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Press Releases

Bredesen Signs Special Session Education Legislation

State of Tennessee press release, Jan. 26, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Calling it a “landmark opportunity” for public education in Tennessee, Governor Phil Bredesen today signed into law two bills passed during this month’s special session of the 106th General Assembly that was focused on improving K-12 and higher education.

Joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers – including Lieutenant Governor and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Kent Williams – Bredesen put his signature on the “Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010” and the “Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010.” The new laws enact a range of measures designed to spur improvement in Tennessee’s education pipeline – specifically, improving student performance and graduation rates at both the high school and college levels.

“With these new laws in place, we’ve now got a landmark opportunity to move Tennessee public education forward in a dramatic and positive direction,” Bredesen said. “I’m grateful to the General Assembly for its swift, bold action. And I’m thankful to the scores of teachers, parents, students, community leaders, business people, and public education advocates who worked tirelessly to lend their views and support.”

The Tennessee First to the Top Act makes several changes that have been discussed for years, but which became more pressing in order to make the Volunteer State more competitive in the federal Race to the Top initiative. Race to the Top provides $4.35 billion in competitive grants designed to encourage and reward states that are pursuing education innovation. Among other changes, the Tennessee First to the Top Act:

  • Establishes an “Achievement School District” that allows the commissioner of the state Department of Education to intervene in consistently failing schools.
  • Requires annual evaluations of teachers and principals.
  • Creates a 15-member teacher evaluation advisory committee to recommend guidelines and criteria to the State Board of Education.
  • Allows local school systems to create local salary schedules for teachers and principals, with state approval.
  • Removes limitations on use of certain student-achievement data so the data can be used in making decisions on teacher tenure.

Meanwhile, the Complete College Tennessee Act – the product of nearly year-long talks with a bipartisan group of state lawmakers on how to improve college completion in Tennessee – makes several changes designed to enhance cooperation between colleges and universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and University of Tennessee (UT) systems.

Among other changes, the Complete College Tennessee Act:

  • Funds higher education based in part on success and outcomes, including higher rates of degree completion.
  • Makes community colleges the centerpiece in Tennessee’s strategy by expanding common programs and common courses to promote consistency and quality across the two-year system.
  • Creates a statewide transfer policy so that any student who earns a two-year degree at a community college can move on to a four-year university as a junior.
  • Requires TBR and UT to establish dual-admission and dual-enrollment policies at all two- and four-year colleges and universities.

Tennessee’s college-completion strategies are a natural extension of K-12 education reform measures. Race to the Top places a premium on states that aren’t simply focused on getting kids through high school but also are looking at college enrollment.

“Combined, the new laws give Tennessee the ability to focus on our entire education pipeline in one panoramic view,” Bredesen said. “Together, they represent an important step forward in our ongoing effort to make public education Tennessee’s highest priority.”

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Press Releases

TCPR: State Must Start Using Available Data to Distinguish Good Teachers from Bad

Press release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Jan. 11, 2010:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Center for Policy Research today released a policy brief examining the education reform proposals currently sought by Governor Phil Bredesen.

The governor issued a proclamation last Thursday calling a special session of the General Assembly to address certain education laws so that the state could seek nearly $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” education funding. The special session will begin on Tuesday, January 12.

The main two proposals focus on reforming the process by which teachers are evaluated and restructuring the funding mechanism for post-secondary institutions. Because they will have significant long-term consequences for the state, TCPR analyzed the two proposals.

The brief, Evaluating Education Reforms for the Extraordinary Session (pdf), lays out a methodology for rating teachers that complies with both the governor’s wishes and the “Race to the Top” grant application requirements. The methodology was developed by the nonprofit Education Consumers Foundation, whose president, Dr. John Stone, is a member of the TCPR board of scholars.

“The state must start using the large amount of data available to it to distinguish good teachers from bad, and take the appropriate steps to ensure that students are learning,” said Justin Owen, TCPR’s Director of Policy. “The methodology outlined in the brief provides a unique opportunity to truly determine a teacher’s effectiveness.”

