted the summit at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, has repeatedly noted a lack of confidence both among potential employers who would have to risk capital and consumers who are reluctant to spend in the current environment.

But there seemed to be agreement among the four governors at the summit that government’s role is not to create jobs but simply create an environment conducive to job growth.

That theme played out in references to too much government regulation and the value of tort reform. But in Haslam’s own state, there has been debate about the premise that government cannot create jobs.

Democrats have conducted a “jobs tour” across the statelooking for ideas on the heels of a legislative session in which they offered a package of jobs bills. The fundamental difference in approaches does not appear likely to go away. But neither will the overwhelming Republican majority in the General Assembly, meaning many of the Democrats’ efforts will be an uphill climb for them.

The governors did find other topics apart from bashing Washington. One favorable trend they see is that due to the price of transportation and a lessening of the wage gap, jobs that had gone overseas are beginning to return to the United States. They also see the ability of small businesses to grow as a key factor in job growth.

But then there was an old-fashioned sense of patriotic optimism as well.

“What was it, 20 years ago, Japan was going to take over the world? The United States was going to lose its competitive edge,” Heineman said. “We won that one. We’re going to win this one, too.”

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Business and Economy Featured Health Care Liberty and Justice

Tort Reform Boosted Mississippi Job-Creation, Barbour Tells Governors Gathered in Nashville

When the Tennessee Legislature debated tort reform earlier this year, with a lot of discussion of how the issue had played out in Mississippi, it was difficult to pin down lawmakers on exactly how to quantify the job creation involved.

But Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was in Nashville Monday, and if there was any doubt about whether tort reform made a difference in his state, Barbour attempted to smack down any debate about it.

“Toyota told us they would not consider Mississippi unless we got rid of lawsuit abuse, period,” said Barbour, who participated in a National Governors Association regional summit hosted by Gov. Bill Haslam. “They told us we would not be on the list.”

Barbour went on.

“The CEO of Caterpillar wrote the Speaker of the House, the president of the Senate and me a letter,” he said. “We have five Caterpillar plants in Mississippi.

“He wrote and said, ‘Don’t think lawsuit abuse only affects companies when they’re trying to decide where to site a new plant. It also affects companies that are trying to decide which plants to close.’ The fact Caterpillar had a plant in the speaker of the House’s hometown — who happened to be the biggest opponent of tort reform — I thought made it a particularly effective letter.”

Barbour’s conclusion: “We were the worst state in the United States three years in a row in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit abuse rating. It was killing us on getting companies to come to our state. That, just very directly right out of the customer’s mouth, is how I know it.”

Toyota Corollas are scheduled to start rolling out of the plant in Blue Springs, Miss., this week.

Barbour joined Haslam, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel to talk about job creation. All four are Republicans. They engaged in considerable discussion about the potential of small businesses and the need to help them grow. They talked about logistics and the geographic advantages of some states in job recruitment. It was an all-encompassing look from four governors on the front line of the job hunt.

“There’s not a question in my mind that job creation is the number one issue for every state and frankly for America,” said Heineman, chairman of the NGA.

Nashville was the second of four regional summits in Heineman’s initiative. The first was in Hartford, Conn., a few weeks ago, and others are scheduled in 2012 for Seattle and Omaha.

Tort reform was just one part of Haslam’s legislative package in his first year meant to create an environment for job growth. And it was a limited package. Haslam insists the government can only create the right climate for job growth, not legislate its way to new jobs. Democrats in the Legislature challenged that view, offering several jobs bills that basically fell flat in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Tennessee’s new tort law, the “Tennessee Civil Justice Act,” places a cap of $750,000 on non-economic damages in civil cases, although exceptions exist in cases that involve intentional misconduct, destruction of records or activity under the influence of drugs and alcohol. There is a $1 million cap in what are categorized as catastrophic cases. A cap on punitive damages is two times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.

Mississippi adopted tort reform laws in 2003, putting a $500,000 cap on non-economic damages. A study found the average number of lawsuits filed each year involving the predominant insurer in the state went from 318 to 140 after the reforms, and an annual average of 44 lawsuits involving obstetricians and gynecologists plunged to 15.

