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Education NewsTracker

Rediscovering the Importance of Childhood Reading

State government has grabbed firmly onto warnings that children whose reading skills are lagging by the third grade face an uphill educational climb from then on.

In a news release Wednesday about a Department of Education website on reading, First Lady Crissy Haslam said, “Research has shown that if children do not read on grade level by third grade, they never catch up with their peers.”

The first lady and the DOE launched ReadTennessee.org, a site the department says is designed to help teachers, parents and community members regarding new standards and higher expectations.

The point about the third grade has become a recurring theme on many fronts.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law this year regarding “social promotion,” saying students who do not perform at expected reading levels in the third grade will not be sent to the fourth grade.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

“We cheat our children and ourselves when we allow students to move through our schools without actually learning the material,” Burks said in a release in May about the bill.

The Senate Republican Caucus said about 45,000 students in the state had been considered to be socially promoted.

“The main problem with social promotion is that the student falls further and further behind if they cannot master the third-grade-appropriate testing,” Gresham said in a release.

“Mastery of the basics, which are tested in the third grade, is critical to a child’s future success in school. Everything else builds on that foundation.”

The measure was highlighted in a recent speech by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (see video), but while Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam were campaigning in 2010 on a jobs agenda, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp was the strongest voice on the campaign trail about third-grade reading levels. His emphasis on the issue in the Republican primary was noticeable as far back as 2009.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, is another passionate advocate of improving early elementary school reading skills. Parkinson said he’s learned that it is possible to project as early as the third grade whether a child may be incarcerated later in life.

“Think about that. Third grade. We know the likelihood of you going to prison based on how you come out of the third grade,” Parkinson said.

The new website the Department of Education announced Wednesday is geared with information boosting student achievement. It includes an online toolkit for teachers to connect them with various resources related to the issue.

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Press Releases

Many GOP-Backed Bills ‘Attacking Crime’ Set to Become Law Next Month

Press Release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus, June 20, 2011:

Numerous anti-crime bills will take effect July 1

(NASHVILLE, TN), June 20, 2011 — Numerous anti-crime bills are among a host of new laws scheduled to take effect on July 1. The General Assembly passed several bills cracking down on illegal drugs, sex offenders, gang violence, terrorism, and domestic violence before adjourning the 2011 legislative session that will take effect as the new month begins, as well as two key bills dealing with the court process.

“We made significant progress in attacking crime this year,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), whose Committee hears legislation dealing with crime, corrections and the court process. “We passed several major public safety initiatives that will take effect in July, including legislation to fight meth use in our state and new laws to tip the scales towards the side of justice for victims of crime.”

Key anti-drug bills passed this year includes a new law sponsored by Senator Beavers that stiffens penalties for making methamphetamines in the presence of a child and implements a statewide electronic tracking system to curb meth production in the state. The bill also sets amounts of pseudoephedrine that can be purchased and strengthens penalties against those convicted of smurfing, or shopping for the product in multiple locations. Although the bill takes effect on July 1, pharmacies have until January 1, 2012 to connect to the system.

A separate bill, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which takes effect on July 1, ensures that those who shop in multiple counties for meth precursors can be appropriately prosecuted for the crime in any county where the purchase was made. Another measure, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), gives consumers important health information regarding vehicles which has been used in the manufacture of methamphetamines.

Drug felons will find it more difficult to get welfare benefits under a bill passed this year and which takes effect on July 1. The new law, sponsored by Senator Tracy, prohibits an adult convicted of a felony for possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance from being eligible to receive Families First program benefits. The new law applies to welfare recipients convicted on or after July 1, 2011 and extends for a period of three years unless the individual receives treatment for substance abuse.

Major legislation, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), is set to take effect on July 1 eliminating pretrial diversion for the most dangerous criminals in Tennessee. No felony crimes would be eligible for pre-trial diversion under the legislation.

“The new law centers on defendant accountability in the judicial system and also speaks to the constitutional rights of victims to have their voices heard,” said Senator Yager. “Under previous law, victims had no voice in a pre-trial diversion situation.”

The court process was also the focus of a new law which will be enacted into law on July 1, which is known as the “common sense” or “good faith exception” to the “exclusionary rule” regarding suppression of evidence under the fourth amendment, or unreasonable search and seizure. The new law allows a judge to give a jury access to evidence or facts obtained as a result of a search or seizure which contains a minor technical error.

