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Education NewsTracker

Governor Considers Letting State OK Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam is warming to the idea of establishing a process whereby state education officials bypass local school districts when considering approval of new charter schools.

The governor has for months indicated little interest in the idea, which is a departure from the current system wherein local elected officials determine whether to allow a taxpayer-funded charter school to operate in their district.

But while at the same time cautioning that he hasn’t yet finalized his 2013 legislative agenda, the governor told reporters Tuesday that the idea of state approval has become more palatable to him in wake of Nashville school board officials refusing to permit a charter school that’s already been deemed good-to-go by the state.

After the Metro Nashville Public Schools refused to allow Great Hearts Academies to open a school in the district, the state this week fined Metro schools more than $3 million.

“Prior to this, I don’t think there was a lot of political momentum around it,” Haslam said about assigning a state panel to consider charter school applications. “We’ll have to see what the General Assembly, how they react to that this year. But prior to this, that was not something that was on our agenda at all.”

Haslam said as recently as last month he was not interested in entertaining discussions about letting charter schools apply directly to the state unless he saw widespread rejections of charter schools.

The Department of Education announced Tuesday it would withhold $3.4 million in state funds from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in October as a consequence for refusing to approve Great Hearts Academies.

The decision comes as a surprise after Haslam told reporters last month that “threatening to withhold money, that’s not the business we’re in in the state. We’re in the business of educating children.”

He and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman both said they were in on the decision to punish the school district. The fine is permitted under a state law that gives the commissioner “discretion” to withhold some or all state education funding if the district violates state education law.

Huffman says the local school district “brazenly” violated state law when it twice refused recommendations from the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the Arizona-based Great Hearts charter school into the district. Metro schools had rejected the application, citing concerns that the school wouldn’t conform to racial diversity mandates.

But state law appears to give Tennessee’s education board veto power:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district or community, the state board shall remand the decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The grounds upon which the state board of education based a decision to remand the application shall be stated in writing, specifying objective reasons for the decision. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The LEA, however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Over the last year, Haslam and the Republican-led Legislature stripped away a handful of caps and restrictions on charter schools, paving the way for expansion of the school-choice movement.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Sommerville, said in a statement the fine was the “correct course to take to demonstrate to the errant members of the school board that you cannot deliberately break the law without consequences.”

Democrats say the move sets an unsettling precedent for local school boards, which they say should have complete control over which charter schools to embrace. However, Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, stopped short of encouraging school boards across Tennessee to start deciding for themselves which state laws they want to follow or violate.

“I do not endorse anybody breaking the law, but I think this was really an uncalled-for punishment,” Jones said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said if the state wants Great Hearts Academies to open so badly, then it should foot the full bill.

“If the state decides to step in and overrule a local school board’s decision, then the state should be prepared to pick up the cost of funding that local school,” Turner said.

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Education Featured News

Pressure Builds Over State-Local Control of Charter Schools

Republicans who laud government that stays close to the people are finding themselves in a pickle now that a local school board has bucked state law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education ignored orders by the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district last week — the second such rebuff in a month. The Metro schools board contends that the first of five schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

The Great Hearts dispute has exposed Republican leaders to criticism that they espouse local control only when it suits their aims.

“This whole thing just flies in the face of Republican philosophy when you have the big bad state coming down telling the local school board they have to comply with the law,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has been resistant to the emergence of school choice.

Charter schools have enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and his education department. The administration’s agenda for reform has included tougher standards for teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

Metro schools’ refusal to grant Great Hearts permission to open a school has sparked statewide debate over whether local approval is best. Great Hearts announced that it would not challenge the Metro schools’ decision.

“It’s really been kind of shocking to watch a government openly acknowledge and violate the law,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Disgusted by the ongoing feud, Throckmorton and other charter school advocates are pushing for the state to assemble an outside agency to review and approve charter school applications, allowing charter operators to leap-frog over the local school district.

Details on how that system would operate are still in the works.

Throckmorton says local school districts should still be involved with discussions about pending charter schools. But politics are getting in the way of opening quality schools that could find more effective ways to teach children, he said.

