Haslam Defends UT Chancellor Amid Latest Diversity Office Controversy

Gov. Bill Haslam voiced support Monday for the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus chancellor, Jimmy Cheek, who is facing resignation demands from GOP state lawmakers.

“My view is that you judge somebody on their entire body of work, and if you look at what Chancellor Cheek has done at UT, his entire body of work is impressive,” Haslam told reporters following a ribbon-cutting for a new Under Armor distribution center in Mt. Juliet.

The University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is under fire from GOP lawmakers and leaders in the state Republican Party for recently posting a list of “Best Practices for Inclusive Holiday Celebrations in the Workplace.” (Note: The original post by UT’s Office of Diversity has been removed and replaced.)

Included was a suggestion that participants at workplace parties refrain from playing “games with religious and cultural themes – for example, ‘Dreidel’ or ‘Secret Santa.'”

“If you want to exchange gifts, then refer to it in a general way, such as a practical joke gift exchange or secret gift exchange,” the post went on.

“Holiday parties and celebrations should celebrate and build upon workplace relationships and team morale with no emphasis on religion or culture,” counseled the diversity office. “Ensure your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham are among those indicating they’ll press for Chancellor Cheek’s ouster if he had foreknowledge of the diversity office’s post.

“The Office of Diversity is not welcoming to all and hostile to none as they claim,” Gresham, R-Somerville, said in a press release Friday. “They are very hostile to students and other Tennesseans with Christian and conservative values. By placing a virtual religious test regarding holiday events at this campus, every student who is a Christian is penalized.”

Sen. Mike Bell dittoed Gresham’s indignation.

“This is a public university, supported by taxpayer dollars, where the precious resources provided to them should be directed at what we are doing to give our students a world class education,” said Bell, a Republican from Riceville who serves as Government Operations Committee chairman. “The people want us to ensure that their money is being spent wisely and we have lost confidence that this is being done.”

Ramsey, the Senate’s presiding legislator, took to Facebook on Friday to vent his vexation. “If this post was approved by Chancellor Cheek, he should resign. If not, the entire staff of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion should be dismissed. The reputation of Tennessee is at stake here.”

The Tennessee Republican Party’s state executive committee on Saturday approved a resolution calling on lawmakers and the governor to “eliminate funding for the University of Tennessee Office of Diversity and Inclusion in future state budgets.”

Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, looks to be planning to introduce legislation that’ll do just that.

This isn’t the first time the diversity office has drawn Republican ire. Last summer GOP lawmakers were angered when the office posted a “gender-neutral” language guide for avoiding gender-specific pronouns.

With respect to the diversity office’s future, Haslam on Monday said he continues to see “a role for them.”

The office ought to prioritize “making certain there is equal opportunity for people to attend UT, and graduating, and having great outcomes,” said the governor, who is a Republican and formerly the mayor of Knoxville.

Haslam does think the diversity office “went too far in telling adults how they should act at holiday parties.”

“In this case, I believe they went off into something that they didn’t need to be focused on,” he said.

The UT Faculty Senate is scheduled to meet Tuesday in what’s expected to be a show of support for Chancellor Cheek. Also, legislative education committees are meeting this week on Capitol Hill in Nashville where the matter is likely to get attention of a more critical nature.

Religious Indoctrination Focus of Bill by Rep. Butt

Republican state Rep. Sheila Butt of Columbia wants to quell concerns among lawmakers and some parents around the state that Tennessee public schools may be inappropriately promoting Islam.

Under legislation Butt has filed for consideration in the General Assembly’s 2016 session, the state board of education would be prohibited from requiring that kids be taught “religious doctrine” prior to the 10th grade.

Sheila Butt

Sheila Butt

House Bill 1418 would also require that in classes where older students learn about “comparative religion as it relates to history or geography,” teachers take steps to ensure “no religion shall be emphasized or focused on over another religion.”

“If the curriculum standards in grades prior to grades ten through twelve (10–12) include a reference to a specific religion or the role and importance of a religion in history or geography, then the state board shall ensure that the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students,” Butt’s legislation declares.

Butt, a Christian motivational speaker by trade, is the Tennessee House GOP supermajority’s legislative floor leader. She also serves on the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee.

She told the Tennesseean this week that HB1418 is not an attack on religion in general, or Islam in particular. Rather, she is concerned with “balancing the teaching of religion in education.”

“I think that probably the teaching that is going on right now in seventh, eighth grade is not age appropriate,” she told the paper. “They are not able to discern a lot of times whether its indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.”

The state’s Department of Education is in the process of reviewing social studies standards.

Butt said she’s encountered “quite a bit of confusion as far as who is in charge of standards and curriculum.” For that reason, state lawmakers need to get more involved in discussions over what subject matter is suitable for public school students, she said.

During a stopover in Butt’s Maury County district last month, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sought to clarify the roles between local and state education officials on setting classroom programs of study.

