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Education Featured NewsTracker

General Assembly Wraps Up, Major Ed Items Left Undone

The GOP-run Tennessee Legislature called it a year Friday, closing up shop on the earliest date in over two decades.

And in typical fashion, the ebbing hours of the session were a whirl of harried debate and last-minute spatting between the House and Senate.

One of the big items on the Tennessee General Assembly’s education agenda for the year was unceremoniously tossed aside in the waning hours of the session with signs that the proposal failed as a result of a legislative game of chicken between chambers.

The so-called “charter authorizer” bill aimed to give the state the power to overrule local school districts if they decided to reject an applications for new charter schools in their area.

Pushed for heavily by charter school supporters, the bill initially called for the creation of an independent, state-appointed panel to hear such appeals. But after facing some resistance in Senate committees, it was watered down significantly, moving the authorizing power under the State Board of Education.

House Bill 702, sponsored by Memphis Republican Mark White, had strong support in the lower chamber throughout the committee process and was a priority item for House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.

But the Senate version, carried by Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, always appeared to be a tougher sell in the upper chamber and there were whispers, Friday, that Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville was delaying action on the bill as a way to press the House to pass one of his legislative priorities, a plan for judicial redistricting in the state.

That bill, SB780, failed spectacularly in the House Friday afternoon by a vote of 66-28 and Gresham subsequently took her bill off notice.

Questioned by reporters following the session if the failure of the two bills was related, Ramsey replied obliquely, “Somewhat, that’s about it. It wasn’t retaliation. I thought the judicial redistricting bill should pass and it didn’t, so that’s where we are.”

The failed charter authorizer bill is one of a few big-ticket pieces of education legislation that didn’t make it out of the Assembly this year. Earlier in the session, Gov. Bill Haslam abandoned a plan to give public school children vouchers to pay tuition at private schools after fellow Republicans in the Legislature insisted on trying to broaden the program beyond the governor’s liking.

At a post-session press event, Haslam mentioned both proposals saying “The two things I was, personally, most disappointed in, would be the voucher bill and the charter authorizer.”

“I do think it’s important, particularly the charter authorizer” Haslam continued. “A lot of the great charter operators we’re trying to attract to Tennessee—they’re not going to come invest all the time unless they know that they have a realistic chance of getting approved and so that’s been, I think, a key motivation for me in having the charter authorizer passed.”

The governor suggested he’d like to see both issues taken up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2014.

Mark Engler contributed to this story.

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Education NewsTracker

Senate Finance OKs Retooled Charter Authorizer Proposal

After weeks of postponements and concerns from both sides of the aisle, the state Senate Finance, Ways & Means Committee voted Wednesday to substantially overhaul a contentious charter school bill.

The original plan laid out in Senate Bill 830, carried by Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, would have created a stand-alone, state-appointed board with the power to overrule local school systems who denied applications to open new charter schools. But after members of the Finance Committee raised questions about the roughly $240,000 price tag for the new board and the increased bureaucracy it would create, Gresham, with the help of committee member and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, introduced an amendment that would move the charter authorizer function under the state Board of Education.

The changes to the measure proved to be enough to sway all but one of the GOP committee members.

But Democrats, along with Maryville Republican Doug Overbey still didn’t lend their support. Outstanding concerns included the bill’s limited focus on counties that have struggling, “priority schools,” and the lack of any rules to make sure that new charter schools would be located in underserved neighborhoods and not more distant, well off communities.

While Gresham ultimately managed to prevail and push the changes through, she was less than cheerful, heatedly telling reporters after the vote that the concerns raised by opponents during the hour-plus of discussion on the bill were outmoded.

“I think what you heard a lot of was people talking about a system of education that is an old way of looking at things. We have to be, at all times, focused on children… We’re not here to preserve a system that serves adults,” Gresham said. She added that, while not perfect, the amended legislation is “a way to get there, it’s another tool to get there and we are going to get there…as long as you focus on children and not yourself.”