Opponents of the idea say locally elected school board members — rather than a handful of appointed officials in Nashville — should decide whether a charter school is the right fit for the district and the community.

“I think people are wanting to make this an example to justify their intent to make a statewide authorizer,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association which is opposed to charter schools skipping over local officials. “Often you hear the best decisions are made on the ground. (State approval) would totally fly in the face of that mentality.”

Several top state officials are staying quiet on the matter, including Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who in August said the state would take “appropriate action” to see to it that Metro schools approved the charter school.

He declined to comment on the latest denial for Great Hearts, although emails obtained by the City Paper indicate he was keenly interested in getting the application approved and has engaged in discussions about the need for a statewide authorizer.

The governor’s office has also been silent on the issue, although officials say they were waiting for Haslam to return from his economic development trip in Japan last week. Prior to Metro schools’ first rejection of the Great Hearts application, Haslam said he saw no need to develop a state panel to approve charter schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham has also declined to comment.

But Republican legislative leaders who have repeatedly offered messages about the importance of local control hint that they’d be open to a plan giving the state more power.

“I am extremely dismayed that the Nashville School Board is focused on limiting parental choice and educational opportunity for children,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told TNReport in an email. “It is unfortunate that the board seems mired in the old education politics while the rest of the state is moving forward.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed, calling the decision by MNPS “simply a mistake for our children” and saying the Legislature “will revisit this issue” when they come back in January.

“We believe in local government and local school boards. But when they don’t give opportunities for our children, then that’s a problem,” she said.

Charter schools are privately-owned but publicly-funded. Supporters say they offer more flexibility to innovate and create choice and competition, while detractors say they drain public money and students, leaving traditional public schools with the students hardest to educate.

Charter school performance is generally mixed. Last school year, two charter schools ranked among the best performing institutions in the state, while five other charter schools reflected some of the worst student academic records statewide.

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Business and Economy Education Featured Health Care NewsTracker

Dem Leader Forecasts Partisan Fireworks Over Education Again in 2013

Even though Republicans are lately focused primarily on the federal health care ruling, a top House Democrat expects education will again emerge as the most contentious political issue in next year’s Tennessee Legislature.

Debate about college tuition, charter-school expansion and school choice will be among the hottest of hot-button issues come dead of winter 2013, minority-party caucus chairman Mike Turner predicted this week during a conversation with reporters in Nashville.

And Turner doesn’t seem particularly optimistic his party will fare any better getting its way and protecting its interests than has proven the case in the last two years. During the 2011-2012 Tennessee General Assembly, Democrats failed to successfully defend one of their dearest and most loyal constituencies, unionized teachers, from landmark legislative defeats at the hands of a politically aggressive GOP bent on removing the Tennessee Education Association as an obstacle to majority-party education reforms.

“I don’t think next year is going to get any easier,” Turner said. “They may be better at what they’re doing. Governing is new to them, being in the majority is new to them. God help us all if they get their feet underneath them before we get it back.”

He added, “I think education next year will be a big fight again.”

Gov. Bill Haslam has said his next big issue is indeed higher education. Haslam has said he wants the state to re-evaluate the system’s costs, boost the number of graduates and better weave degrees with Tennessee employers’ needs.

On that particular education issue, and likely few others, Turner hinted that Democrats and Republicans might be able to find some common ground trying to determine how to diminish bloated, upper-level bureaucratic dead weight in the state’s university system.

“Higher ed has got to learn that we are in difficult times. When they cut, they just tend to cut the bottom,” said Turner, a firefighter from Old Hickory who isn’t facing a re-election opponent this year. “They’ve still got their 19 vice presidents and their department heads and above them they’ve got chancellors, and I don’t think they live in the real world up there. If the United States can have one vice president, I’m not sure UT needs 19.”

Such concerns are in fact presently on the minds of some of those attending government-funded colleges. Recently, students at the University of Tennessee launched an online petition drive in Knoxville to protest a $22,000 raise for its chancellor at a time when student tuition is expected to jump an average of $289 per semester.