“Certainly, we are setting that expectation, but how’s it done, what instructional practices are used, what strategies are used, what curriculum is used is absolutely a local decision,” McQueen said in a Columbia Daily Herald story about her visit.

candice mcqueen 2015

Candice McQueen

“Our intent has been to use the standards to actually look at world religions and world cultures and see how it impacts world history,” McQueen continued. “The way a parent can then talk about that at home is certainly an approach that will be individualized. They should take that information and have those conversations with students through their own belief system and weigh that appropriately inside their own homes.”

Vanderbilt Study May Strengthen Calls to Defund Pre-K

The General Assembly’s most vocal foe of Tennessee’s publicly funded prekindergarten initiative is hopeful the latest study calling into question the early childhood learning program’s effectiveness will spur conversations about doing away with it altogether.

State Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, described the conclusions outlined in a research report released this week from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College as “invaluable.” While discussion in the past has tended toward whether to expand the state’s $86 million or so a year pre-K program, Dunn argues that the most logical focus of debate now ought to be whether to downsize or eliminate it.

bill dunn 2015

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville

“It is obvious we have spent a lot of money on this program, and the Vanderbilt study shows that in many cases the children who participate actually do worse,” Dunn, a member of the House Education Instruction & Programs Committee, told TNReport. “I think that in the private sector, if somebody were doing something and getting worse and worse results, they would quit doing it. I think if a private individual was spending a lot of money to get worse results, they would quit doing it.”

The Vanderbilt study — “A Randomized Control Trial of a Statewide Voluntary Prekindergarten Program on Children’s Skills and Behaviors through Third Grade” —was initiated in 2009 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The study’s authors describe their “rigorous, independent evaluation of the state’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program” as a landmark analysis.

“It is the first prospective randomized control trial of a scaled up state‐funded, targeted pre‐kindergarten program that has been undertaken,” declared the executive summary of the study’s findings, released to the public on Monday.

The results left the pre-K study investigators like Peabody Research Institute Director Mark Lipsey “stunned” and asking “a lot of questions” about how such a highly touted education initiative could perform so seemingly poorly when put to statistical scrutiny.

Few lasting benefits could be identified for the lower-income children who participate in Tennessee’s more than 900 government-funded pre-K classrooms. Rather, in key assessments of performance and temperament, children who attended pre-K exhibited inferior development over time than their peers who entered kindergarten with no formal academic preparation.

The study did find that at the start of kindergarten, children who’d attended pre-K indeed rated “better prepared for kindergarten work.” They also displayed “better behaviors related to learning in the classroom” and were observed engaging in “more positive peer relations.”

But by the end of the year, kids who didn’t attended pre-K “had caught up to the (pre-K) children and there were no longer significant differences between them on any achievement measures,” researchers found.

By the time the children were in second grade, pre-K kids and the kids who didn’t attend pre-K “began to diverge.” According to the study, children who attended pre-K began “scoring lower…on most of the measures” than children who did not attend pre-K.

Similarly, the beneficial “behavioral effects” pre-K instilled in kids early on appeared to lag with passage of time — to the point that, “in the spring the first grade teachers reversed the fall kindergarten teacher ratings.”

vanderbilt pre-k study report sept 2015“First grade teachers rated (pre-K) children as less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the study’s authors observed. “It is notable that these ratings preceded the downward achievement trend we found for (pre-K) children in second and third grades.”

By second and third grades both groups of children were rated by teachers as exhibiting similar “behaviors and feelings.”

“There was a marginally significant effect for positive peer relations favoring the (pre-K) children by third grade teachers,” the study determined.

During a panel discussion on pre-K in Nashville last week, one of the study’s primary researchers suggested that, in absence of any systematic analysis of student-performance data or consistent evaluation of individual programs, the promise of pre-K may have been oversold over the years.

dale-farran

Dale Farran, associate director of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute

Undoubtedly, not all pre-K programs around the state, and for that matter the country, are of the same caliber, said Peabody Research Institute Senior Associate Director Dale Farran. From classroom to classroom, “teachers were doing vastly different things,” she said.

“We are pushing the benefits of pre-K without taking the time to define what we really mean and worse, to determine if what we implement has the outcomes we have promised,” said Farran. “It is time to take a step back and try and determine what it really is that we want to scale up…and then how we can take that vision and make it happen with consistency.”

Rep. Dunn agrees that taking a step back and re-evaluating the program ought to be a top priority over the coming months.

But he’s more of a mind to roll pre-K back than scale it up.

“If we are trying to get kids ready for kindergarten, then what does that really look like? If that is the goal, we should approach it in a different way,” he said. “I don’t think it takes a whole year to get ready for kindergarten. And in the past I have proposed that if we used the summer months before kindergarten for at-risk kids to get up to speed, you would probably get the same effect, at about two-thirds less of the cost.”

Dunn may have a powerful ally in Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

The Tennessee Senate’s presiding lawmaker has never expressed much regard for pre-K. Last year he described pre-K as “a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working.”

In an emailed statement to TNReport on Wednesday, Ramsey said the Vanderbilt study serves as confirmation that “pre-K’s effectiveness is marginal at best and all but disappears over the long term.”