“This new law attempts to balance the scales of justice to a standard embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Leon and Herring v. United States to allow the judge and jury to weigh all the facts and still administer justice in an objective manner,” said Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), who sponsored the bill.

In other crime-related action, legislation is set to take effect to ensure that random killings, like that of the “Beltway Sniper,” are subject to the death penalty in Tennessee. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville) adds “murder at random” to the list of statutory aggravating circumstances for the purpose of sentencing.

In legislation combating gang violence, a new law takes effect on July 1 which authorizes judges to allow a district attorney to use a wiretap when the interception may provide evidence of criminal gang-related activities in aggravated burglaries. This legislation, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Marvyille), adds home invasions to the list of gang-related activities where a wiretap may be authorized.

The legislature passed an anti-terrorism bill due to take effect on July 1 that updates and strengthens the Tennessee Terrorism Prevention Act that was passed shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011,” sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) makes the provision of “material support” a Class A felony and helps to close the prevention gap left by the 2002 statute.

Domestic violence legislation, sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville), takes effect on July 1 defining and clarifying the crime of attempted strangulation. The new law provides clarity regarding this lethal force, which is one of the best predictors of future homicide in domestic violence cases.

A bill approved this year set to take effect in July broadens the offenses for assault and criminal homicide committed against pregnant women to include the fetus, regardless of the viability of the victim. The new law, sponsored by Senator Beavers, ensures that perpetrators are punished for offenses committed against the unborn child.

Several bills are set to take effect in July strengthening penalties against sex offenders, including:

  • A bill sponsored by Senator Overbey to ensure that law enforcement officers posing as minors can be used to prosecute cases where sexual predators use electronic means to solicit those under the age of 18.
  • A bill sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to add juveniles convicted of the most violent sexual offenses to the state’s Sex Offender Registry.
  • A new law sponsored by Senator Bell to require registered sexual offenders setting specific standards regarding notification to their registering law enforcement agency before they leave the country and upon re-entering.
  • Legislation sponsored by Senator Tracy to ensure that an adult authority figure who has inappropriate sexual contact with a minor child by touching or kissing the child on the lips, is held accountable for his or her actions.
  • Legislation sponsored by Senator Gresham to prevent criminals or sex offenders from serving in housing facilities in Tennessee’s colleges and Universities

“Some of these anti-crime bills had been pending for many years,” added Beavers. “I am very pleased with the legislation passed this year, especially considering tight budget constraints we faced.”

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Press Releases

Bipartisan Support for Bill Ending ‘Social Promotion’

Press Release from the Senate GOP Caucus, May 31, 2011:

(NASHVILLE, TN), May 31, 2011 — Legislation requiring results-based promotion for third graders across the state was approved by state lawmakers before the General Assembly adjourned the 2011 session. The measure requires a third grade student to show basic understanding for curriculum through standardized test scores or daily grades before passing to the fourth grade.

Senate Bill 1776 was sponsored by Senator Charlotte Burks (D-Monterey) and co-sponsored by Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).

Gresham said the bill will go far to help students be prepared for the next grade level instead of falling behind.

“We cheat our children and ourselves when we allow students to move through our schools without actually learning the material,” said Senator Burks. “This legislation will lay a foundation for greater accountability in the classroom that puts our children first. We can spend millions of dollars and implement all kinds of new programs, but real education improvement will only happen when we set goals for our children and help them reach those goals.”

“The main problem with social promotion is that the student falls further and further behind if they cannot master the third grade-appropriate testing,” said Senator Gresham. “Mastery of the basics, which are tested in the third grade, is critical to a child’s future success in school. Everything else builds on that foundation. Without this foundational knowledge, the student has far less chance for educational success and will fall hopelessly behind.”

Estimates show about 45,000 students in Tennessee are considered to be socially promoted. The bill approved by the legislature does not apply to special education students.

“If we truly want to increase education attainment, this measure had to be addressed,” Gresham added. “I am very pleased that our General Assembly has passed this education reform bill.”

The bill now awaits Governor Haslam’s signature and, if signed, will become effective on July 1.

Categories
Press Releases

Criminals, Sex Offenders Could Be Banned from Working In College Dorms

Press Release from Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville; May 24, 2011:

(NASHVILLE, TN), May 24, 2011 — Legislation aiming to prevent criminals or sex offenders from serving in housing facilities in Tennessee’s colleges and Universities has been approved. The bill, sponsored by Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), was passed as the General Assembly wrapped up its 2011 legislative session last week in Nashville.