As lawmakers in Tennessee considered Haslam’s tort reform proposal, one advocacy group, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, now known as the Beacon Center, asserted that 577 jobs a week could result from the measure. Haslam never used that number. But the Legislature passed the bill 21-12 in the Senate and 72-24 in the House.

Fallin weighed in with her own experience.

“We signed a hard cap on non-economic damages in Oklahoma and eliminated joint and several liability,” she said.

“The month before the law went into place, we typically averaged about 50 cases a month being filed in civil and criminal court cases. Once the law was getting ready to go into effect, it went up to over 500 filings that month.”

Barbour said his state had to overcome Chattanooga’s logistical advantages in landing Toyota over the competition, particularly in changes involving available rail lines to serve the plant.

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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Ramsey on Occupy Nashville: Move’em Out

Hours before the Haslam administration announced it would ask District Attorney Torry Johnson to dismiss charges against the Occupy Nashville protesters at War Memorial Plaza, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey expressed a get-tough stand.

“I think they ought to be removed,” Ramsey said. “I do.

“I’ll bet you that if I took a Boy Scout troop up there and camped out over the weekend, they wouldn’t allow them to do it. That’s just my opinion. I think they’ve gone way too far.”

But David Smith, press secretary for Gov. Bill Haslam, said Thursday afternoon that because of the temporary restraining order issued against the state in taking protesters away from the plaza, the state is seeking to drop the charges against those who were arrested.

State troopers arrested 29 protesters the night after curfew rules were put into effect at the site on Oct. 27, and 26 people were arrested the next night. The administration said it made the decision to arrest protesters in the interest of safety and because of unsanitary conditions involving the protesters, many of whom have set up tents at the plaza, which sits downhill from the front steps of the Capitol.

“As part of the effort to resolve issues surrounding the use of War Memorial Plaza, we’re beginning the process of establishing rules for use of the area by all citizens,” Smith said in a statement Thursday.

The administration had declared a curfew would go into effect at the site forbidding people from being there from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day, after it began to hear complaints related to the protesters. After the arrests, for two nights in a row, a magistrate refused to put the protesters in jail. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued a temporary restraining order on the arrests, and the state did not contest the order.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the protesters filed suit against the state, claiming an infringement on their First Amendment rights of free speech.

Smith said the process for establishing new rules will involve the pursuit of a “variety of perspectives to honor the plaza as a public space for all to enjoy. We look forward to having ground rules in place to ensure that it is a safe and clean environment.”

Smith said the state will work under the assumption that the temporary restraining order would be extended. He noted, however, that the state is not blocked from enforcing existing laws regarding public safety and health.

Ramsey said Thursday he never talked at all to Haslam about the protesters.

“The allegations that have been there that have gone on, with sexual misconduct, things of that nature, there is a limit to this, and I do think this is a public place, and everybody has their First Amendment rights, but I think they’ve overstepped their bounds, I do,” Ramsey said of the protesters.

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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Harwell: Run for Congress ‘Not Something That’s High on My Agenda’

Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell immediately burst out laughing Thursday when asked point blank, “Do you want to run for Congress against Jim Cooper?”

“I don’t know how this got started,” said Harwell. “I think there is a survey that was sent out. I have not seen the results of that. But that’s not something I’m looking at right now, and I don’t know if someone will. I don’t know that answer.”

The subject surfaced in Nashville this week when Pat Nolan, who writes the Capitol View Commentary for NewsChannel5.com, reported on a telephone poll being taken about a potential Harwell-Cooper race for the 5th District congressional seat. Nolan speculated that the source might be the Republican Party putting up trial balloons to see who might give Cooper a strong run.

Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, is in her first term as Tennessee’s speaker of the House, the first woman to hold that office. She was first elected to the General Assembly in 1988 and is a former chair of the Tennessee Republican Party.

Cooper is a moderate Democrat and one of only two Democratic congressmen in the state to hang onto his seat in the Republican onslaught of 2010.

Except for saying people have often talked to her about the potential of running for higher office, Harwell did not sound like a likely congressional candidate Thursday.

When another reporter asked, “So you’re ruling it out?” Harwell laughed again.

“What, you guys want the jump or something?” she asked. “I haven’t even thought about it. We’re so focused on what we’re doing here. I’ll give it some thought, but it’s not something that’s high on my agenda right now.”