“It is time to face the hard truth that, while well-intentioned, government funded pre-K is ultimately a misallocation of resources,” said the Blountville Republican. “Tennessee is one of the most-improved states in the nation in education and we must do what we can to remain so. We need to train our focus on those areas where we can affect the lives of our children and get results: K-12 and higher education.”

Dunn, too, proposes routing state taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on pre-K back into K-12 education.

“I have always believed that putting great teachers in the classroom is important. Maybe we can have a conversation about teacher salaries, or something along those lines,” he told TNReport.

Jim Wrye, a spokesman and lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said he’s heard talk like that from Dunn before. But even in wake of the Vanderbilt research report, Wrye doesn’t think it’s a very good suggestion.

“We would rather not take from one area in providing services to children and provide it to another,” he said. “Our position is that, overall, Tennessee education is woefully underfunded.”

Wrye added, “TEA has always been a supporter of early childhood education and believing that high-quality education with a teacher that is empowered to teach and grow the level of learning in the student is really critical to their future.”

Nevertheless, Wrye said the Vanderbilt study warrants close examination by everyone interested in education policy in Tennessee.

“Good lord, having a seven- or eight-year-old being burned out on education? We need to start asking ourselves, What are we demanding of our kids and how is it affecting the classroom and the joy of learning?” he said. “That is a really disconcerting outcome.”

Wrye suggested the study could in fact be interpreted as an indictment of high-pressure test-taking situations in early grade school.

“We think it is an incredibly bad policy idea, the idea of pushing such young children into that sort of memorization-regurgitation role,” he said. “The idea that you are going to gain meaningful data out of standardized tests for six-year-olds makes no sense to us whatsoever. So, policies that really drive high-stakes standardized testing can burn kids out, there is no doubt about it.”

Dunn’s view is that the Vanderbilt results — and results like it from previous studies, including an assessment commissioned several years ago by the Tennessee comptroller’s office — show that pushing kids into schoolroom settings too early can produce negative outcomes.

“I think what we are finding, and that people need to recognize is, maybe, just maybe, putting a bunch of four-year-olds in a classroom is not a good idea,” he said. “We have to remember that there are 19 other four-year-olds in the classroom influencing the children, too. And if they are a bad influence, that could lead to problems down the road.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, who for years has indicated he’ll rely heavily on the Vanderbilt study’s results to chart his administration’s long-rang thinking on pre-K, said earlier this week that he’s yet to fully examine the findings.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, quickly put out a statement after release of the Vanderbilt report Monday declaring his full support for continued taxpayer financing of pre-K.

“Students have better attitudes about school and are better prepared for classroom instruction when they have access to high-quality pre-K programs. Our challenge is to sustain that growth as students move to higher grade levels,” Fitzhugh said. “So the question is not does early childhood education work — it does. The question is whether Tennessee will invest in the education infrastructure necessary to support those gains long-term. That remains to be seen, but certainly is something of which I am in favor.”

Multiple Facets to Debate Over Removal of Controversial Confederate General’s Bust from Capitol

A high-ranking Tennessee lawmaker who sponsored a 2013 law prohibiting removal of war-related monuments and memorials from public property opposes calls to get a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the Statehouse.

Steve McDaniel, a Republican from Parkers Crossroads who serves as deputy speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, said Forrest is a notable figure in the state’s history, and the monument should remain where it is now, so that visitors to the Capitol can see it and “react” to it.

McDaniel said the basic purpose of the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act” that he, along with Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, sponsored two years ago is to preserve articles of historical remembrance. The law itself was passed as a reaction to the the city of Memphis renaming a local park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“It is there and it is part of our history — it is part of our Tennessee history and it is part of our national history,” McDaniel, who also chairs the House Ethics Committee, said of the Forrest bust at the Capitol in Nashville.

Steve McDaniel, square picIf items that commemorate people and episodes of history are removed because of contemporary political pressures, “we will start forgetting what our history is about, what happened,” said McDaniel, whose bio on the Tennessee General Assembly’s website says that his “interests include southern historic preservation.”

But a number of prominent Tennessee politicians of both partisan persuasions have indicated they in fact support banishing the bust. Their ranks include Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who in 2013 signed the “Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.” That law won approval in the GOP-dominated Legislature on vote tallies of 69-22 in the House and 26-3 in the Senate.

heritage protection actThe Heritage Protection Act contains different sections covering different types of monuments — and there may be some legal ambiguity, for example, as to whether the NBF bust constitutes a memorial to “the War Between the States,” or rather if it is a statue or monument to a “historical military figure.”

McDaniel acknowledged there may be some unintended uncertainty in the way the law is written regarding whether the Tennessee Historical Commission has authority to order the bust removed under a “waiver” provision in the statute. McDaniel said his “intent,” however, was that such decisions must come before the full Legislature.

Democrats generally opposed the Heritage Protection Act when it was up in the Legislature, particularly in the House.

McDaniel drew ire from minority-party and legislative Black Caucus members when he refused to add amendment language to the measure protecting monuments dedicated to 1960s Civil Rights Movement leaders and events. McDaniel said during floor debate at the time that he wanted to keep the measure “narrowed to Tennessee’s military history.”