Passage of the bill comes after a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Resident Assistant was arrested on multiple felony charges connected to allegations that he burglarized dorm rooms and planted cameras, which residents later discovered and reported to campus police.

The accused Resident Assistant had a lengthy rap sheet and was already on probation after serving time in prison for charges like stalking, burglary, and arson. The University had not performed a background check, but has since changed their policy to include one.

The bill is named after one of the victims Kristen Azevedo, whose mother contacted Senator Gresham regarding legislation to address any future violations.

“These students were under very serious threat of harm,” said Senator Gresham. “This offender had an extensive and alarming history of crimes against women. Although I am pleased that the university system has developed a policy that includes background checks systematically, we need to put this in state law so years from now we do not become lax in ensuring student safety when it involves access to their rooms or apartments. I applaud Kristen and her family for coming forward to push for changes in our law to keep this kind of crime from occurring to any other students in the future.”

The bill requires all persons applying for employment in housing facilities at public colleges and universities to supply a fingerprint sample and submit to a background check by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It requires the applicant to cover the cost of the background check and authorizes the TBI to send the results to the university. Also, the bill prohibits individuals on the state’s, or another state’s, sex offender registry from being employed in a position that would give them access to students’ rooms and apartments at public colleges and universities.

“I am very thankful for all the work done by Senator Gresham to pass this bill,” said Azevedo, who lives in Senator Gresham’s legislative district. “Hopefully, as a result it will never happen to anyone again.”

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Business and Economy Education Featured News

Superkids Waiting

Look! Look! Up on the screen!

A lot of lawmakers at the Tennessee Capitol think teachers’ unions are at least partly responsible for a lot that’s wrong with public education. And now they’ve got a movie to prove it.

More than a dozen members of the state Senate and House of Representatives sat in on a special matinee viewing of the 2010 film Waiting for ‘Superman’ in a Legislative Plaza hearing room one afternoon earlier this month. The screening was organized by Germantown Senate Republican Brian Kelsey and the film’s producers, who’ve shown the award-winning documentary to policymakers and education reform groups around the country.

Republican and Democrats alike who watched the movie all said afterward that they’re troubled by the state of education in America generally, and in Tennessee particularly. The film, they said, strengthened their resolve to effect positive change that is “about children, not adults,” a theme central to Waiting for ‘Superman’.

Another Inconvenient Truth

Released on DVD just last week, Waiting for ‘Superman’ follows the plight of several students and their families as they try to escape floundering public school systems by gaining entrance and new opportunities in more successful charter schools.

It is directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, a film credited both with dramatically raising the public’s alarm over global warming and bestowing environmentalist sainthood on Al Gore, Jr.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ takes its title from a comment made early on by one of its main figures, a successful charter-school founder in New York named Geoffrey Canada.

“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist, because even in the depths of the ghetto, you just thought he was coming,” recalls Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Wanna Be Your Superhero

Memphis Democrats John DeBerry, Jr. and Lois DeBerry (no relation) were among those who attended the screening of the film in Nashville. Both indicated they found it provocative and moving.

During a panel discussion on the the film and its lessons for Tennessee, Lois DeBerry, the former Tennessee House speaker pro tem of 24 years — the first African-American woman ever to win that post — became too emotional to speak and had to temporarily withhold her remarks until she collected herself.

“In 2011, I just can’t believe that we’re no further along in educating our children,” she said a while later. “Our children deserve better than this. And as Tennesseans, we can do better than this.”

Lois DeBerry’s obvious frustration, sadness and anger, said Rep. John DeBerry, are feelings shared by most who care deeply about the plight of children, particularly poor children, in failing American schools. “Many of our hearts are broken by what we see happening to many of our children, especially in urban areas,” he said.

“I think that basically we have been in denial in urban areas. For too long we’ve kind of put our head in the ground, and refused to take the bitter pill that there are some drastic and immediate changes that have to be taken,” he added.

DeBerry, Jr. spoke of a “a big pile of money” in public education, and of the many adults eying it, intent on acquiring or controlling how it gets spent. But the providers of education services are not, he said, “as important as the end product.”

“That end product is a student who can think, who can read, who can reason and who can perform in today’s world,” said DeBerry. “The rest of the world is, excuse the expression, kicking our butts, with a whole lot less money, because their education systems look at the child — at the recipient and not the provider. We’ve got too much attention on the providers, and not enough on the recipient.”