The House was scheduled to vote on their version of the bill earlier in the day, Wednesday, but they put it off, presumably to see how the Senate committee acted. Given the lack of opposition the legislation has seen so far in the lower chamber and the blessing of high ranking Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, it appears likely that the GOP supermajority probably has the votes to bat the bill home.

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Education NewsTracker

Contentious Charter School Issues Still Unresolved as Session Draws to Close

Many among the Tennessee Legislature’s Republican supermajority believe the more charter schools, the better — particularly in areas served by poorly performing traditional public schools. But things are not going smoothly in the waning days of the legislative session for a GOP-backed effort to circumvent local school boards resistant to that vision.

Legislation has been proposed to create a state-appointed board with the power to overrule local education agencies that deny new charter schools. The lower-chamber version of the charter “authorizer” legislation, House Bill 702 carried by Memphis Republican Mark White, has had relatively smooth sailing through the committee process. But its upper-chamber counterpart has run into snags of late.

Senate Bill 830 is sponsored by high-ranking Republican Dolores Gresham of Somerville. But the retired Marine Corps officer who chairs the Senate Education Committee has deferred action on the bill several times in recent days after members of the chamber’s Finance, Ways & Means Committee, including several of her GOP caucus cohorts, have voiced concerns about the bill.

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, who sits on the Finance Committee, told TNReport Tuesday that he is uncomfortable with the limited purview of the charter authorizer, which would only extend to urban counties that have struggling, so-called “priority” schools.

“We had testimony that establishing a panel was a best practice, but also making it state-wide was a best practice so I think if we’re going to be consistent…we ought to have one review process for it,” the Hixon Republican said.

Gresham is set to bring the measure up again Wednesday after a day’s worth of last minute tinkering. But it is unclear if she’ll be able to swing enough votes in her favor.

Meanwhile, another of Sen. Gresham’s charter-school bills passed the House without one of the amendments she fought to include in her version. The added language to Senate Bill 205 would allow charter schools to contract with for-profit companies to manage the schools, an option currently only open to non-profit organizations.

On the House floor Tuesday, Knoxville Republican Harry Brooks introduced his version of the legislation as originally drafted which would only serve to clean up or clarify existing charter-related rules. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley asked Brooks explicitly if the legislation dealt with for-profit operators and Brooks told him it did not.

The Senate is set to vote on Greshams bill, as amended, in coming days and, if passed, the two chambers would still have to hash out any differences, including those related to for-profit management.

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Press Releases

Grinder Hosts 2nd Annual Women Veterans Summit in Nashville

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs; April 14, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder hosted the Second Annual Women Veterans Summit today in Nashville. The inaugural event was co-sponsored by the Women Veterans of America Chapter 20.

More than 150 attendees heard from several inspirational veterans. Speakers included State Senator and Marine Veteran Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) on Saturday and Associate Director of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans Dr. Betty Moseley Brown will speak about new women veterans programs on Sunday, April 14.

Marine Veteran and Country Music Artist Stephen Cochran performed and shared his inspirational story of recovery after a life-changing combat injury he endured while serving in Iraq. Comedian Sheila Van Dyke continued her “Mission of Laughter” for Tennessee’s Women Veterans in attendance.

A panel of VA Experts shared news about changes in federal benefits and healthcare for women veterans. Attendees will also heard from a panel of women veterans regarding their military service and how it has formed their careers and community service. This year’s theme is “Unshakeable Foundation, Unstoppable Force”. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than 51,000 Women Veterans in the state of Tennessee.

“As the number of women veterans continues to increase in Tennessee, we are committed to ensuring they are recognized, remembered and informed about federal, local and state resources,” Grinder said. “This networking opportunity will continue to strengthen the unshakeable foundation of our volunteer spirit and equip women veterans to remain an unstoppable force in their communities.”