In wake of the mass-homicide attack last week by a 21-year-old white gunman, apparently motivated by murderous racial animus, that left nine people slain at a black church in Charleston, S.C., there has been a political clamor across the South to purge symbols associated with the Confederacy from public spaces.

In several states, debate has centered around the Confederate flag. In Tennessee, outrage has focused more on commemorations of Forrest — the bust at the Capitol, a statue of the Confederate military commander on private property but highly visible along I-65 in Nashville, and the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Benton County.

Hero or Hatemonger?

According to the online edition of The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, Nathan Bedford Forrest “established a reputation as one of the greatest cavalry generals of the Civil War.” He is described as “one of the finest Confederate cavalry commanders and one of the foremost military figures produced by the state of Tennessee.”

“(Forrest’s) ferocity as a warrior was almost legendary. His claim to have slain one more enemy soldiers in personal combat than the twenty-nine horses killed beneath him only added to the legend. Forrest understood, perhaps better than most, the basic premise of war: ‘War means fighting and fighting means killing’,” reports his entry in the Tennessee Encyclopedia, which is a joint project of the Tennessee Historical Society and the University of Tennessee Press.

“Despite a mere six months of formal education, Forrest rose from semi-subsistence to planter status, acquiring substantial property and wealth, largely through the slave trade,” it says of his pre-war years.

Also noted are two of the most controversial — some would argue notorious — aspects of his legacy.

Nathan Bedford Forrest portrait“Promoted to major general on December 4, 1863, Forrest conducted raids against Federal communications and supply lines in Tennessee. In April 1864 he captured Fort Pillow, north of Memphis. In the latter stages of that battle, Forrest lost control of his men. As members of the black and Tennessee Unionist garrison attempted to surrender, an act for which they should have been spared, some of Forrest’s men fired on them. Of the fort’s 585-605 men, between 277 and 297 were killed; 64 percent of these were U.S. Colored Troops. Charges of a ‘Fort Pillow Massacre’ became grist for Northern propaganda mills during the war and plagued Forrest for the remainder of his life.”

After the war, Forrest “embraced the Ku Klux Klan, assuming the role of the first Grand Wizard of the secret organization,” according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia.

“Through it he sought to restore white conservative Democrats to power. Even so, he never completely adjusted to the new realities of the postwar South,” the NBF entry continues. “In the 1870s Forrest’s health began to fail, and he died in Memphis on October 29, 1877.

Bipartisan Agreement: NBF Doesn’t Belong in Capitol

Present-day Democrats are among those leading the charge to erase Forrest’s name and likeness from government-owned property.

In a statement to the Tennessean, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, wrote, “Symbols of hate should not be promoted by government. South Carolina should remove the Confederate battle flag from its Capitol, and Tennessee should remove the bust of Forrest inside our Capitol.” In the same article, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, was quoted saying that “our Capitol should be representative of the people of Tennessee.” Fitzhugh said he believes more commemoration of women and African Americans is in order.

“Only those that represent the very best of Tennessee should be afforded such recognition in the halls of state government,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville said in a statement Wednesday. “We can’t and shouldn’t sanitize our history, but we do have a choice about which individuals we honor and elevate as models to school groups touring the Capitol.”

A statement Wednesday from Tennessee’s 17-member Black Caucus of State Legislators, all of whom are Democrats, demanded “the removal of a bust of Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol.”

The Black Caucus “fully supports the growing movement to remove racist symbols from places of prominence across the country,” read the statement, which added: “Since the tragic murder of nine African-American church members in South Carolina last week, a national debate has re-ignited about the appropriateness of these symbols being displayed, particularly the Confederate flag that currently flies in front of the South Carolina statehouse.”

Republicans lawmakers are voicing discontent with the NBF bust as well.

Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga sent a letter to the State Capitol Commission Tuesday declaring, “In light of recent events, I feel it is appropriate to reevaluate the current placement of the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in our State Capitol.”

“Nathan Bedford Forrest’s military prowess and exploits in the Civil War have been well-documented,” wrote McCormick. “However, his background as a slave trader and a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan overshadows his contribution to our state’s history in the minds of many. Certainly, we should attempt to find the proper balance between honoring his military accomplishments versus his less positive attributes.”

haslam and gerald mccormick 2015McCormick is seeking “a recommendation from the Capitol Commission that Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust be removed from its current location in our Capitol and be turned over to the Tennessee Historical Commission for an appropriate placement, perhaps in a Civil War setting in which his military service can be put in the proper perspective.”

“I realize that this is a passionate topic,” McCormick concluded. “I look forward to discussing this matter with each of you in a way that will reflect positively on our state at the next Capitol Commission meeting.”

McDaniel: Whitewashing History Wrong

A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who is active as a Civil War battlefield preservationist, McDaniel takes a more charitable view of Forrest than critics of the Capitol bust.

He called Forrest “a military genius.”