Harwell attempted to draw attention back to the business at hand.

“I’m excited about state government, and I feel good about the state Legislature and where we’re going.

“I think the answer to our nation really is to return a lot of these programs back to the state level, because I think Congress has proven itself inept.”

Cooper, a moderate Democrat and member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, has served the 5th District since 2003. He previously served as Tennessee’s 4th District representative.

Cooper defeated Republican newcomer David Hall last November with 57 percent of the vote to Hall’s 42 percent. Hall ran a surprisingly strong race, collecting 71,843 votes, behind Cooper’s 97,834, in what has historically been a safe Democratic seat. Hall emerged from a crowded field in the Republican primary.

The 5th District seat, like other Democratic seats in the state at both the state and federal level, has been the subject of speculation over redistricting and how the district’s lines will be drawn.

Currently, three members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation are former state legislators. They are 6th District Rep. Diane Black, 7th District Rep. Marsha Blackburn and 9th District Rep. Steve Cohen. All three were state senators. Black and Blackburn are Republicans. Cohen is a Democrat.

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NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Ramsey Takes Up For Perry Following ‘Oops’ Moment at Debate

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has a very good memory of what it’s like on the campaign trail.

It’s easy to goof, the way Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ramsey’s preference in the Republican presidential primary, did Wednesday night.

Perry got caught up in what is being called a “gaffe,” a “brain freeze” and “the worst stumble in the 51-year history of televised presidential debates.”

Perry’s description for it: “Oops.”

Perry tried to name the three departments of the federal government he would like to get rid of as president, but he could only go 2-for-3, naming Commerce and Education and failing until it was way too late to state Energy as the third department he would like to dump.

Ramsey, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 — calling for the elimination of some state departments, by the way — said Thursday it’s easy to make a misstep the way his guy did Wednesday. Ramsey, state campaign chairman for Perry, took up for his man.

“All of us, at times, have one, two and three things and forget the third thing. His just happened to be on national television,” Ramsey said. “I do think obviously it’s embarrassing. No doubt about that. But I do think that we’re still a long way from having this race over, and people are looking for an alternative to (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt) Romney.

“I think that’s the reason you see Michele Bachmann go up and then fall back down, you see (former Minnesota Gov. Tim) Pawlenty go up and then fall back down. Rick Perry did the same thing, and now it happens to be Herman Cain. Once again, this is still a process that will be working its way out over the next several months.”

Ramsey raised the subject of Perry’s campaign chest.

“I think Rick Perry has the money — I don’t think, I know — Rick Perry has the money to stay in this through the long haul, and stumblings like this are embarrassing, yet at the same time I think he will recover from this,” Ramsey said.

The Perry campaign this week announced the endorsements of six other Tennessee Republican legislators, including Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson, House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny of Tullahoma, Rep. Don Miller of Morristown and Rep. Mark White of Memphis.

Ramsey said he did not have to twist any arms to get those legislators on the Perry team.

“Just the opposite,” Ramsey said. “I didn’t even try. These are people that have come to me and said, ‘We would like to be on board.’”

Ramsey is the highest ranking elected official in the state who has publicly joined a Republican presidential campaign. Gov. Bill Haslam has refused thus far to state a preference, even as people close to Haslam have joined the Romney finance team.

The governor’s father, Jim Haslam, joins Nashvillian Ted Welch as state finance chairs for Romney. The governor’s brother, Jimmy Haslam, is a co-chairman, as is Brad Martin, a longtime friend of the governor. The finance team also includes Chrissy Hagerty, wife of Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bill Hagerty.

The governor was asked this week, given that so many people close to him were joining the Romney team, why he was holding back.

“No specific reason,” Haslam said. “Given the timing of Tennessee’s primary (March 6), I don’t know that there’s any urgency to it. I think there are some other things that can and will play out. At some point in time, I will endorse. I’m just not there yet.”

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Education Featured

Harwell Cautious on Vouchers, Ramsey Assertive

While Gov. Bill Haslam calls school vouchers potentially one of the most contentious legislative issues on the horizon, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell said Thursday she doesn’t see passage of a voucher bill without a “great deal of discussion.”

Harwell said she would want a plan designed specifically for Tennessee, not just taking what other states have done.