The second part of the brief scrutinizes the plan to tie higher education funding to graduation rather than enrollment rates and the negative impact that could have. TCPR also encourages lawmakers to use caution and fiscal responsibility during the special session, rather than make potentially devastating changes just to seize one-time federal money.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes the prospect of federal tax dollars to create meaningful education reform, but if done right, the legislature can revolutionize the way teachers are evaluated—and students, teachers, parents and taxpayers will all benefit,” noted Owen.

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Business and Economy News Tax and Budget

Budget to Challenge Lawmakers’ Political Resolve

An estimated 100 million people across the country will vow this New Year to lose weight, quit smoking, start saving more money or stop some potentially destructive bad habit and begin a life-affirming new one, according to a recent study by Health Net, Inc.

But while some Tennessee lawmakers say they’re just trying to get through 2010 without making the burdens on Tennesseans any heavier than they already are, others have big spending plans even as the state’s bottom line is shrinking.

Sen. Douglas Henry, a Nashville Democrat, says his New Year’s resolution is to frame state laws that help Tennesseans live a “more complete life,” which includes more government aid for the poor and funding for children’s programs.

Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden, says his resolution is the same as it was last year: get more money into the public school system.

But Hendersonville Rep. Debra Maggart, a Republican, says some of the projects and programs lawmakers want for their districts may not be wise or possible given the state’s cash-strapped fiscal environment.

Maggart says she plans to reserve her energy for pushing, in her view, only the most necessary pieces of legislation. “I’m not going to file a lot of bills next year because we don’t have the money, and maybe we have enough laws,” she said.

One goal that every legislator will agree to pursue this session — even if they differ on the best way to achieve it — is creating jobs for Tennesseans.

The focus for 2010 is “jobs and more jobs,” said Maddox, whose district includes Carroll County, which is struggling with a 17.2 percent unemployment rate.

While the national jobless rate begins to hint that the economy might be turning around, Tennessee’s 10.3 percent unemployment rate lands the Volunteer State among the highest third in the country.

Western Tennessee has been hit the hardest, with areas like Lauderdale County tapping out at 18.6 percent unemployment, and nearby Haywood County with an 18 percent jobless rate.

With the 2010 general election clearly in view, many lawmakers are likely hoping to wrap up statehouse business as quickly as possible.

“A lot of people are going to want to be going in to pass a budget and go home because it’s campaign season. There are lot of issues that need more attention than they’re going to get,” said state Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said his New Year’s resolution involves cutting roughly $1.5 billion in spending to keep the state’s fiscal boat afloat.

If the Legislature adjourns “without breaking the bank, and without breaking the backs of the Tennessee taxpayers,” then he’ll consider himself to have been successful, said Norris.

Categories
Liberty and Justice News

Seeking Consensus on Traffic Cameras

Instead of slamming the brakes on red-light traffic cameras, House Transportation Committee members have tentatively agreed to try and hash out a three-part proposal to guide and regulate their use instead.

The rough plan, which includes a series of studies and a possible moratorium on new red light cameras, would give lawmakers more tools – and time – to decide the ultimate role the new technology will play in Tennessee communities.

Still, a number of lawmakers haven’t backed off their basic objections with the red-light cameras, saying both that the photos they take subvert civil liberties and that the private camera-vendors collect too much profit off the issuance of violations.

But the hope is to approve one comprehensive plan and move it through the Legislature, according to Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who chairs the committee.

The panel batted around ideas Wednesday, including a plan by Maryville Republican Rep. Joe McCord to shuffle profits from citations to drivers education or trauma services statewide.

McCord, a vocal opponent of red light cameras, introduced legislation last year banning the technology. He has since dropped the ban, saying he now sees a safety value of the system, but he’s still uncomfortable with how the ticket-generated revenues are divvied up.

Many on the 12-member House Transportation Committee agree that the private traffic-camera service-providers currently have too much unchecked, profit-driven power over motorists.

The vendors capture alleged violations on camera, examine the pictures, cross reference the information with the Department of Motor Vehicles, then mail out the citations. In return, they receive the lion’s share of fines collected.

Harmon wants the state comptroller to take a hard look at the traffic cameras and report back to lawmakers on issues like what impact the systems have on vehicle crashes, the make-up of traffic-camera service contracts, and detail as to how citation revenues are spent.

Harmon also wishes to see the state Department of Transportation conduct an engineering study on each intersection proposed to use a traffic camera, and added he hopes to ban all unmanned speed cameras on state highways.

While many lawmakers on the panel generally seemed supportive of Harmon’s ideas, some still argue the cameras are unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. “If it intrudes a little, it’s too much,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, a Kingsport Republican.

A study (pdf) by the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research released earlier this year argued that traffic-enforcement cameras are unwise, unnecessary and unsafe.

The City of Gallatin collected nearly $1 million in traffic citations linked to the traffic cameras in 2007, according to TCPR’s study. At least 16 Tennessee cities use some sort of traffic camera: Chattanooga, Clarksville, Cleveland, Gallatin, Germantown, Jackson, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Knoxville, Memphis, Morristown, Mount Carmel, Murfreesboro, Oak Ridge, Red Bank and Selmer.

“There’s a lot of money being made here,” said TCPR policy director Justin Owen, an attorney who co-authored the report.

Instead of installing cameras, he says lawmakers should require municipalities to extend the length of the yellow light, giving drivers more time to travel through the intersection instead of stopping short for fear of a traffic ticket.

“The mere presence of the watchful cameras encourages drivers to attempt to stop at yellow lights even if passing through the light would be safer. Coupled with a decrease in yellow light timing, this can readily explain the increase in the number of rear-end collisions that occur at intersections with red light cameras,” stated the TCPR report.

Rep. John Tidwell, an engineer from New Johnsonville, says he’ll push lengthening the yellow light next year.

The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police maintains that the cameras help enforce the rules of the road, reduce crashes and generally improve safety, said Maggi Duncan, executive director. The association plans to push for the red light and speed cameras this legislative session.

The committee hopes to formulate an initial legislative proposal at their next meeting on Jan. 11.

Categories
Liberty and Justice News

Lawmakers Focusing on Possible New Traffic-Camera Rules

Traffic cameras may be growing in popularity among local governments and law enforcement agencies across the country, but some state lawmakers are questioning whether they belong in Tennessee.

Some say the cameras – which snap pictures when motorists drive through a stop light – are simply a tool to raise money.

“There’s no doubt that in some places it’s not about safety. It’s about revenue,” said Rep. Richard Floyd, a Chattanooga Republican.

House lawmakers examining the use of the high-tech traffic enforcement tools plan on introducing bills next year that could create statewide guidelines on the sorts of intersections where cameras could be used, and lengthening the duration of a yellow light before it turns red.

New Johnsonville Democrat John Tidwell, a civil engineer, said yield signals made one second longer will help reduce vehicle crashes, and he hinted he’ll push that issue in the coming session.

Also under discussion are laws to prohibit speeding-enforcement and stoplight-cameras completely.

The cameras are typically operated by private companies that set up the equipment, snap photos, evaluate violations and mail tickets to vehicle owners. Those organizations also receive a chunk of the revenues collected by violators, which is adding to the unease and outright opposition some critics are voicing.

Red-light cameras are under fire right now in a lawsuit arguing that traffic enforcement systems are operating illegally because they’re not properly licensed. Other suits attacking the practice have cropped up around the country.

Lawmakers Tuesday heard from Gordon Catlett, a patrol-support commander for the Knoxville Police Patrol Division who is a supporter of the cameras – and threat of a ticket – to change driver behavior.

“A lot of us treat a traffic signal like a yield sign,” he said.

The Transportation Committee will meet again Wednesday morning to discuss possible alternatives to traffic cameras, and ways to tinker with the system already in place.