Added Lois DeBerry: “Children are waiting for a Superwoman and a Superman, without politics. They are waiting to be educated.”

“You ask me why charter schools are good for Tennessee? It’s because of what we saw in that film,” she said. “Because our kids, all of our kids, no matter where they come from, deserve the very best education that we can give them. And God is going to hold us responsible if we don’t do it.”

Reform Eradicators

Waiting for ‘Superman’ isn’t just about charter schools. It also analyzes the role teachers’ unions play in American schools. And they come off as an obstinate force of obstruction, fundamentally hardwired to resist innovation and experimentation that potentially threatens the status quo.

The movie leaves the audience with the impression that teachers’ unions at minimum hold dual and conflicting loyalties. Union leaders say they have the best interest of students at heart. But oftentimes, the film argues, unions use their considerable political muscle to protect sub-par teachers from professional competition — or even from having to meet basic, on-the-job performance criteria as a condition of continued employment, an otherwise commonplace reality in private-sector working environments.

The system of teacher tenure, for example, is alleged by many who speak in the film to be a nearly impassible roadblock to reforming failing schools.

“In universities, professors are only granted tenure after many years of teaching, and a grueling vetting process, and many don’t receive it,” narrates Guggenheim. “But for public school teachers, tenure has become automatic.”

Geoffrey Canada says in one scene, “You can get tenure basically if you continue to breathe for two years. You get it.”

“And whether or not you can help children is totally irrelevant,” he adds. “Once you get tenure we cannot get rid of you. Almost no matter what you do, you are there for life, even if it is proven you are a lousy teacher.”

Some of Tennessee’s most powerful GOP education-oversight lawmakers are vocal advocates of lessening teachers’ union influence in education policy discussions. And a common sentiment expressed by them after watching the film was that no “sacred cow” will stand in the way of their reform proposals this session.

The nation is watching Tennessee as a result of the state winning more than $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding last year, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. That means bold steps are necessary, both to prove the state is serious about reform, and to enact solutions to problems that others around the country can look to emulate, she said.

Gresham said Waiting for ‘Superman”s portrayal of teachers’ unions as an impediment to education reform rings true to her. It naturally follows that undermining what gives unions their power is key to limiting their capacity to disrupt or thwart brave new initiatives, she said.

“The issue of collective bargaining has to be met head-on, and for many of the reasons that we saw in this film,” said Gresham.

Kryptonite Sold Here

Teachers’ unions and their supporters have denounced Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The National Education Association has even set up a special resources page of anti-Superman criticism.

Waiting for ‘Superman’, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, “demonizes public education, teachers unions, and, unfortunately, teachers.”

“Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” said Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

And as with An Inconvenient Truth, the integrity of Guggenheim’s latest offering has been called into question by the film’s detractors.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is merely “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions,” said a Huffington Post reviewer. “It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change.”

Another professor, Diane Ravitch, an education policy researcher at New York University with ties to the center-left Brookings Institution, wrote in the New York Times last month that Waiting for ‘Superman’ may indeed represent “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” And she acknowledged that the film is “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization” in the “clash of ideas occurring in education right now.”

But she claims the film is more the stuff of “right-wing” fantasy than responsible documentary.

“The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false,” wrote Ravitch.

“(W)hile teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers,” she continued. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”

Ravitch’s conclusion is that expanding market-style competition in America’s public education systems could produce disastrous results. “The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success,” she wrote.

A Legislative Locomotive

The Tennessee Education Association says the GOP’s push to undermine unions this session is rooted in a desire for “political payback” stemming from the TEA’s admitted preference for Democrats when disbursing union political contributions. And to that end, Republicans have proposed ending automatic payroll deductions of government employees’ union dues, which could over time have the effect of drying up a lot of the TEA’s own financial support.

But there’s more to this political beef than campaign cash. Many Republicans blame unions for much of what ails inner city public schools. GOP lawmakers suggest unions have willfully perpetuated failing education systems, which has exacerbated urban poverty and social dysfunction, which in turn undermines the ability of families, neighborhoods and communities to promote and sustain institutions of educational excellence.

“Teachers’ unions have had this death-grip, this ‘let’s-stop-everything’ mentality. And look at where it has gotten us. We are in the cellar not just in the nation, but in the world as far as developed countries’ systems go,” said Knoxville GOP Sen. Stacey Campfield. “The teachers’ unions say, ‘Just leave things the way they are and somehow things will magically change.’ Well, it is not going to change. We have to make changes if we want to see the situation change.”