Nevertheless, Turner characterized the pending evaluation of the costs of higher education as something of “a crisis coming” for college-bound students of low-to-moderate means.

Turner expects the Republican-led Legislature to take another shot at raising the bar on awarding the state-funded Hope Scholarship. Students now need either a score of 21 on the ACT or a 3.0 grade point average.

Haslam last year slid school choice issues to the back burner, asking a panel to study the implications of allowing parents to send their children to private, charter or other public schools outside their local area using a voucher program. The panel is expected to report its findings to the governor this fall.

“I think vouchers will be in play, big time this time,” said Turner. “I think they’re going to push them hard.”

Turner also anticipates a GOP-led push to expand charter schools, which he predicts “will ultimately lead to private re-segregation of the schools.”

Haslam began his first few months in office working to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can open statewide.

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Education Featured

Legislature Passes Limits on Foreign Staffers at TN Charter Schools

The Tennessee Legislature has approved a bill limiting the number of non-U.S. citizens any Volunteer State charter school can hire while still maintaining eligibility for public funding.

Senate Bill 3345, which passed in the Tennessee Senate last week and in the House of Representatives on Monday night, would also require charter schools to disclose all their funding sources in addition to capping the number of foreign citizens on staff at 3.5 percent of the total number of the school’s employees.

House proponents of the measure portrayed it as a common-sense effort to increase charter-school transparency and encourage the hiring of American citizens as teachers — preferably Tennesseans.

“It simply puts more accountability in the charter school process,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill’s sponsor. The measure contains an exemption for foreign-language teachers who, if by hiring them, would cause a charter school to break the cap, Matheny added.

The measure passed April 12 in the Senate on an 18-13-1 vote. It cleared the House on a 63-29-1 vote. In both chambers votes were cast mostly along party lines, with Republicans for it and Democrats against.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory suggested during floor debate Monday that the group chiefly responsible for pushing the bill, the Tennessee Eagle Forum, seems concerned more with limiting the influence of Islam than hiring homegrown teachers.

Turner noted that just last week Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the national Eagle Forum, penned an opinion column that sought to raise awareness about the growing influence in America of a “secretive and powerful” Turkish-based Islamic religious sect.

“Charter schools are able to hire and fire teachers, administrators and staff and avoid control by education department bureaucrats and the teachers unions,” wrote Schlafly. “No doubt there are some good charter schools, but loose controls have allowed a very different kind of school to emerge.”

Schlafly, a nationally syndicated conservative political commentator, cited a number of articles in major U.S. newspapers over the past year that have examined the activities of a movement led by a religious leader from Turkey named Fethullah Gülen.

According to a June 2011 New York Times article that Schlafly referenced in her column, Fethullah Gülen is “a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.”

The Times story continued:

The growth of these “Turkish schools,” as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.

Schlafly wrote that the movement “has nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants.”

“Most American taxpayers would be mighty surprised at what their money is financing,” Schlafly concluded.

Matheny acknowledged that indeed the foreigners-in-charter-schools measure came to him through the Tennessee Eagle Forum. He denied, though, that it is targeted at any one group or individual.

“This bill treats everybody equally who would be part of the charter school process, regardless of where they are from, what their religion is — it treats everybody equally,” Matheny said Monday.

Turner, who voted against the bill, suggested Matheny research the Eagle Forum’s views on the matter. “I think they have led you astray on what they asked you to carry on this bill,” Turner said.

A March 27 article in The Tennessean noted that top Democrats in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature filed bills earlier this session similar to the GOP-backed proposal. Senate Bill 2654 and House Bill 2831, sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, sought to prohibit foreign nationals who are not lawful permanent residents of the United States from running or teaching in state-funded charter schools. Those bills stalled in the committee system.

Sen. Finney ultimately voted against SB3345, which was sponsored in the Senate by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron. Rep. Fitzhugh didn’t cast a vote on the measure during the House vote Monday night, according to the Tennessee Legislature’s website, although he is listed as having voted against the measure when it passed out of the House Education Committee April 3.

Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said he doesn’t see a particular need for the bill, that it creates unnecessary hoops for charter schools to jump through.

Often schools with higher percentages of foreign-born teachers are among the highest performing institutions academically, he said.

“The evidence suggests they’re really making positive contributions,” Throckmorton said.

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Press Releases

National Education Reformer to Build System of Nashville Charter Schools

Press release from the Office of Mayor Karl Dean; Jan. 25, 2012:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Mayor Karl Dean and the Tennessee Charter School Incubator announced today that national charter school leader Todd Dickson has been recruited to Nashville to start a network of high-performing charter schools in 2014.

The Incubator will host Dickson as its senior fellow for two years while he finalizes his plans to create a charter management organization of eight to 10 college-preparatory public charter schools focused on measurable outcomes. The schools would be located in Nashville, and Dickson intends to submit a charter application to Metro Nashville Public Schools to open at least one school in 2014.

Dickson, executive director of Summit Preparatory Charter High School in California, is well-known for educational successes with economically, ethnically and racially diverse populations. In 2010, Newsweek magazine named Summit Prep as one of the top 10 transformational schools in the country, and the school’s model was also highlighted as an education solution in the highly acclaimed documentary Waiting for Superman. Since 2007, some 96 percent of Summit graduates have earned acceptance to four-year colleges.

“Securing a highly sought-after leader in education reform like Todd is an outstanding achievement for the Tennessee Charter School Incubator and the city of Nashville,” Dean said. “Of all the places Todd could have gone, we are pleased that he has chosen Nashville to launch his charter management organization. I commend the great work of the Incubator and others to position Nashville as a top destination for those leading innovation in education.”

Mayor Dean helped launch the Tennessee Charter School Incubator in 2009 to recruit high-quality charter operators to Nashville and Tennessee. Dickson is the first national charter leader to participate in the Incubator.

“After reviewing options in other states, such as California and Colorado, I knew that Tennessee was where my wife and I wanted to be,” Dickson said. “One of the key factors in our decision was the Incubator’s fellowship offer. The opportunity allows me to develop my network and provides me with the resources and support I will need to launch my charter management organization in 2014.”

Dickson will join the Tennessee Charter School Incubator in July. The Incubator will provide training, resources and support for Dickson as he builds his professional network and develops plans for his charter management organization.

“Thanks to Mayor Dean’s extraordinary leadership in education reform efforts, the climate is right for charter schools in Nashville,” said Greg Thompson, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Incubator. “Rebecca Lieberman, our director of talent recruitment, is leading the effort to recruit top performers like Todd to Tennessee. We firmly believe that we must have the right leadership in place in order to launch and support high-quality charter schools.”

About the Tennessee Charter School Incubator

As the first statewide charter school incubator in the country, the Tennessee Charter School Incubator was launched with one purpose: to close the education achievement gap in Tennessee by supporting the creation of high-quality charter schools in Memphis and Nashville.

Founded in 2009, the Incubator has an ambitious plan to launch 22 new, high-performing college-preparatory charter schools in Nashville and Memphis by 2015 and to provide support services to existing high-performing charters in these markets. The Incubator believes the quality of these schools will not only set a baseline for what should be demanded of all public schools in Tennessee, but also serve as a catalyst for additional aggressive reforms across the state. For more information, visit www.charterexcellence.org or follow the Incubator on Twitter @TNCSIncubator.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Charters Filing Applications to Take Over Failing TN Schools

If all goes well, the state will give as many as four charter schools its blessing to take over some of the state’s worst performing schools, the superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District said.

Nine charter schools applied with the state to turn around any of 13 failing schools under the jurisdiction of the District, a branch of the state Department of Education focusing on low-performing schools.

“All we know is they can fill out an application. That’s the work now, to really evaluate the quality of them,” superintendent Chris Barbic said. “We’d love to see three or four of those guys get approved, but we’re going to have a high bar.”

Barbic said he would evaluate each charter’s leadership team, academic plans, and responses during in-person interviews.