“That is the reason I admire him,” McDaniel said, adding that Forrest “is still studied today when you look at military tactics, his tactics are studied by our modern-day military.”

McDaniel said that “generally speaking” he regards Nathan Bedford Forrest as an honorable figure in the history of the American South. “You have to look at a person like him in the context of his time,” McDaniel said. “None of us today would ever condone slavery, but that was a different day and a different time. And so you have to do the best you can to judge someone in their time frame of when they lived.”

McDaniel said Forrest was cleared of allegations he committed what amounted to war crimes at Fort Pillow, and that his association with the KKK is somewhat misunderstood today.

“He was not a founder of the Klan” said McDaniel. “They founded the Klan and then placed the honor of being the top person — they asked Forrest to be the first grand wizard, which he accepted because of what they initially stood for. But he saw that they were not standing for the principles that he believed in, so he resigned and disbanded the Klan. And of course the Klan has come back many times, and most of the time they are waving the Confederate flag. And so those that appreciate history think that is very unfortunate that people have abused the intent of the Confederate flag.”

McDaniel noted that he draws a distinction between the debate over Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee and controversies boiling with respect to the Confederate flag. “I wouldn’t be a proponent of flying the Confederate battle flag over any government building,” he said.

McDaniel said he does not oppose removing the bust on the grounds that any honest examination of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life must necessarily prove he was a noble man. Rather, McDaniel said he thinks people should be free to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions about him.

“If the Forrest bust is not there, then we remove part of history and people won’t have an opportunity to react one way or the other,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, sent a letter of his own to the Capitol Commission Wednesday urging the members “to begin the process of evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex.”

Ramsey’s letter didn’t mention Nathan Bedford Forrest by name, but noted that “(t)hose honored in the Capitol should be those who accurately reflect the historic accomplishments of the Volunteer State and its people.”

“Under state law, the Tennessee State Capitol Commission is given the power to develop a master plan for the capitol building and its grounds and to determine its furnishings,” wrote Ramsey. “As such, we are writing to encourage you to begin the process of evaluating the characteristics of Tennesseans who should be honored in the Capitol Complex.”

Repeal of Common Core Enacted

A measure intended to repeal and replace Common Core State Standards in Tennessee has been approved by Gov. Bill Haslam.

Although Haslam has supported the controversial standards and hailed them as a key reason for Tennessee’s nationally recognized improvements in public education, he signed legislation this week that, in the words of Republican Sen. Mike Bell, the bill’s sponsor, “replaces Common Core, period.”

Sponsored in the House by Republican Billy Spivey of Lewisburg, the measure passed the lower chamber 97-0 and the Senate 28-1. It requires the state to “cancel any memorandum of understanding concerning the Common Core State Standards” that exists with the developers of that system — the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Haslam told reporters last week he’s not terribly disappointed the Legislature decided to move away from Common Core. And now is in fact a good time to make a shift, since the state is due for an education-standards review anyway, he said.

The governor said he expects the new system, which involves more voices from the field of education providing input into the review and development of K-12 benchmarks to promote college and career readiness, to work smoothly.

Haslam announced a standards review process last fall. The new legislation enshrines the administration’s existing review process in statute, as well as creates an additional 10-member panel jointly selected by Haslam and the speakers of both chambers of the General Assembly. That panel will review the recommendations of Haslam’s appointed committees, and will determine whether or not to send those suggestions along to the State Board.

Haslam said his appointees to the extra panel will likely include people already on the prior review committees, “just so you have some people that have been a part of the process the whole way through.”

Common Core, developed in 2009 by the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, was approved in 2010 by the Tennessee Legislature in order to receive a waiver from the federal Department of Education from the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

However, opposition to the national standards arose from divergent points across the political spectrum since its introduction — with those on the Right concerned about federal overreach and those on the left concerned with the impact on students of putting too much emphasis on standardized testing.

Tori Venable, communications director for the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity — which has long been pushing to kick the standards to the curb — told TNReport Wednesday that the group was satisfied with the proposal, which “is a great stride in the right direction.”

Tennessee’s unique standards-development process will help “push back against the overreach of the federal government,” Venable said.

“We have confidence the standards will be unique to Tennessee and not merely a rebranding of Common Core,” she said.

Not every critic of Common Core is pleased by what’s been signed into law, though.

Shane Vander Hart, of Truth in American Education — a national group that opposes Common Core standards — wrote in April that while the Tennessee legislation constitutes “a positive step in the right direction considering the alternative,” he’s concerned that giving final approval to the state board of educationis an approach that has led in other states to little more than a “rebranding” of the existing national-standards package.

A similar attempt to do away with the standards in Indiana last year has been roundly criticized by anti-Common Core activists as a “warmed-over version” of the national standards.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

No In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants in 2015

It’s all over but the finger-pointing.

On the last day of the Tennessee Legislature’s regular session, a bill to grant public university in-state tuition to Tennessee students brought into this country as children by undocumented immigrant parents has failed for the year in the House, 49-47. Fifty votes are needed in the 99-member body for a bill to pass.