“The time is now, and if the union doesn’t want to be a pat of it, well then I’m sorry, but maybe they have to be put aside a little bit,” said Campfield, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Kelsey, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, is — along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville — sponsoring school-voucher legislation this year called the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

Kelsey, Ramsey and many other Republicans — as well as a few Democrats — also support expanding the number and role of charter schools in Tennessee, including in the state-controlled “achievement district” that will likely include a number of failing Memphis schools. Finally, there appears to be broad GOP support for making it more difficult for a teacher to earn and maintain tenure, and for prohibiting local school districts from collectively bargaining with teachers’ unions.

Kelsey maintains that his intention for organizing the Waiting for ‘Superman’ screening for lawmakers was not to denigrate teachers in general. In fact, the opposite is true, said Kelsey: He wanted to inspire lawmakers to propose and support reforms that reward teachers who embrace the challenge of producing better educational results.

“Our research has shown us that having a great teacher in the classroom is the No. 1 way to improve education,” Kelsey said. “And in fact, we undervalue great teachers.

“On the other hand, often, very often — and we have seen this in Tennessee — teachers’ unions are holding us back from educating children,” said Kelsey.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey said the political fact on the floors of both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature is that the GOP is going to drive the debate and agenda on education reform this session. That agenda will involve expanding school choice and forcing education providers to compete for taxpayer dollars, he said.

“I’m a big proponent of competition,” said Ramsey. “That’s the reason I think charter schools are a good way to go. I do think that these scholarships that we are talking about in those failing schools to allow parents to take their money and allow for competition…is a step in the right direction.

“There’s not one magic bullet, I think this film pointed that out. It’s a combination of a lot of things that can improve school systems.”

And Republicans are keenly aware that they couldn’t really ask for a friendlier legislative climate for enacting their favored programs and initiatives, he said.

“The spotlight is on us,” said Ramsey. “In the past we may have used excuses that bills were killed in some committees in the House, or that the governor wouldn’t sign a bill. Republicans, for the first time in the history of this state, have the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate and the governorship. We can’t make excuses any longer, and I think that the time is right, right now, to reform education in Tennessee.”

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Education Featured News Transparency and Elections

TBR Hearings To Be Continued?

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham isn’t entirely pleased with the way this week’s public examination of the operations, make-up and public relations savvy of the Tennessee Board of Regents’ came off.

For one thing, Gresham, R-Somerville, told TNReport Thursday afternoon that she was “perhaps irritated” Regent Agenia Clark didn’t show up during the two days of education committee hearings into the TBR’s controversies of late.

Clark, who chaired the regents’ “search committee” that recommended Deputy Gov. John Morgan as the best candidate to serve as chancellor to the board, was said by TBR vice chairman Greg Duckett to have a scheduling conflict.

Gresham, however, said Clark communicated nothing in the way of an excuse or reason for her absence with the committee ahead of time.

“I was very disappointed that Regent Clark did not make herself available,” Gresham said. “She was, after all, the chair of the search committee, and in that position could give us insights that no one else could.”

Gresham said she’ll talk with committee members and the Senate leadership “to see what our options may be.”

The committee spent Tuesday and Wednesday investigating Morgan’s selection to head the state’s higher education system, after criticism that the process unfairly favored him. Morgan was the only candidate interviewed for the job, and previous educational requirements for the job – which Morgan would not have met – were lowered.

Inside Higher Ed, an online journal of news, opinion and job listings covering colleges and universities in America, published an article titled “The Politician as Chancellor” back in August that outlined “a remarkable set of coincidences resulted in the state’s deputy governor getting the job.”

The article also quoted Clark, who reportedly “challenged the notion that the regents kept the applicant pool small to favor Morgan.” Wrote Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed and author of the article:

(Clark) said she spoke privately to several strong candidates (including some more traditional ones) who were discouraged from applying because Tennessee’s strong open records law would have revealed their identities early in the process, putting their current jobs at risk. The same thing happened during the 2008-9 search that the board scuttled, she said, well before Morgan appeared on the scene.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, made a formal request toward the end of the second day of hearings Wednesday to once again call Clark before the Senate Education Committee.