Among the applicants is the Power Center Academy, a charter school in Memphis that won big recognition this week from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education for “dramatically improving student achievement in spite of the challenges they face.”

“Obviously we want to see folks that have a great track record,” Barbic told TNReport. “We don’t want to drag out the process unnecessarily. We also want to make sure we’re building in time for community buy-in as much as we can.”

Barbic said he’ll decide in November which charters to take on, then match each one up with a school in the district.

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Expect More to Get More from Education: Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam offered some simple math for a group of educators in Memphis on Wednesday and called it a “recipe for a problem.”

He started with the statistic that only 21 percent of the state’s population has a college degree. The national figure is about 30 percent. Some 20 years ago, the United States ranked first in the world in the percentage of the population with a degree.

“Today we’re ninth,” Haslam said. “If Tennessee were a country, we would rank about 79th in the world in percentage of adults with a degree.”

Haslam indicated he subscribes to estimates suggesting more than half the jobs created in the foreseeable future will require workers to have a degree. If that proves true, it’ll pose problems for Tennessee, said the governor.

It was another in Haslam’s long list of examples of how jobs and education are linked. Yet he hardly believes he is the first governor to emphasize the importance of education.

Haslam spoke to a conference of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence at the Presbyterian Day School, an event that allowed him to hook up with long-time friend and past business partner Brad Martin, head of a venture capital firm and philanthropist. They sat next to each other on the stage.

Haslam told the audience that the most important task is to “change the culture of expectation around education.”

He noted that the state ranks in the 40s among the 50 states in education.

“People ask, ‘How did you wind up in the 40s?'” Haslam said. “We expected far too little.”

Haslam said he had read recently about Austin Peay, governor of Tennessee in the 1920s, who said he was going to be the education governor. Peay had a long line of successors with the same message.

Haslam cited some efforts like his own education reform agenda, which includes revamping teacher tenure and adding charter school options, but he said those steps aren’t the whole solution, and he said since the state still ranks in the 40s in education it’s a sign that what the state has been doing hasn’t been working.

Haslam said someone asked him recently if he could have 500 more of something — whether it be “500 farmers, engineers, linebackers, bankers, or anything” — he knew what he would choose.

“My answer is simple. It would be 500 more great principals,” he said.

Haslam has spoken often about principals. He frequently tells groups that if they walked into any school, after a short amount of time, they could tell if the school had a good principal or not, and that the principal wouldn’t even need to be there for them to draw a conclusion.

“How can we more effectively select and train and give feedback to principals?” he asked rhetorically. “I think if we can do that, we can move the needle quicker than anything else.”

Haslam continues to be big on the amount of data available on student performance in the state in order to evaluate teachers. The value-added assessments of students have been a treasure trove of information to have as a resource, and Haslam repeated his belief that the state should move now to make those evaluations, instead of waiting for a perfect set of measurements.

He said if the Haslams had had that kind of data in terms of their business, Pilot Corp., which owns a chain of truck stops and convenience stores, the company “could have competed incredibly more effectively.”

The governor said he talked to his brother, Jimmy, who is the head of Pilot, recently and told him he couldn’t believe how many talented people are going into the field of education, much like another generation went into the Peace Corps to try to change the world.

And he used that observation to form a message to teachers.

“I’m very grateful for what you have decided to do with your life,” Haslam said.

“There is no profession I know of today that is as critical to making our state a better place to live and work and play than teaching.”

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Education Featured News

Restrictions on Tennessee Charter Schools Officially Eased

Maybe it was because she was standing in front of more than about 100 people.

Maybe it was because, in her youth, she hasn’t done much public speaking.

More likely, it was because the heartfelt words she was saying about why she likes being a student at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis drew out her deepest emotions, with tears rolling down her face.

Eighth-grader Money (pronounced Mo-NAY) Johnson stole the hearts of the crowd Wednesday when Gov. Bill Haslam appeared for a ceremonial signing of his charter school bill, part of Haslam’s education reform package that passed the Legislature this year.

Haslam was supposed to be the main attraction, but it was the students, especially Johnson, who made the biggest impression. She began to say why she wanted to attend Freedom Prep.