The “tuition equality” bill has been in the legislative mix for three years. Sponsored by Chattanooga Republican Todd Gardenhire in the Senate, it passed the upper chamber last week, 21-12.

The loss in the House was especially troubling to supporters of the measure because two House Democrats were absent when the vote was taken — Nashville Reps. Darren Jernigan and Bo Mitchell. Speaker Beth Harwell also skipped the vote on SB612, but she later said she would have voted against the bill anyway. Neither Harwell nor Mitchell were listed as “excused” from the vote, although Jernigan was.

As a result of its failure to receive the necessary amount of votes to move forward, the bill was re-referred to the House Calendar and Rules Committee where it’ll likely see action at the beginning of 2016.

Mitchell told TNReport later that having missed such a key higher-education vote “rips me up.”

“It’s unfortunate, I wish I’d gotten the opportunity to vote on the bill,” he said.

Mitchell explained that as a “citizen” legislator, he’s forced to balance the legislative schedule with his job duties, and that he had to attend a “mandatory work meeting” which prevented him from being present in the chamber when the bill came up. He acknowledged that he made no effort to seek formal recognition for an excused absence.

On the other hand, he pointed blame at the Republican sponsor of the bill, Memphis Rep. Mark White, for bringing the measure to a vote Wednesday morning. “The sponsor knew I wasn’t in the room, and knew I would be back after 1 o’clock,” Mitchell said.

Likewise, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart told TNReport that Rep. White had been informed beforehand of Mitchell’s absence. White could have elected to postpone debate and a vote on the until the afternoon. “Everybody was aware that Bo Mitchell was going to be back to vote, and so we certainly could have taken this vote when he was here, people chose to go forward — it was probably a smart move, but it didn’t work out,” Stewart said.

But White denied that he was made aware of Mitchell’s absence. “I didn’t get that message,” he said. And he was surprised when the bill failed because beforehand he was confident it had the necessary support to win passage.

All the same, White is optimistic the measure is a can’t-miss next year, “sitting alive and well in Calendar and Rules.”

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who have been lobbying in support of the bill, released a statement shortly after the bill stalled in the House, criticizing those who had pledged support for “faltering at the last minute.”

“We wish that members of the General Assembly had demonstrated as much courage and leadership as the immigrant students who have fought for this legislation, the same students who are now effectively denied access to an affordable college education for another year,” said Stephanie Teatro, the organization’s co-executive director.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Voucher Legislation Done for Year — Again

Proponents of school vouchers are left high and dry again in 2015, as clearing the General Assembly’s lower-chamber committee system once more proved too arduous for the long-chewed-over concept.

Knoxville Republican Bill Dunn on Tuesday took his House Bill 1049 “off notice” due to a perceived lack of support in the GOP-run legislative body.

“We were very close on the vote, but I didn’t feel it was good to press it today,” Dunn told TNReport. He said some lawmakers who may have been otherwise sympathetic to school choice were “feeling pressure from the systems back home” to oppose the voucher bill.

The bill would have allowed low-income students in school districts with a school performing in the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide to use public funds to attend private schools. Supporters have argued the proposal would be very beneficial to poor families whose children are stuck in bad schools, while opponents are concerned a program with unproven results will take money from already struggling public schools.

The measure, which has been before the General Assembly for several years, hasn’t had much trouble passing the Senate — including this session: 23-9 — but each year fails to muster enough support in the House.

The hold-up in the lower chamber is that “it gets to that little subcommittee, and it just takes a handful of people to kill it, and we just happened to have a handful of people who are feeling pressure,” Dunn said.

Democrats hailed the defeat as a victory for public education.

“Of all the harebrained education schemes people are pushing on our schools, vouchers are the worst of all,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville. “Tennesseans should thank the subcommittee members who once again ensured that this bill would not see the light of day.”

The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank based in Nashville that supported the measure, released a statement after the measure failed. Justin Owen, the organization’s CEO, called the move “disappointing.”

“Thousands of children will have to wait yet another year to get the quality education they so badly need and deserve,” Owen said.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

Common Core Rollback Approved by House

The Tennessee Legislature is close to endorsing an effort to kick the controversial Common Core education standards to the curb.

The House of Representatives on Monday night passed a measure carried by Lewisburg Republican Billy Spivey that is designed to do away with the controversy- and criticism-plagued national standards program and replace it with with Volunteer State-specific standards.

House Bill 1035 passed 97-0 Monday night, with little in the way of discussion.

The Common Core State Standards, developed in 2009 by the National Governor’s Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, were first approved for Tennessee by the General Assembly in 2010 as a part of “Race to the Top” — which allowed Tennessee a waiver from requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” education reform.

However, opposition to the standards grew from divergent diverse points on the political map.

But Gov. Bill Haslam has always tended to defended the concept of national standards. He partly attributes recent imcreases in education performance made by Tennessee students as evidence that high standards yield beneficial results. Yet the governor has also over the past year come to recognize that the Common Core “brand” has become a flashpoint of controversial. Last fall he called for a review of what works and what doesn’t.