“My personal thought on vouchers is if we’re going to proceed we need to be very careful. There are a lot of questions,” Harwell said. “We’ve put a lot of additional work on our public school teachers for this evaluation process. To allow children to come out and go into a private system where those teachers don’t have to have the same system, I think it’s sending a mixed message to our teachers.

“I would say we have a lot to do in public education yet, and I’d like to stay focused on what we’re doing in our public schools. We have an excellent public charter school bill in this state that I’d like to see continue. Because I think they’re more of the answers to our public school needs.”

The Senate passed a school voucher bill in the last legislative session. But the House balked, putting off its bill for 2012. The concept in HB388 is to provide children from low-income families in the state’s four largest counties the opportunity to receive a scholarship, commonly called a voucher, to attend a school of their choice, including another public school in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The debate has been intense, as many advocates for public schools say vouchers would only subsidize private schools that want the money. Proponents of vouchers say they are a way to give families choice among options they otherwise would not have.

“I think there are House members that have very legitimate concerns,” Harwell said. “I haven’t polled it. I don’t know whether the support is there (to pass it) or not.”

Harwell said the bill presents broad possibilities.

“The way the bill is drafted, I think many of our sponsors think, ‘Well, this will allow them to attend perhaps a Catholic school or perhaps a Baptist school.’ And that’s fine. But it would also allow them to attend a Muslim school, and I could go on and on.

“I think there are some questions that haven’t been fully vetted yet on vouchers, and I’d like to continue to study it.”

Should the voucher issue be hotly debated, it would follow a legislative session in 2011 in which education dominated discussion, with the Legislature making changes to teacher tenure and teachers’ collective bargaining status. Heading into the last session, many people expected the focus to be on the jobs picture and how the economy would impact the state budget. But education measures captured most of the attention, sometimes in combative ways.

Meanwhile, Harwell said it’s important to “stay the course” on the new teacher evaluation process the state has adopted.

“It’s a necessary component to the Race to the Top funding we received,” Harwell said. “We can’t back away from the importance of evaluations. We need to know who our good teachers are and who aren’t.”

The evaluation process has created considerable backlash over time constraints and fairness issues. Harwell endorsed adjustments to the process that Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman initiated that will streamline the process, mostly for principals.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday that after the first year of the evaluation process there may be adjustments but that once the state gets through the current year that most teachers will say the system is helping them.

“I don’t see us backing down,” Ramsey said. “We’re getting national attention right now in the state of Tennessee for some of the education reforms we’re doing.”

Ramsey said he talked Thursday to Michelle Rhee, a nationally recognized education reform advocate who heads the reform-minded StudentsFirst organization.

“Something I am big on is starting at least a pilot project for school choice here in the state of Tennessee, some education scholarships,” Ramsey said.

“If you have children trapped in failing schools and their parents don’t have the means to allow them to go to an alternative then we need to start with a small, pilot project, much along the lines of what Sen. Brian Kelsey is bringing forward, and be able to allow those students to have some choice. It’s just unfair that they’re trapped in these schools.”

He said Rhee’s organization is willing to help with public relations where he says Republicans have been mischaracterized as “beating up on teachers.”

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Education

Huffman Fields Education Queries During ‘Webinar’

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman said Wednesday achievement gaps involving minority students are “a huge priority” for the state as it prepares to submit its formal application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law.

He also said he thinks the odds of Congress passing effective legislation to address concerns about the law are slim, leaving states to act on their own.

The state’s application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind is due Monday, an exercise necessitated by federal demands for more specificity on waiver requests like the one the state first submitted in July.

Huffman fielded questions from several Tennesseans in a “webinar” Wednesday about the waiver request. More than 200 people participated by Internet and more than 180 others by telephone. The participants were largely educators.

“One of the things we are very cognizant of, and that we think is really important, is that if we move out of No Child Left Behind and into a different accountability system, we need to make sure that we are focusing on reducing achievement gaps,” Huffman said in response to one question.

“And that means we are focusing on increasing achievement levels of kids of color across the state.”

Huffman has spoken publicly about the need to address gaps between whites and non-whites if the state is going to improve in education.

“It’s the reason why we have an accountability framework that includes both overall achievement growth but also closure of achievement gaps,” Huffman said. “I think the implementation of that is going to be very hard, and I think we’re going to need a fair amount of support and community engagement in order to adequately take that on.”