“I wanted to come to Freedom Prep for the education,” she said. “I wasn’t getting the same education and love … ” And she stopped. Tears welled up. “… from my other school.” And she stopped again to wipe her eyes.

After several uneasy silent moments, the crowd broke into applause.

Young Johnson eventually gathered her thoughts and said she liked the working environment at the school and that her teachers take the time to make sure she knows what she needs to know to pass a test and go to college. It brought another round of applause.

The charter school debate did not end Wednesday at Freedom Prep in Memphis, but the stakes were clear. The state is searching for answers in education, and the new law is designed to give charter schools an opportunity to prove they can successfully play an ever larger role in turning Tennessee education around.

Haslam actually signed the bill days earlier, but his choice of Memphis for the ceremonial bill signing was no accident.

Memphis has the most charter schools in the state with 25. Nashville has 11, Chattanooga 3 and the Shelby County system 1. A charter school in Knoxville has been approved but is not expected to open until 2012.

The bill Haslam proposed, which passed 22-9 in the Senate and 72-18 in the House, lifts the cap of 90 charter schools in the state and allows any student in a charter school’s jurisdiction to attend. Further, an Achievement School District, which tries to turn around failing schools, can now authorize charter schools.

Chris Barbic, who has a charter school background and was recently chosen to head an Achievement School District in Tennessee, with four schools in Memphis and one in Chattanooga, attended Wednesday’s signing ceremony.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run by not-for-profit organizations. The schools are noted for their autonomy but also face accountability and can be closed if they do not perform.

“This really is an important day. As you can tell by the parents here and the students, this is one more alternative. It’s not the answer for everyone, but having the ability to expand our charter schools is important as we seek to continue to move Tennessee forward,” Haslam said.

“I don’t think you’ll see massive growth, because quite frankly it’s hard to do. You’ve got to come up with a physical plant to meet in. That’s the hardest part about charter schools. I don’t think you’ll see an incredible multiplication, but I think you will see growth. And if you’re a parent and this is the best alternative for a child, this makes a huge difference.”

Charter schools made for only one piece of Haslam’s education reform agenda this year. He also pressed successfully for teacher tenure reform and the extension of Hope scholarships for summer college classes. While Haslam ultimately signed onto the collective bargaining legislation that ended with a “collaborative conferencing” plan with teachers, the union bill was not part of Haslam’s original education agenda.

Critics of charter schools say the schools get away from the original intent of helping struggling students and take away from the strength of the traditional public school system.

Freedom Prep opened in 2009. It has been for grades 6-7 thus far, but its planned reach is for grades 6-12.

“It’s a school that gets us ready for college each and every day. They never step down. They keep us going,” said Jareth Austin, who, like Johnson, will be in the 8th grade this fall. He wants to go to Morehouse College and the Air Force and be an architect. “They keep us smiling.”

Haslam said Wednesday that students from low-income families will still get the priority on charter schools. He emphasized that charter schools will have the same level of accountability as other schools.

But the concept creates its own challenges, such as how to create charter schools in rural areas.

“That is a fair question, because you’re drawing off of a smaller population,” Haslam said. “It’s either going to be the school system or an Achievement School District that approves them, and it’s the state’s responsibility to make certain we are not harming any existing schools. They are more difficult in rural schools, just to be factual.”

He was asked why there aren’t more charter schools in Knoxville, where he served as mayor for two terms before becoming governor.

“You know, I’m not really sure,” he said. “There have been a couple of applications. There are two or three in the works now that I think will get approved, but for whatever reason historically there haven’t been the charter school operators who came out and could work it out.”

State legislators who attended Wednesday’s event included Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville; Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown; Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Rep. Mike White, R-Memphis; Rep. Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis; and Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis.

“The key provision of this legislation is that now every child in Tennessee is eligible to attend a charter school,” Kelsey said. “And that is a huge expansion and is very much needed and will allow thousands of new children new opportunities.”

Mike Morrow is a correspondent for TNReport.com, an independent nonprofit news service supported by donors like you.