During the Summit, Harriett Howard was named Tennessee’s Woman Veteran of the Year. Howard joined the United States Navy in 1944 and served for nearly 39 years. She retired at the age of 60. The Chattanooga native was the first woman to receive the “Dr. Joe Nunley Award” and has also been named “Woman of the Year” by WAVES National Unit 94. Howard carried a shoebox everywhere she went over the course of four years and raised $100,000 for the Tennessee Fisher House.

For more information, visit the women veterans page on the department’s website at http://www.tn.gov/veteran/womensvets.shtml, facebook.com/myTDVA or stay up to date by following the department on twitter @TNDVA.

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Featured Tax and Budget

Lawmaker Per-Diem Limitation Passes Senate, Hotel Allowance Changed

The per diem bill affecting Tennessee legislators living within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol passed the Senate 28-2, but only after being amended, which will send it back to the House for reconciliation.

The Senate on Thursday substituted its own SB107 for HB80, which passed 72-15 earlier this month, but added an amendment from the State and Local Government Committee that changes the reimbursement for lodging on the occasion area lawmakers stay in Nashville instead of returning home.

The amendment uses the lodging allowance granted to federal employees instead of the actual costs of a hotel room, as in the House version, said Sen. Ken Yager, chair of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. That would keep their lodging payment at $107 a day, contingent on individual approval from the speaker of their respective chamber.

According to the bill, lawmakers whose primary residence is within a 50-mile radius of the Capitol would no longer automatically receive $107 a day for a hotel room, but instead would receive mileage reimbursement at 46 cents a mile. This would apply to each legislative day in Nashville or any day, except Friday, that the lawmaker participates in any other activity in Nashville and would be limited to one round trip per day.

Legislators would continue to receive $66 a day for meals and incidentals.

The House and Senate versions must now be reconciled before the legislation can go to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

Neither of the two Republican senators who voted against the bill – Dolores Gresham of Somerville and Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga – live within the 50-mile radius.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, HB80 would save the state $253,616, based on figures from in 2012, when 33 legislators lived within 50 miles of the Capitol.

If the bill becomes law, the change will not impact sitting legislators, just those elected in 2014 forward.

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

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Press Releases

Bill Proposing In-State Tuition Rates for Veterans Passes Senate Education Cmte

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; March 8, 2013:

NASVHILLE, Tenn. – Legislation that would ensure all honorably discharged veterans that relocate to Tennessee receive in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities has been approved by the Senate Education Committee. The bill, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), applies to veterans who register for college within 24 months from the time of their honorable discharge.

“Passage of this legislation makes a clear statement that Tennessee is committed to the success of veterans in their transition to civilian life,” said Senator Gresham. “We welcome them to come to Tennessee to complete their education after separating from military service and believe they will fill a need in our workforce as a result of the skills they learned in the armed forces.”

Gresham said many veterans discharged from service are eligible for the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which provides financial support for education and housing to individuals with at least 90 days of aggregate service after September 10, 2001. This includes graduate and undergraduate degrees, vocational/technical training, and approved training programs. The GI Bill also applies to individuals discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days.

“The GI Bill is a tremendous tool in helping our veterans complete a college education or training course,” added Senator Gresham. “Currently, veterans that move into Tennessee from another state to complete their education following military service are classified as out-of-state students. This can create a ‘benefit gap’ between what the GI Bill pays and the actual costs the student incurs.”

Senate Bill 208 closes the benefit gap by providing a way for veterans to establish residency after their classes begin. This must be done within one year of the student-veteran’s start of classes by registering to vote, getting a Tennessee driver’s license, registering a motor vehicle, providing proof of employment or showing other documents proving residency has been established. In addition, the bill grants members of the Tennessee State Guard one free course per term at any state-supported post-secondary institution, capped at 25 tuition waivers annually.

The Tennessee State Guard is the all-volunteer arm of the Tennessee Military Department which provides a professional complement of personnel to support the Tennessee National Guard.