An administration press release issued in October indicated the public comments would be collected by the Southern Regional Education Board through the end of Spring, which would then be reviewed by two committees whose members were selected by the administration, but appointed by the State Board of Education.

Spivey’s measure would both enshrine Haslam’s review in statute and build upon the ongoing process.

The House-approved bill would also create a new 10-member panel to review the recommendations made by Haslam’s committees and decide whether or not to send them to the State Board.  The panel would include four appointments by the governor, and three each by the speakers of both legislative chambers.

The members of the secondary review committee would “be subject to confirmation by the Senate and the House of Representatives, but appointments shall be effective until adversely acted upon” by the Legislature.

HB1035 also requires the state to “cancel any memorandum of understanding concerning the Common Core State Standards entered into with the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.”

However, not all of Common Core’s most vocal detractors are altogether satisfied with the measure that the Legislature appears poised to pass.

Former state Rep. Joe Carr, a 2014 Republican primary candidate for the U.S. Senate and a current radio talk show host, wrote an op-ed in late March, criticizing the language used in the proposal, and suggesting that it didn’t go far enough as the word “repeal” doesn’t appear in reference to the state’s action on Common Core.

Referring to the bill as Haslam’s “gambit” — similar to former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s “Trojan Horse” of “Race to the Top” in 2010 — Carr also took issue with inclusion of the term “college-and-career-ready standards”

“If you replace Common Core with ‘college-and-career-ready standards’ you effectively have replaced Common Core with Common Core, and because this bill doesn’t ‘repeal’ Common Core, nothing has effectively changed,” Carr wrote.

But the bill’s sponsors have argued that the legislation in fact “replaces Common Core, period.”

One amendment to HB1035 deletes the term “college-and-career-ready,” instead replacing it with “postsecondary-and-workforce-ready.”

The Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, who have been pushing the legislation this year, issued a laudatory statement from the group’s state director, Andrew Ogles, shortly after its passage Monday.

“This bill will give us our own Tennessee education standards, written for Tennesseans by Tennesseans,” Ogles said. He added that the measure’s easy passage, as well as “the defeat of Medicaid expansion a few weeks ago,” has made it clear that the General Assembly doesn’t “want federal control of our healthcare or classrooms.”

The measure, sponsored in the Senate by Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, is scheduled to be heard by the upper chamber Tuesday.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

DeBerry Believes Parents Need More Control of Schools, But ‘Trigger’ Bill Dead for Year

Legislation to lower existing thresholds allowing parents to take over failing schools won’t be heard by the General Assembly this year.

For the third year in a row the bill hasn’t gained traction. The Senate version, SB600 by Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey cleared the Education Committee in mid-March but was set aside to 2016 on Monday by the Senate Finance Committee.

House Sponsor John DeBerry, Jr., a Memphis Democrat, told TNReport he took his House Bill 651 off notice in the House Education Instruction & Programs Subcommittee because it lacked support.

“The only people who don’t have a representative are the parents,” DeBerry said. He added the teachers and schools have groups like the National Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association to lobby on their behalf, while parents are just being thrown under the bus by the powers that be.

DeBerry said he decided to take it off notice rather than let the committee vote the legislation down. However, he added that it will be back again next year.

DeBerry told TNReport in March his intention was to give parents “some type of voice” when a school is “mis-educating and under-educating their children,” but “the purpose of the bill gets lost in all the rhetoric.”

And while there is already a parent trigger law on the books in the Volunteer State, his legislation would “make it more amenable for parents to trigger the parent trigger, so that they can more or less alter a school in the best interests of their children,” DeBerry said.

The Memphis Democrat said he was pushing his legislation because he thinks the 60 percent threshold currently required by law was too much.

“How are you going to get 60 percent of anything in America in one place, at one time, everyone sign on the dotted line?” DeBerry questioned, before adding that his legislation — which would implement a new threshold of 51 percent — would “bring it to a realistic number of people.”

Last year, DeBerry’s bill made it through the committee process before dying in the House Finance Subcommittee.

Jim Wrye, the TEA’s government relations manager, told TNReport last month that “the latest iteration of the parent trigger bill has got some real problems,” including that it “overrides the duly elected school board.”

But their biggest issue is that the parent trigger law is “already on the books,” and it would be better for parents to “utilize what’s there before we start recreating something else.”

Wrye added that the suggested threshold of 51 percent of parents at a school is “incredibly low.” He pointed out that there hasn’t been a petition drive to take over a school yet, and characterized DeBerry’s legislation as “an avenue for out-of-state folks” to push their agenda.

TEA ‘diametrically opposed’ to DeBerry — the ‘worst legislator’ on their issues

And the disagreement between state’s largest teacher’s union and one of the Legislature’s most vocal school choice advocates isn’t limited to his push for more parental control in local education decisions.

In an article from early March, Tennessee Watchdog pointed out that the TEA routinely gave more donations to white legislators — including Republicans — than they did black Democrats.

Wrye admitted this happened, but the decision on what races the organization’s money is spent on is determined by how competitive the election will be, not the race of the candidate.