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Press Releases

Freshman Rep. Elam Touts Accomplishments of TN’s ‘Historic Conservative Majority’

Press Release from the House GOP Caucus, June 8, 2011:

Mount Juliet Legislator Calls First Session the Most Successful in Tennessee History

(NASHVILLE, June 8, 2011) – After years of near one Party control in Tennessee politics, Republicans won control of the Governor’s mansion, Senate, and House for the first time in the history of the State. Representative Linda Elam (R—Mount Juliet) played a key role in the opening session of the 107th General Assembly and Tennesseans immediately benefitted from the conservative leadership.

“It is an honor to be a part of such a historic conservative Majority,” remarked Rep. Elam. “Tennesseans understand we pushed through a conservative, pro-growth agenda that reflects their values. They can take heart that, finally, their Representatives in Nashville are listening to them.”

The first Session was marked by conservative milestones many Tennesseans have worked hard to see come to fruition. Among those items:

  • Tort Reform: This was a key centerpiece for the Governor’s jobs agenda and the General Assembly fashioned a new law that provides certainty in the business environment. With this confidence, more companies are better able to quantify the cost of doing business and can allocate more resources to provide jobs for Tennesseans.
  • Charter Schools: The Republican Majority lifted the cap on charter schools in Tennessee, ensuring that all children across the State will have access to a high quality education. Republican legislators, like Representative Elam, understand the key to long-term job growth in Tennessee is in the training of a strong workforce.
  • Collaborative Conferencing: In a major reform unlike any seen across the country, conservative legislators pushed through a new model for education that allows all teachers to have a voice when it comes to setting education policy and removed the barriers set up by the union so our hard-working teachers can be rewarded at a higher rate.
  • Ban on Income Tax: The process was started for a constitutional amendment in Tennessee that would forever prohibit an income tax from being levied on Tennesseans. The process for an amendment is long, but this Republican Majority is united in ensuring this common sense, pro-jobs measure becomes law.
  • Government Reform: In a move to increase transparency and efficiency for taxpayers, the House eliminated a number of duplicative committees that caused confusion for many citizens trying to follow legislation through the General Assembly. With this reform, bills will travel on a streamlined path that provides Tennesseans a format to voice their concerns on legislation. Additionally, the move saved Tennesseans nearly $1 million.
  • The State Budget: Republicans passed a fiscally conservative budget that reflects the principles of Tennesseans and meets the needs of our State. Overall, the Republican Majority reduced spending by $1.2 billion and rolled back a number of areas of duplicative government programs.

While much focus was given to these high-profile pieces of legislation, there are a number of other new laws that were ushered through to make government more responsive to Tennesseans and limit the influence of government regulation. Rep. Elam helped guide a number of these bills to final passage, a noteworthy achievement for a first-year legislator. Among the legislation she co-sponsored:

  • Voter Photo ID: This bill ensures integrity at the ballot box, something Tennesseans have long asked for. Essentially, voters are asked to present a valid photo ID to obtain a ballot. Parallel legislation passed to ensure citizens who may not have an ID can obtain one for free. These laws will protect Tennessee from having to deal with ballot box abuse and voter fraud.
  • Welfare Reform: This new law will prevent abuse of the Families First benefits program. It places common sense requirements on those utilizing taxpayer-funded benefits such as a prohibition against drug use or enrollment in a drug treatment program.
  • Voting Reform: This new law authorizes the coordinator of elections to compare the statewide voter registration database with the department of safety database, relevant federal and state agencies, and county records to ensure non-United States citizens are not registered to vote in this State.
  • Veterans’ Families: This legislation extends property tax relief to the surviving spouse of a soldier whose death results from being deployed, away from any home base of training and in support of combat operations. This was one way to honor the sacrifice our soldiers make in the line of duty.
  • Wilson County: Representative Elam guided a bill designating the bridge at State Route 109 and U.S. Highway 70 in Wilson County as the “Spc. Michael Lane Stansbery, Jr.” bridge to honor one of Wilson County’s fallen soldiers.