“She’s been the one that’s not here, and the one that carried out the most processes, if you will,” said Ketron, a vocal critic of the TBR’s activities of late. “The process is what we’re trying to get to: how we establish it and make it better from this point forward.”

But Duckett, the acting vice chairman for TBR, suggested that a committee interview of Clark — a no-show not just at the Senate hearings, but TBR functions in general “since the Morgan appointment backlash,” the Tennessean reported on Wednesday — would do little to reform the board’s practices and better its performance henceforth.

“If we are going to improve the system prospectively, then we need to look at procedures that will help us not be in this position in the future,” said Duckett.

Sens. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, and Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, sided with Duckett.

“It seems to me that why we are here is we have to figure out what we have to do going forward,” said Berke, who himself wasn’t in attendance during the committee’s Tuesday hearing. “And bringing in Ms. Clark, or having another day of hearings, or anything else, is not going to push us in that direction.”

“I do not see how trying to have more discussions and more days up here about the selection process that had a candidate that Lt. Gov. Ramsey called ‘highly qualified,’ that many of the people up here praise, is going to do us any good,” Berke said.

Ditto, said Woodson.

Gresham, growing perceptibly miffed as she spoke, responded that “criticism of these hearings as being a distraction from the real education issues” is wrongheaded.

Gresham expressed “grave concerns” about the judgment and transparency exhibited lately by the TBR — which she noted is responsible for “a $2 billion budget, $7.4 billion in capital assets and provides education opportunities for 200,000-plus students.”

“I kind of question the logic of saying we don’t need to go forward or have more hearings because nothing’s going to change,” said Gresham. “That is the same kind of logic that we heard: ‘Well there is no sense in having any other interviews because we know it is going to be this one guy.’ So, I don’t agree with that at all.”

Doug Lederman
Categories
Education News Transparency and Elections

Board of Regents Under Scrutiny

Some Senate Republican lawmakers say the Tennessee Board of Regents, which controls a $2.2 billion budget and has oversight of the state’s higher education institutions, has lacked GOP membership as required by state law for the last six years.

That could raise the possibility that any of the regents’ formal decisions since then may be subject to legal challenge — including the controversial appointment of Deputy Gov. John Morgan as chancellor.

Sen. Bill Ketron said Tuesday that Gov. Phil Bredesen may not have appointed the required number of Republicans to the board, and that none were ever confirmed by the Senate.

Both could be violations of state statute, suggested the Murfreesboro Republican — meaning the 18-member board has been operating “out of compliance” with the law since Bredesen, a Democrat, last appointed members in 2004, Ketron said.

The senator said he discovered a statute shortly after Morgan’s appointment last month that indicates the board is required to consist of a bipartisan makeup.

“Each of the two (2) leading political parties shall be represented by at least three (3) appointive members” on the board, according to Title 49, Chapter 8 of the Tennessee Code.

Robert Thomas, the board’s current vice-chairman, told a Nashville television station last month that he believes all the Board of Regents’ members are Democrats. However, the board does not keep track of each member’s party affiliation, said David Gregory, TBR’s vice chancellor for administration.

Ketron said he has communicated the issue in writing to Attorney General Robert Cooper and has asked him whether decisions made by the board are binding if the body failed to follow state law. Ketron said he has yet to receive a response from Cooper, who served as Bredesen’s legal counsel from 2003 to 2006, according to his online bio.

State Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the education committee, has agreed to conduct two hearings later this month to review the makeup of the Board of Regents and suggest any changes it hopes lawmakers will take up once they are sworn in next January.

Gresham, R-Somerville, said her committee will discuss whether the board is in compliance with state law.

Morgan was the only candidate interviewed for the chancellor’s position, raising concerns among some as to why more people weren’t considered for such an important post.

The board had also changed its selection criteria in a way that carved out a position only Morgan could be qualified to fill, Gresham said. One change reduced the necessary education level from a doctorate to an undergraduate degree, matching Morgan’s bachelor’s in education.

Gresham said she asked the Board of Regents to interview more candidates, but the members refused and stuck with Morgan.

The Senate Education Committee, which will meet Sept. 28 and 29, will also conduct confirmation hearings on all the TBR members, Gresham said. The Senate was supposed to OK all the board’s appointees, according to state code, but the body never reviewed the members.

When asked about the makeup of the board during a press availability Wednesday, Bredesen said he has specifically tried in the past to ignore party affiliation as much as possible when considering nominees. The governor added that he’s  “got someone looking at…what went wrong, if anything went wrong” with the TBR selection process.

Bredesen indicated he’s frustrated the discussion over the board “has gotten so political.”

“No one had any concern about any of these things for the past seven and three-quarters years,” Bredesen told reporters outside a Tennessee Valley Authority conference in downtown Nashville. “Suddenly now there are a couple of Republican state senators who are pushing the issue.”

Bredesen said whatever happens, he hopes the probing of TBR personnel selections and decision-making processes doesn’t undermine the boards top priority at this point, which he says is implementing a higher education overhaul package — called the “Complete College Act of 2010” — designed to increase university graduation rates.

“It bothers me when people inject politics into it at quite this level,” Bredesen continued. “If someone has a problem with either the confirmation process or the makeup of the board, I don’t know why they couldn’t sit down and talk with me. I would be happy to address the issues without having to have some hearings, but I guess there probably wouldn’t be any reporters or TV cameras probably in that meeting, which I think probably is what it is all about.”

The Tennessee Board of Regents oversees the sixth-largest public higher education system in the country, including six state universities, 13 community colleges and 26 technology centers. Its duties include reviewing and approving budgets, establishing graduation requirements along with setting campus policies and regulations.

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Press Releases

Senate Education Committee to Review Board of Regents

Press Release from Senate Republican Caucus; Sept. 7, 2010:

(NASHVILLE, TN), September 7, 2010 – Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) said today that the Senate Education Committee will hold hearings on September 28 and 29 regarding the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR). Gresham scheduled the meeting after receiving a written request to conduct hearings on the make up of the TBR Board from committee members Senators Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville).

The meetings will begin Tuesday, September 28 at 1:00 p.m. and will continue at 9:00 on Wednesday, September 29. The hearings will be held in the Senate Hearing Room in the Legislative Plaza in Nashville.

The meetings will include a briefing by legal counsel regarding the law followed by a briefing by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission regarding the mission and scope of the TBR. This will be followed by a statement and questions for individual members of the TBR Board.

Tennessee law requires appointed members “shall be subject to confirmation by the Senate.” The law states appointments “shall be effective until adversely acted upon by the Senate.” Any action or recommendations from the committee will be delivered in a report to the next State Senate which will convene in January.

The TBR operates 45 public institutions of higher education in Tennessee not governed by the University of Tennessee system, with a combined annual enrollment of over 190,000 students. TBR’s six state universities, 13 community colleges, and 26 technology centers offer classes in 90 of Tennessee’s 95 counties and is a $2.2 billion per year enterprise, making it the sixth largest system of public higher education in the U.S.

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Press Releases

Senate Education Chairwoman Wants Expanded Search for New Chancellor

Press Release from Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville; Aug. 5, 2010:

(NASHVILLE, TN), August 5, 2010 – Below please find the text of a letter sent to the 18 members of the Tennessee Board of Regents from Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) regarding the position of Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents:

“After reading reports that there is only one applicant under review for Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, I am writing to ask that you conduct an expanded search for this top position in higher education in our state. The person chosen to lead Tennessee’s higher education system should be steeped in scholarship and must lead by example. The Board should also look at applicants with senior managerial experience in public education.

This is even more important at this juncture in our state’s education future, as we look to fulfill the reforms passed by the legislature this year in our First to the Top and Complete College Tennessee Acts. Under the First to the Top act we raised academic standards for K-12 students across this state. The Complete College Tennessee Act also set lofty goals to push Tennessee students to obtain advanced post secondary degrees.

Under the Board’s new guidelines, an applicant is only required to have an associate’s degree from a community college or technological center or a bachelor’s degree. This is a significant departure from the previous search requirements which mandated an applicant have an earned doctorate degree. In fact, this education requirement was previously deemed so important that it was listed on the first line of the stated requisites.

The action of the Board in this regards is such a major deviation from general practice that it would leave one to conclude that the requirements were rewritten to fill the position with an applicant already selected. It means that the Tennessee Board of Regents may become the only higher education system in the United States requiring neither an advanced nor terminal degree for its chief academic officer. Other possible applicants have obviously drawn the conclusion that the search has been completed, limiting the Board’s ability to make a reasonable effort for the best qualified person to lead our state’s top position in higher education.

In conclusion, I am making this request that you expand the search for this most important position in higher education in our state. Tennessee students deserve your utmost attention to this most important decision.

Sincerely,

Dolores Gresham

Chairman, Senate Education Committee”