Still, Huffman said such gaps present an “opportunity.”

“I think it’s an enormous opportunity for districts in the state to build partnerships with different groups to make sure we’re doing everything we can to increase achievement levels for all kids,” he said.

Huffman and his staff are putting finishing touches on the application, and the U.S. Department of Education is expected to immediately review applications it receives. Many states have complained that the demands of adequate yearly progress in the No Child Left Behind law are unattainable, and they are seeking relief and flexibility.

Huffman noted that he doesn’t expect the process to produce a simple yes or no from the federal government but that it will be an iterative process where the department looks at applications and comes back asking for alterations in order to qualify for a waiver. He reiterated his desire to get a final answer by the end of this calendar year.

Huffman has noted that achievement gaps exist in various subgroups, including those with or without disabilities and those who are from low-income families compared to those of higher incomes.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee is among a group in Congress attempting to revamp No Child Left Behind. Alexander, a Republican, while complimentary of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the Obama administration, has said allowing the secretary to grant waivers is like making him “the equivalent of a national school board.”

Congress first established the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, and in 2002 it reauthorized it in an amended form as the No Child Left Behind Act under President George W. Bush.

Huffman said Wednesday he does not expect congressional efforts to address the law to succeed. He touched on the gridlock and partisanship in the nation’s capital.

“There is some chance Congress will successfully reauthorize ESEA. Frankly, I think that’s unlikely, partially based on where these bills are in their process, partially based on what we’ve all seen out of Washington over the last year,” Huffman said.

“I don’t know that major legislation seems likely to move through both chambers and get everybody on board with the right thing.”

Huffman noted that if ESEA were reauthorized, there would be no need for the waiver, because all states would be subject to the new law. He surmised that if a bill is passed it would not have the adequate yearly progress element that has caused so much consternation over the federal law. He said the state’s recent efforts serve a foundational purpose in any regard.

Huffman’s online presentation Wednesday drew attention to the federal requirement for the state to identify 10 percent of its schools as “focus schools,” where achievement gaps are most pronounced. His presentation was similar to the one he gave the Tennessee State School Board last week. He said the state would turn to grants and some of the funds from the Race to the Top award of $500 million the state won last year to address that 10 percent of the state’s schools.

He said the state will continue its practice of issuing “report cards” on schools but that the report cards could change slightly next year based on whether the state receives a waiver. Huffman said schools with the biggest achievement gaps would be competing for grants.

“We think those schools that were successful using those resources could be exemplars we could use to help other schools across the state,” he said.

Huffman said his department would attempt to standardize the way schools with achievement gaps are tabulated across the state and that there would be transparency in those figures. In response to one question, he said the waiver process would not make a big difference in the state’s teacher evaluation process. When asked if pre-Kindergarten classes could be a “turnaround strategy” for the state, Huffman said no but that pre-K could be “part of a turnaround plan.”

The webinar was held by the Department of Education and was hosted by Stand for Children, the State Collaborative for Reforming Education (SCORE), the United Ways of Tennessee and the Memphis Urban League.

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Education Featured

Haslam Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Gov. Bill Haslam again Monday defended the use of the state’s new teacher evaluation system and reminded everyone that the whole idea didn’t start with his administration.

Haslam made the point during a press availability on Capitol Hill after a ceremony for veterans. He told the Rotary Club of Nashville later Monday that change is “painful,” and he said after the speech he was making a particular reference to the evaluations with that remark.

Haslam also said Monday he will not state a position on school vouchers until later this year, although he told the Rotary audience the voucher issue is “probably going to be one of the most contentious” when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The issue of teacher evaluations has been on the front burner in the Legislature with lengthy hearings on the process last week. The system has prompted many complaints among teachers and principals. The Haslam administration has basically stayed the course on the system, which is in its first year, even though Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman gained approval to tweak the system with some changes meant to make evaluations less time-consuming.

Tennessee’s success in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition included a plan to evaluate teachers every year. Tenured teachers will be evaluated with four observations, and those without tenure will be evaluated six times. Haslam pointed out that the process goes back to the application for the federal funds won by the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“Remember how we got here. This was part of the Race to the Top application,” Haslam said. “Everybody agreed evaluations were really at the heart of that. The evaluation process was a work in progress for a year before this.