In reflecting on the reforms passed by the House of Representatives in her first term, Rep. Elam stated, “I tailored my personal record—the votes I took, the legislation I carried—to the wishes of my constituents. I heard them loud and clear last fall when they told me they wanted a government that is limited and respects our constitutional rights.” She continued, “Over the summer, I look forward to traveling around the 57th District and listening to the people once again. I am eager to get their feedback, bring it back to the Capitol next year, and work hard to make the Volunteer State an even better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

For a complete listing of Representative Elam’s legislative record, click here.

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Press Releases

Harwell’s End-of-Session Recap

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, Posted the Following Letter on Facebook, June 3, 2011:

The first session of the 107th General Assembly adjourned late Saturday night, May 21st, after we aggressively worked the last several days to finish our business. We have a long list of accomplishments to point to, proving that it does matter who governs.

Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and I were united in our belief that in order to make government sustainable, we had to transform the way we did business. We made significant progress this year reducing the size of government, paving the way for job creation, and reforming education.

In addition, we adjourned earlier than we have in the past couple of decades. Compared to last year, our early adjournment saved taxpayers nearly half a million dollars in legislative operational expenses. We have shown that we take the responsibility of governing very seriously, and we will stay true to our principles as we do so.

Our top priority was a balanced budget with no new taxes or tax increases. This year’s budget is $1.2 billion less than last year’s. This includes $82.2 million in specific recurring reductions. The budget also fully funds education, and tucks money away in the Rainy Day Fund for the first time in three years, raising it to $327.7 million.

We had many accomplishments this year, including but not limited to the following:

  • Tort reform – Republicans have also fought for years to see passage of comprehensive tort reform legislation, and this year we were successful in passing a bill that will pave the way for jobs in Tennessee. This legislation will create an environment of predictability and certainty for businesses as they look to expand.
  • Tenure Reform – Our goal is to make sure our teachers are equipped with the best tools possible to educate Tennessee students. We want an effective teacher in front of every classroom, and we want those who are excelling to be rewarded. This proposal is absolutely key to education reform.
  • Charter Schools – Charter schools have a proven track record in Tennessee, and I am delighted that we are giving this opportunity to even more students. Every student in the state of Tennessee deserves the very best we have to offer in education, and charter schools play a huge role in reaching that goal.
  • Collaborative Conferencing – The legislature also acted on a bill that repealed the Education Professional Negotiations Act and moved to a collaborative bargaining process that will open a direct line of communication between teachers, administrators and school boards.
  • Reduction of Meth Amphetamines – We are always trying to stay one step ahead of those who manufacture meth, which is destroying our communities. Utilizing this tracking system will curb the ability of criminals to obtain key ingredients for meth, while not increasing the burden to consumers who need pseudoephedrine.
  • Election Integrity – To ensure the integrity of our elections, the legislature passed a bill to require photo identification to vote. This measure will reduce voter fraud, and make every vote count.
  • SJR 127 – The constitutional amendment will restore the right of Tennesseans to repeal or enact laws governing abortions within federal limits through their elected representatives.
  • E-Verify – This bill helps to ensure that those working in Tennessee are here legally. Illegal immigration has a large financial impact on taxpayers, and this legislation will address this problem.
  • Elimination of a dozen subcommittees – The principles of a limited and more efficient government were a priority this year. To that end, I eliminated a dozen subcommittees that I felt were duplicitous, a reform that helped us to work more efficiently.
  • Elimination of redundant committees – In times of economic hardship, taxpayers demand and deserve state government to be streamlined. To that end, we eliminated 11 “oversight” committees that duplicated the work of standing committees, saving taxpayer dollars.

We started this year with a Republican governor, and strong majorities in both chambers–for the first time in the history of our state. We set forth ambitious proposals for job creation and better schools, and due to the hard work of each state representative, we have done that. This was a very successful year.

As always, I appreciate your support. It was an honor to serve as Speaker of the House, and experience that was both humbling and rewarding. Thank you for placing your trust in me, and let me know if I can ever do anything to assist you.

Sincerely,

Beth