However, Wrye also pointed out to Watchdog that the TEA won’t donate to DeBerry, because “he is probably the worst representative on our issues.”

DeBerry chafed at the criticism. “I’m not the type of person that’s going to follow the company line, and just because they say this is good for teachers I’m not going to ask any questions.”

DeBerry said he’s “never worked against teachers,” and has always voted “in their best interest.”

He pointed out that when “Race to the Top” was first pitched, he was skeptical of it while the TEA and others rushed to support it. “If the status quo was fine, why did they support ‘Race to the Top’?”

DeBerry said he’d never heard any complaints from his constituents about how he votes. To the contrary, he said his actions have the support of his people back home.

“If I’m the worst legislator, then obviously I support the worst parents, and the worst city, and the worst schools, and the worst people. So he’s got to make up his mind,” DeBerry said.

“I’m their representative, they support what I do. And they don’t have to ask his permission.”

Wrye told TNReport later that he liked DeBerry, who he also described as “anti-public school,” but he just didn’t think the Memphis Democrat was good on their issues.

“He’s a good guy, but we’re just diametrically opposed on a lot of basic issues,” Wrye said.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.

School-Vouchers Bill Passes TN Senate, 24-8

The Tennessee Senate has once again passed a measure that establishes a program of “opportunity scholarships” for kids to escape perennially underachieving schools

This is the third time such legislation has cleared the upper chamber since 2011, but it’s yet to pass the full Legislature. Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he expects a school voucher bill will likely make it to his desk this year.

voucher 1 senate 2015Senate Bill 999, the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act,” won Monday evening on a 24-8 vote.

The Act sets out a process by which students in districts with the bottom 5 percent lowest-performing schools become eligible for vouchers to in turn spend on a private education.

The scholarship amounts are estimated to run a little under $7,000 per student. About 5,000 scholarships would be awarded in 2015, then rise to 7,500 the following year, 10,000 the year after that and in 2018 “and thereafter” level off at 20,000 per year.

If fewer than the total number of eligible students applies for the vouchers, then the remaining scholarships will be awarded to low-income children in the state’s larger-population counties — Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson-Madison and Shelby.

Two of the General Assembly’s most vocal advocates of school vouchers, Brian Kelsey of Germantown and Dolores Gresham of Somerville, have in the past argued for a more liberal allotment of scholarships than what’s outlined in SB999. However, both said they’re eager this year to see the Legislature pass something in order to throw an educational lifeline to students in need.

“These low-income children desperately need our help right away,” said Kelsey.

Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, described the school choice legislation as “a rescue mission” for students “imprisoned by a pervasive mediocrity.”

“What we are doing here is rescuing the most vulnerable, poor children from chronically low-performing schools, where they are imprisoned in these schools with no options.” Gresham said.

When concerns were voiced by opponents of the legislation that it would siphon off funding from already struggling school systems, Kelsey argued that the Act will actually result in more money being left in the district on a per pupil basis than under the status quo. He said that of the total amount that districts receive in funding for each student, in the neighborhood of $2,000 would be retained in the public system for each child that won one of the private-school scholarships.

“So while you lose a whole child, you only lose a portion of the funding that was associated with that child,” Kelsey said.

Opponents of the legislation included four Democrats and four Republicans. Reginald Tate of Memphis was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill.

Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville each said now is precisely the wrong time to contemplate pulling any amount of money from the public school system.

The General Assembly’s Fiscal Review director estimated that “the shift of state and required local BEP funding from…local education agencies to the non-public participating schools is estimated as follows: $16,570,000 in FY15-16; $25,473,800 in FY16-17; $34,815,000 in FY17-18; and an amount exceeding $69,630,000 in FY18-19 and subsequent years.

Yarbro questioned the whether the voucher system would stand up to legal scrutiny, given that a number of districts don’t believe the state is adequately funding public schools under the state’s Basic Education Program.

“Numerous schools districts around the state are looking at this, we have had some that have already filed suit, and this is exactly the kind of scenario in which voucher programs have been found to violate state constitutions in other states,” said Yarbro.

“The timing of this I don’t really think could be worse,” he said.

Harris said that if the legislation ultimately becomes law, it will result in perpetual fiscal headaches and confusion for local public school officials.

“Our public school administrators will be forced to lurch from financial fire to financial fire from year to year,” said Harris. “They will be forced to deal with enrollment issues, they will be forced to deal with financial planning issues, and the one issue that will fall on the financial back burner for these public school administrators is student achievement planning.”

Frank Niceley, a Republican from Strawberry Plains who voted against SB999, worried that private schools with a religious bent might at some point have to compromise their principles or curriculum down the line.

“Is there anything to prevent the strings from coming later?” Niceley said. “That is the thing that worries me about this whole bill.”

Kelsey responded that nobody will force private schools to take voucher money. “The No. 1 most important safeguard that is in the bill addressing this very issue is that the schools that want to participate in this program do so voluntarily,” he said. “They do not have to participate in this program and they can leave whenever they want to leave.”