“Many of our state’s employers express frustration at the difficulty they encounter finding employees with technical skills and aptitude necessary for the modern industrial workplace,” Gresham added. “Veterans separating from the service often have the skill set these employers seek. This legislation serves as an incentive for student veterans to come to Tennessee, fill these jobs while receiving their education, and for them to call Tennessee home afterwards.”

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Press Releases

Gresham Files Bill to Offer In-State Tuition to Veterans

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 4, 2013: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Senator Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, has filed legislation that would keep honorably discharged veterans who have not established residency from having to pay out-of-state tuition at Tennessee’s colleges and universities. Senate Bill 208, the “Military Education Assistance Act,” allows honorably discharged veterans to receive in-state tuition, so long as he or she applies for admission within 24 months of discharge and provides some proof of residency.

“This bill will attract veterans to our state and, in the process, improve our workforce and economy. Tennessee employers need workers that have strong technical skills and aptitude; veterans are such a group,” said Senator Gresham.

The federal Post-9/11 GI Bill provides veterans with enough funds to cover the costs of in-state tuition. This limitation can lead to a “benefit gap” between what the GI Bill covers and the actual cost of attendance if an out-of-state veteran chooses a school within the state of Tennessee. Under Gresham’s bill, the various methods of establishing residency include registering to vote, getting a Tennessee driver’s license, registering a motor vehicle or providing proof of employment within the state.

“There are no state barriers when a veteran serves their country,” added Gresham. “They serve all of us and should be treated likewise. Passage of this legislation makes the clear statement that Tennessee is committed to the success of veterans in their transition to civilian life, recognizes the value of skills attained in military service, and makes our state a destination for veterans separating from military service.”

Gresham said that if the bill passes, Tennessee will be one of only three states that offer college tuition at the in-state rate to Post -9/11 GI bill qualified veterans.

The bill also provides members of the Tennessee State Guard with one tuition-free course per term at any state-supported college or university, while their spouses would receive a 50% discount. The Tennessee State Guard provides a professional complement of personnel who volunteer to support the mission of the Tennessee Army National Guard. At the direction of the Adjutant General, the all volunteer State Guard assists civil authorities with disaster relief, humanitarian causes, ceremonial service, and religious and medical support. Prior military service is preferred for the Guard, but not required and drills are held each month, with a three-day annual training exercise.

“The State Guard has a long history in Tennessee and provides a ready force in times of emergencies,” added Gresham. “This is the least we can do for this all volunteer force for their time spent and dedicated service to our state.”

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Press Releases

TN Senate Education Chairwoman: New Teachers Need Neuroscience Training

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; January 25, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) has filed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly to authorize and encourage coursework in neurological or brain science as part of teacher training programs at the state’s public colleges and universities. Gresham said leading education experts agree that knowledge about the brain is essential for educators at all grade levels as an important part of understanding how students learn.

“Evidence continues to mount that there is great benefit for our teachers to have a rudimentary course on how the human brain works,” said Senator Gresham. “Neuroscience gives us much information to help us adapt learning technology to meet many challenges that face teachers today in trying to raise student achievement. A basic understanding of how the brain works helps teachers not only identify student difficulties, but gives them more information to support families in taking appropriate steps to overcome these challenges.”

Gresham said Senate Bill 59 also promotes coordination between educators and neuroscientists in Tennessee. She supports the establishment of a knowledge exchange network, which would provide cutting edge research regarding proven neurology-based approaches for teaching students.

Research shows remarkable new information regarding the brain’s function during adolescence that experts maintain have implications for everyone working with teenagers. This research includes new findings regarding the effect of sleep deprivation in adolescence. There are also new breakthroughs in understanding how long-term memories are created, which have implications for student learning.

“Teachers face many barriers, from adolescent sleep deprivation to learning difficulties like Dyslexia and Dyscalculia,” said Gresham. “Tennessee has incredible scientific resources within our universities and elsewhere that we can tap into to better understand how we can utilize new discoveries to address such barriers. I am very excited about the opportunities that this legislation offers to increase student achievement.

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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.