“It spanned administrations.”

He said it’s still early.

“This is November. We started it in September. It’s not like we have a really long track record,” Haslam said. “It takes a little bit of adjusting to get used to the evaluation. The first evaluation, because it is the one with lesson plans, does have the most paperwork involved in it. When we get past that, the evaluations after that will look a little different.”

Legislators are hearing from their constituents about the impact the evaluation system is having on schools.

“I understand. Before, if you got evaluated twice every 10 years and now you’re looking at this new process, that’s not something necessarily, ‘Oh boy, I’m really excited about that,'” Haslam said.

“But I do think, again, back to what’s at the heart of the change we need, why we won Race to the Top, was this idea of making certain we’re doing everything we can to encourage great teachers to be in the classroom. And the evaluation piece is a key part of that.”

Disgruntlement over the evaluation system has been so pronounced some observers have suggested that the state should hold off on actually acknowledging the findings in this first year, but Haslam remains steadfast. At the same time he dismissed any notion that changes in the basic concept might jeopardize the $500 million the state won in the Race to the Top competition in 2010.

“I don’t want to cast the political argument, ‘If you all change it we’re going to lose our funds.’ I don’t think that’s a fair argument for us to be making,” Haslam said. “I think it’s more about putting in jeopardy the pace that we need to change.”

The Haslam administration has stayed in the background thus far on the school voucher issue. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would allow children in the state’s largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton — to apply for funds to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The issue has pitted those who favor school choice against those who are protective of the public school system.

Haslam was asked Monday why he has not taken a stand on vouchers yet.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do our homework to see: Do we know enough to make that call?” he said.

Haslam pointed to the need to study the experiences of other states who have tried vouchers in order to make the right decision. A voucher bill passed the Senate in the last legislative session and is expected to be considered in the House next year. The House version, HB388, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.

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Fmr. U.S. Secretary of State Rice Targeted by ‘Occupy’ Protesters During Nashville Visit

Condoleezza Rice appeared at a fundraiser in Nashville for U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn on Monday, and members of the Occupy Nashville protests took notice.

A group of about 12 of the protesters moved from War Memorial Plaza to the area of the Hermitage Hotel nearby where Rice, former U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser, was featured at a midday gathering in the ballroom.

One of the protesters said he began on the sidewalk on the side of the street where the hotel is but was asked by security to move. The group then protested across the street.

Inside the hotel, a campaign spokeswoman confirmed that Rice was at the event but that no media were allowed.

“The people or the profits,” the protesters chanted. “We are the 99 percent.”

A few of the protesters were asked to explain what exactly their reason was for protesting Rice.

“Condoleezza Rice has definitely become part of the 1 percent. I’m a representative of the 99 percent, the people,” said Joshua Bible Dufour, who said he is from Long Beach, Calif., and is passing through Nashville, spending four days in the state capital.

“Our representatives have forgotten about the people, and we’re reminding them that we’re here and that we can get together and we’re not going to let them get away with what they’re doing anymore.”

Dufour said Bible is his mother’s maiden name.

“This is the Volunteer State, and I came to help volunteer for the movement,” he said.

David Reason, an independent contractor and property manager from Kentucky, said he has been camping out with the protesters.

“We’re here to speak to Condoleezza Rice because of the money and corruption that is brought from the thousands and millions of dollars they generate from these exorbitant fundraisers,” Reason said. “I think it’s like $250 a cup of coffee or $1,000 a plate inside the Hermitage right now.

“These guys have no clue about what the people on the Plaza are going through, the people that lost their houses through unjust repos.”

“She’s part of the problem,” said a man who would identify himself only as Michael, 42, who lives in Nashville. “She’s the one that helped put us in this mess in her eight years in office under George Bush. She helped put us in this situation. She backed up the president in all the decisions that got the country into this shape.”

Michael said he has been laid off from a company in Nashville.

Blackburn, a Republican, represents the 7th District, which currently runs from the suburbs of Nashville to the suburbs of Memphis. First elected to Congress in 2002, Blackburn would be considered a heavy favorite for re-election to Congress.

Rice, a professor at Stanford University, has also been promoting her latest book, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington.