Education NewsTracker

Schoolteacher Sex-Talk Dictates Debated

After delays earlier in the legislative session, the so-called “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill moved out of a House subcommittee Wednesday afternoon.

As amended Wednesday, the bill, House Bill 0229, states that “instruction or materials” given to public school students before the ninth grade “shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproduction science.”

The amendment is identical to the one applied to legislation the Senate passed last year.

As has been the case every time the bill is scheduled to appear, the hearing room – which had to be changed to accommodate the crowd – was filled to capacity for the House Education Subcommittee’s afternoon meeting. Many in attendance wore purple shirts to signal their opposition to the bill.

Rep. Bill Dunn, the bill’s former House sponsor who brought the amendment Wednesday, said the new language is in line with current curriculum and state code. The amendment, he said, effectively makes it so that the state’s Board of Education will have to come to legislators before changing the curriculum in the future. He also tried to quell what he called the “hysteria” surrounding the bill.

“This bill [as] amended does not prohibit the use of the word ‘gay,’” he said. “It does not change the anti-bullying statute and it does not prohibit a school guidance counselor from discussing issues of sexuality with a student.”

Rep. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, reiterated Rep. Dunn’s comments, saying that the bill requires teachers to follow the curriculum and does not ban them from answering questions brought by students about human sexuality.

Democratic House Leader Craig Fitzhugh spoke against the bill, saying he “[did] not know the purpose of bringing this legislation again at this time” and calling it a “solution looking for a problem.”

But Rep. John DeBerry Jr., D-Memphis, was the most vocal Democrat Wednesday afternoon.

In a passionate defense of the legislation, he chided those who he said were demonizing people with views different from their own. He also defended “the basic right[s] of an American,” which he said included the right to “run my home, raise my children as I see fit.”

Liberty and Justice Transparency and Elections

Diverse Views Among Lawmakers on Judicial Selection

After Tennessee’s top three elected officials put the issue front-and-center last week, opinions about the state’s judicial selection process are still shaking out on Capitol Hill.

And while the issue has divided state legislators, it has not necessarily done so along partisan lines. Opposition to a constitutional amendment has cropped up, in one form or another, from Democrats and Republicans alike, casting some doubt on the likelihood that such a resolution could get the two-thirds vote it would need to make it on the ballot in 2014.

In a joint press conference last Wednesday, Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell announced they will be pushing for a resolution that would give voters the chance to weigh in on a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the state’s current process.

A selection commission provides the governor with a list of candidates from which to appoint judges. Once appointed, those judges, who serve eight-year terms, face a yes-or-no “retention” election after their first term.

Ramsey has flatly said he believes the current method works well but that it is not constitutional. While Haslam and Harwell have stopped short of labelling the current process “unconstitutional,” their proposal aims to clear up any public uncertainty.

The issue has forced some Republican supporters of direct judicial elections between a rock and a political hard place. Several Republicans told TNReport last week that they won’t oppose the governor’s efforts to put an amendment to the people. But they also expressed doubts that the current method is the right one or that a majority of Tennesseans will vote to validate it constitutionally.

Last session, Rep. Bill Dunn co-sponsored a bill – HB0958 – that would have required popular elections for judges. That bill’s lead sponsor, Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, has said he has doubts that a majority of Tennesseans would vote yes on the governor’s amendment, but that he won’t stand in Haslam’s way.

Dunn, R-Knoxville, said he thinks the Constitution clearly calls for direct elections and that it’s “wrong for us to ignore the Constitution.” If voters were to agree with him, he said, then supporters of the amendment should be open to changing the process.

“The big question is, if the voters reject what they ask to do, then they’re really saying, ‘No, we want to keep the Constitution the way it is,’” he said. “I think to a certain degree we need to go into this whole process saying that if it is rejected then we will start following the Constitution. I think we should start following it right now, but those who have been dragging their feet need to put that on the table.”

Dunn also pushed back against the idea that elections would politicize the judiciary in a way the current system does not, asserting that it would be far easier to corrupt two or three people on a committee than to influence a judge accountable to more than 6 million people in a statewide election. Because of those concerns, and his feeling that the governor’s proposal is the most likely to separate itself from the crowd, he said he’ll be focusing his time and energy on the language of the possible amendment as opposed to alternative legislation.

Other Republicans, though, are fully on board with Haslam, Harwell and Ramsey.

“I am very glad to see the gov and the speakers take the position that they have to amend the constitution, really to conform the current process to the Constitution,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman. “I’m going to support that, and I think that’s a good solution to the problem.”

On the other side of the aisle, opinions are no more aligned. Memphis Sen. Ophelia Ford has filed a bill that would require state Supreme Court justices to be popularly elected by voters in various supreme court districts across the state. The bill, SB3714, would require the same of appellate court judges. The accompanying districts for both would be created by the General Assembly.

Ford told TNReport that breaking the state up into supreme court districts for popular elections would allow voters to elect judges they’re better acquainted with and keep candidates from being forced to campaign across the state. She also said she would be pushing for a constitutional amendment, which would mirror the bill.

Leading Democrats said they’re fine with the current process – which has been held up in court – but aren’t so fond of their counterparts’ amendment streak.

“It’s a change of position from some in the majority party to all of a sudden get on this constitutional amendment track,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh told TNReport. “So I don’t really understand why all of a sudden we decide to change the Constitution when it’s been something that worked OK. So, I’m sort of scratching my head on that. But we certainly are for the Tennessee Plan as it is now to continue.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said costly statewide elections would be the “worst thing we could do” and that the current process is the best one. As a result, he said Democrats could support the proposed amendment, but that he believes the larger trend is a problem.

“It appears to me that it could be something we could support,” he said. “I just have a problem with having all these constitutional amendments on the ballot. I think it’s confusing to the people.”

Education NewsTracker

Early Timeout Taken on Bill Restricting Human Sexuality Discussions in Public Schools

A measure making it illegal for public elementary or middle schools in Tennessee to teach about homosexuality has cropped up again in the state Legislature and suffered a minor setback Wednesday.

But Rep. Joey Hensley delayed committee action on the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, after a request from House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery.

Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who serves as the number two man on the committee and chairs the subcommittee where the bill currently rests, told TNReport Wednesday the controversial legislation will most likely reappear in three weeks.

House Bill 229, which has become the source of an annual hubbub on the Hill and was to be the target of protests Wednesday, would prohibit schools from providing “instruction or materials” that discuss sexual orientations other than heterosexuality.

The proposal has previously drawn national media attention, falling on sympathetic ears as well as eliciting criticism that it turned the state Senate into “a national laughing stock” when that body last year passed a version of the bill – Senate Bill 49 – by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. The measure died in the House.

Montgomery, R-Sevierville, said he asked Hensley for the delay after several committee members asked for more time to look at it. Explaining the move to the committee, Montgomery said the bill would be packaged with other curriculum legislation and taken up at a later date.

Hensley recently replaced Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, as the bill’s lead sponsor. Dunn, who still appears as a co-sponsor, said, “The key point was strategy.”

As a committee leader, Hensley is well-positioned to shepherd the bill forward, and Dunn noted Hensley’s status as a father, a doctor and a former school board member as reasons his sponsorship might be advantageous for the legislation.

Hensley has also just announced plans to to run for a new state Senate seat.

Montgomery said he hasn’t surveyed the committee’s membership and that he’s still on the fence himself.

“I’m not sure yet where I’m at,” he said. “I’d like to get all the knowledge we can first.”

One leading statehouse Democrat said the early appearance of such a controversial bill sets the wrong tone for the legislative session.

“Why are we doing this? It’s just a political move,” said Democratic House Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley. “The first meeting out of the box, I think you have to set the tone, and this is not a good tone to set.”

Both Hensley and Dunn said they feel confident they have the votes to get the bill out of committee this time. But if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it’s going away. Campfield, who has pushed the measure for years, said another delay wouldn’t phase him.

“Hopefully it will make it up to the House,” he said. “But if not, we’ll be back again next year.”

Education Featured News

GOP Support for School-Choice Legislation Lacking in House

Update: Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the formation of an “opportunity scholarship” task force intended to study the issue of vouchers “before legislation is pursued any further in this session.” The body is directed to report back to the governor’s office in “the fall of 2012,” long after the Legislature is expected to adjourn. The 2012 General Election is Nov. 6.

The governor plans to weigh in any day on whether to offer parents broader school choice options for their children next year, but high-ranking House leaders are hinting that idea is not in the cards for 2012.

Both the Republican Caucus chairwoman and the Education Committee chairman say they’d rather let the education reforms they passed this year soak in before pushing controversial legislation that would give parents in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga money to help send their children to different public, charter or private schools.

“We don’t need to be passing it yet,” said Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the Education Committee chairman who helped halt the legislation last spring. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of other people who feel the same way I do, that it’s a good year to learn as much as we possibly can and see if that’s something we really want to do.”

“We did do a lot last year,” said Rep. Debra Maggart, GOP Caucus chairwoman. “I do think that the voucher conversation is very complicated. … I think you’ll see a good conversation about it.”

Parents would have been able to use taxpayer-funded scholarships, or vouchers, to send their children to schools of their choosing under a bill that stalled last year as the Republican-controlled legislature overhauled teacher tenure, eliminated collective bargaining, opened up the doors to virtual schools and loosened enrollment restrictions on charter schools.

The measure passed in the Senate 18-10 mainly on party lines in the spring, but House Republicans put the brakes on the bill in favor of waiting until 2012 to take it up again.

“I think there are some people who want to say, ‘Let’s cool things down, let’s let things work,’” said Rep. Bill Dunn, who plans to take another stab at the voucher bill next year. “And then I think there’s another camp that says, ‘Hey, we have the momentum going. Let’s go ahead and fix everything that we can.’”

Dunn, R-Knoxville, plans to make the bill more attractive by beefing up accountability requirements on schools accepting students admitted via vouchers and by reducing the state tax dollars that would follow each student out of their district school as they enter another institution.

Although the measure has already cleared the upper chamber, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has introduced a new piece of legislation to allow school vouchers, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships,” although it currently lacks a House sponsor.

But the House plans to spend most of its time reviewing the reforms it wrote into law last year, said Montgomery, like tweaking the evaluation scores teachers need to earn tenure, reviewing specific pieces of the teacher evaluation reforms and assessing results of the wider charter school provisions.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has for months studied the voucher issue, and he has said he expects to announce his official position before the holiday.

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.

Education Featured

Disagreement Runs Deep Over School Vouchers

The philosophical lines on school vouchers are so distinct and the passions on both sides so pronounced it probably shouldn’t be surprising that even guns in bars crept into the debate on a voucher bill Tuesday in a Tennessee legislative committee.

House Bill 388, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, would provide scholarships and school choice for low-income students in the state’s four largest counties. It was the focus of considerable discussion in the House Education Subcommittee. The issue drew familiar themes of rhetoric, but it was flustered Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who brought guns into the conversation.

Naifeh, no supporter of vouchers, told the subcommittee he had read that 65-70 percent of the people in Tennessee are opposed to vouchers.

“I know that doesn’t mean anything to those that are for vouchers, because a larger percentage of people in this state were against guns in bars also, but that didn’t seem to matter, so I guess this doesn’t seem to matter either,” Naifeh said.

Subcommittee Chairman Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, asked Naifeh to stay on topic. But Naifeh wasn’t holding back on his recent reading.

“I have also read where private schools are really hoping this passes, because enough of them are in financial trouble, and this may be somewhat of a bailout for them,” Naifeh said.

Dunn’s bill won’t go anywhere until the Legislature reconvenes in January, and Tuesday’s discussion was only for study, but he is prepared to bring the voucher bill up next year, and the debate figures to be just as passionate when the action goes live.

Dunn’s bill, called the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act, would give low-income students vouchers — or scholarships as they are called — to attend another school in their district. The opportunity would apply only in the state’s four largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton. Advocates for vouchers see it as an innovative way to help educate children who would like an alternative to their current school. Opponents see it as taking money from public schools and subsidizing private schools.

Metro Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, representing the school boards in those heavily populated counties, spoke in strong opposition to the bill. Register told lawmakers he supported the reforms recently passed by the General Assembly but he flatly opposed school vouchers.

“Vouchers have been around a long time,” Register said. “There is simply no evidence that private school vouchers work.”

Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., an at-large member of the Shelby County Board of Education, testified by speakerphone to the subcommittee, advocating vouchers. The Shelby board recently passed a resolution opposing a voucher bill, but Whalum said he will not sign the resolution.

“One reason is I am tired of watching as poor children across our state are continually denied high-quality education because of the behemoth administrative bureaucracy that does more to perpetuate the system than to educate children,” Whalum told the subcommittee. “I assure you the parents I represent would jump at the chance to allow the kids to just have a chance, just have an opportunity at a quality education.”

Whalum said studies opposing school choice vouchers are “inconclusive, at best.”

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee, wasn’t ready to commit to vouchers.

“I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this until we get every bit of information we can possibly get, look at it, evaluate it, and see what the pros and cons are,” Montgomery said. Montgomery had expressed similar discomfort when the bill was considered by the subcommittee in the last session.

The subcommittee also heard from John Husted, secretary of state of Ohio, who was a legislative leader in enacting that state’s EdChoice voucher system. Husted appeared via teleconference.

“I have great respect for what you’re all going through,” Husted told the Tennessee lawmakers. “I was at the beginning of school choice in Ohio, and I know a lot of people question your motives, your motivations, whether you’re a proponent or an opponent.”

Dunn asked his colleagues to consider the way higher education works, where students and their families get to choose the college of their choice and how much better the nation’s colleges stack up in performance when compared to its K-12 schools. Dunn sees that as a strong argument for school choice in the lower grades.

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll found that West Tennesseans believe their local schools are worse than the state norm, while those in Middle and East Tennessee believe their schools are better than the norm.

Press Releases

Dunn: Claims of Pre-K Effectiveness Possibly ‘the Largest Hoax Ever Perpetrated on the People of Tennessee’

Press Release from the House Republican Caucus, June 7, 2011:

House Education Committee Member, Representative Bill Dunn, Points to Dismal Findings in Recent Comptroller Report

(NASHVILLE, June 7, 2011) – Last Friday, the Office of the Comptroller released the details of a long-awaited final, summary report on the impact of pre-kindergarten in Tennessee classrooms.

The study was conducted by Strategic Research Group to investigate the short- and long-term effects of state-funded Pre-Kindergarten (Pre-K) participation on academic outcomes in Kindergarten through Fifth Grade through an examination of existing school records. The evaluation was structured to take place over a multi-year timeframe and in a series of reporting stages.

The study shows that gains a Pre-K child makes are very short lived. In fact, in some areas the children without Pre-K ended up doing better than those in the state program. To quote directly from page six of the study, “For students in grades 3-5, analyses have found either no significant effect of Pre-K participation on assessment scores, or, in some cases, have found that students that attended Pre-K, on average, score lower than their non-Pre-K counterparts on some assessments.”

After reviewing the details of the study, Representative Bill Dunn (R—Knoxville) pointed to the results as proof that the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent on the program may have been better used elsewhere in education.”We have teachers who need raises and children who need books and the Tennessee Pre-K program is gobbling up and wasting valuable resources,” said Rep. Dunn.

“This report should serve as a revelation for individuals who still believe Pre-K is some sort of answer for long-term achievement in education,” continued Dunn. “The fact is, it just isn’t. It may be the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of Tennessee.”

The full report is available on the Comptroller’s OREA website at the following address:

Education News

House Skips School-Voucher Bill

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was moving right along with discussion of his school-choice legislation in the House Education Subcommittee meeting Wednesday when the panel’s chairman suddenly called for a 10-minute recess.

That recess turned out to be a Republican caucus meeting in the office of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

And when members returned to the hearing room, a couple Republicans — Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee — expressed their belief that Dunn’s bill ought to be sent to a summer study committee, an oft-used maneuver that puts an issue off for another day yet doesn’t kill the legislation.

The bill, HB388, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would allow low-income students in the state’s biggest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — to be given a “scholarship” to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a non-public school.

The bill passed in the Senate last week 18-10.

But in sorting through just who stood where on the bill, the word “comfortable” kept coming up in the House subcommittee discussion.

“I think if we go to the summer study committee, actually look at it, have the opportunity to bring in people from other states who have been shown the success of it, everybody gets more comfortable,” Dunn said after Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s the key word down here. You may have all the facts on your side. You’ve just got to get people comfortable.”

Montgomery said during the proceedings if he had a better “comfort zone,” knowing what impact the measure would have on local school authorities, he could move forward with the bill.

When the Senate voted last week on its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson of Knoxville abstained, saying she was “a little bit uncomfortable” with the bill because of unanswered questions about the impact on a district like hers.

Kelsey has said he is confident that “once the House studies the issue and feels comfortable with the issue they are going to come to the same conclusion we did in the Senate.”

It appears that in broad terms, state government is testing its own comfort level with where it is on education reform.

The Legislature has taken bold steps, enacting tenure changes for teachers, challenging teachers’ collective bargaining rights, considering lifting limits on charter schools and now entertaining one of the hottest potatoes of school reform — vouchers. It’s hard to see where the education reform train stops or if the concept might actually be slowing down given Wednesday’s move on vouchers.

At one point early in Wednesday’s hearing, during discussion of a bill on licensing non-traditional teachers, Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, blurted out, “I think we’re doing too much reform around here. I think at the end of the year, all the bills will run into each other.”

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for Tennessee Education Association, added later that unionized teachers “are feeling pretty beat down right now.”

“This has been a tough session,”Winters said. “They feel pretty put upon. They feel pretty singled out. And they feel there’s a lot of punitive things happening that are not good for relationships.

“This legislature has burned a lot of bridges.”

Education News

Haslam’s Charter School Bill Hits Speed Bump

Charter schools reform just got complicated.

After relatively easy passage in a key Senate committee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students continued to get snarled up in the House Education subcommittee Wednesday.

House Democrats fought for nearly two hours to block, amend and delay the charter school bill, saying it represented everything from an “unfunded mandate” on local school districts to an avenue for charters schools to “cherry-pick” students.

“We’re concerned about the charter schools and the way this bill is written in that they can go and cherry-pick the students that they want to bring into these charter schools and or the teachers that they would like to get in the charter schools,” said Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, former speaker and a leading Democrat challenging the bill. “We don’t want that to happen to the detriment of our public schools as they are right now.”

The Education Subcommittee ultimately delayed a vote on the bill for the second time this month, giving Democrats additional time to review the measure. But House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he’s confident the bill will pass as is next week.

“We’re going to work with them, and try to get them satisfied on some questions they’ve got, and then next week we’ll vote it out of there,” the Sevierville Republican told TNReport.

The governor’s bill, HB1989, is key on his list of legislative priorities. It would lift the 90-school cap on charter schools and open up enrollment to all students. It would allow the state’s yet-to-be-formed “Achievement School District” to OK certain charter school applications.

Numerically outmatched Democrats on the committee took issue with several facets of the governor’s bill, including eliminating the cap, determining how charter schools choose their students and the cost of expanding charter schools.

According to the bill’s price tag, local school districts would lose out on as much as $4 million in the 2012-13 school year as the charter school expansion takes hold and education dollars follow students to their new schools. That amount could climb to $24 million in the decade after that.

“We already have school choice for those who have the money to buy a house in another school district,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, who favors the bill. “So there’s already a cost that’s occurring similar to these numbers because we have a type of school choice.”

The debate ensued after Haslam’s administration explained details of an amended version of the charter school bill that tinkers with language detailing how some schools are formed.

The initial version of Haslam’s charter school legislation led some lawmakers and interest groups to believe it would allow the Achievement School District to authorize any applying charter school in the state, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Charter School Association. That system would have created an avenue for proposed schools facing opposition from their local school district to go over the school board’s head and apply directly to the state to open a charter school.

But that was not their intent, according to administration officials.

The new language tinkers with the role the state’s Achievement School District which came out of last year’s education reforms that qualified the state to win a $500 million Race to the Top education grant. Under Haslam’s bill, the Achievement district could only OK charter school applications for under-performing schools that are slated for a state takeover, a task now resting solely on the shoulders of local school districts.

The changes also include requiring the state Board of Education to explain why it denies any appeals of rejected charter school applications.

The alterations were made to ease concerns from Democrats and other education interest groups, according to the governor’s administration. Republicans seemed uninterested in amending the bill further.

“For us to make this so political that we can’t make the changes that we need to make to make this bill better, it bothers me,” said Rep. Lois DeBerry, a high-ranking House Democrat.

The charter school proposal won the Senate Education Committee’s approval along partisan lines earlier Wednesday with Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis voting in favor with Republicans.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, lawmakers advanced another education bill. Legislation curbing teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor negotiations squeaked by the House Budget Subcommittee Wednesday — in fact needing GOP Speaker Beth Harwell to cast a tie-breaking vote — and now moves to the full committee.

A competing version of the bill would completely eliminate labor unions’ leverage to negotiate labor contracts but awaits a vote on the Senate floor.

Press Releases

McCormick, Dunn Celebrate Tenure Bill’s Passage

Statement from Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville; March 24, 2011:

Statements from Majority Leader McCormick and Representative Dunn on Tenure Reform Passage

(March 24, 2011, NASHVILLE) – Immediately following the passage of tenure reform legislation, a top priority of Governor Bill Haslam’s education package, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R—Chattanooga) and the bill’s sponsor Representative Bill Dunn (R—Knoxville) released the following statements:

Leader McCormick:

“This is a strong step in the right direction for education reform in Tennessee. The Governor laid out a clear vision for raising standards and bringing more accountability to our educational system. We’ve done just that with passage of this legislation. With high-performing teachers, our students will receive the training and skills they need to be successful in the workforce. That means more and better jobs for Tennesseans.”

Rep. Dunn:

“Today’s action is a proud moment for our State. We said last fall that we would do what it takes to make Tennessee the number one destination for high-quality jobs in the South. That included top-to-bottom reforms in business regulation and education. This is yet another promise kept to Tennesseans that we are committed to bringing accountability to the classroom to ensure every student is led by a great teacher. This legislation will lead to better results in the classroom and, ultimately, better prepared workers to grow our economy.”