Press Releases

Kelsey’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act Passes Senate Judiciary Cmte

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; February 24, 2015:

NASHVILLE – Legislation sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), requiring Tennessee law enforcement agencies to implement policies against racial profiling was approved today by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kelsey is the chairman of the committee.  The “Racial Profiling Prevention Act” defines the discriminatory practice and calls for all law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt a written policy on the subject by January 1, 2016.

“Racial profiling has no place in law enforcement in our state,” stated Kelsey.  He continued, “This bill will protect officers by providing them clear guidelines for appropriate action. That will make us all safer.”

Senate Bill 6 defines racial profiling as the detention, interdiction, or other disparate treatment of an individual based solely on perceived race, color, ethnicity or national origin.  The bill would apply to any law enforcement agency responsible for preventing and detecting crime and enforcing laws or local ordinances if their employees are authorized to make arrests for crimes.  It would also apply to officers employed by colleges and universities.

The legislation, which is sponsored in the House of Representatives by Representative John DeBerry (D-Memphis), now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration.

Press Releases

Haslam Creates Task Force on Sentencing, Recidivism

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; August 14, 2014:

Group to develop legislative and policy recommendations

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the formation of the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism as part of the administration’s overall effort to reduce crime and improve public safety.

In June, the Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet announced a partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice to review sentencing and correction policies and practices. The creation of a task force is the next step in that collaboration.

“We have put a strong emphasis on addressing some of our state’s toughest safety challenges head on, and the Public Safety Subcabinet is doing great work,” Haslam said. “This task force is a next step in making sure we have a comprehensive approach to public safety in Tennessee. I am grateful to the Tennesseans who have agreed to dedicate their time to these issues, and I look forward to their recommendations.”

Members of the task force include:

  • John Campbell, criminal court judge, Memphis
  • John DeBerry, state representative, Memphis
  • James Dunn, district attorney general, 4th judicial district
  • Tim Fuller, sheriff, Franklin County
  • Bill Gibbons, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security
  • Mark Gwyn, director, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
  • Kim Helper, district attorney general, 21st judicial district
  • Torry Johnson, district attorney general (retired), Nashville
  • Brian Kelsey, state senator, Germantown
  • William Lamberth, state representative, Cottontown
  • Linda Leathers, chief executive officer, The Next Door
  • William B. Lee, chief executive officer, Lee Company of Tennessee
  • Jon Lundberg, state representative, Bristol
  • Mark Luttrell, mayor, Shelby County
  • Becky Duncan Massey, state senator, Knoxville
  • Gerald Melton, public defender, 16th judicial district
  • Richard Montgomery, chairman, Tennessee Board of Parole
  • Seth Norman, criminal court judge, Nashville
  • Bill Oldham, sheriff, Shelby County
  • David Rausch, chief of police, Knoxville
  • Derrick Schofield, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Correction
  • John Stevens, state senator, Huntingdon
  • Blair Taylor, president, Memphis Tomorrow
  • D. Kelly Thomas, court of criminal appeals judge, Knoxville
  • Doug Varney, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse
  • Amy Weirich, district attorney general, Shelby County
  • Verna Wyatt, executive director, Tennessee Voices for Victims

The current sentencing structure in Tennessee has been in place for more than 20 years. An examination will ensure that the structure is in line with the variety and severity of criminal behavior. Establishing an effective set of sentencing laws can resolve inconsistencies and avoid discrepancies that compromise public safety.

The task force will receive assistance from the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. Vera staff will conduct data and policy analysis; identify expertise and resources to support the work of the task force; facilitate meetings and assist in the development of the task force recommendations.

The Vera Institute of Justice is a national, independent, non-partisan justice policy and research organization based in New York. Vera has decades of experience partnering with state and local governments across the United States to improve justice systems.

The task force will submit its recommendations to the Governor’s Public Safety Subcabinet by June 2015.

The subcabinet was created by Haslam in 2011 and launched a multi-year public safety action plan in 2012. The group includes commissioners of the departments of Safety and Homeland Security, Correction, Mental Health, Children’s Services, Health and Military, along with the chairman of the Tennessee Board of Parole, directors of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, Office of Criminal Justice Programs, Law Enforcement Training Academy and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Featured News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

Retiring, Defeated Lawmakers on Taxpayer-Funded Getaway

Updated Aug. 7, 2012: Sen. Roy Herron called and said he had planned to attend the conference but decided against it due to a family emergency.

Six Tennessee legislators leaving the General Assembly this year are expected in Chicago this week on what could amount to a taxpayer-funded junket.

Four retiring legislators and two state reps who lost their bids for re-election in last week’s primary have given the state notice they plan to get reimbursed for attending the National Conference of State Legislatures annual summit in the Windy City that began Monday, a trip that could cost as much as than $2,500 in registration, airfare, hotel stay, per diem and cab rides.

They are Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, and retiring lawmakers Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; and Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington.

One of the General Assembly’s highest-ranking Republicans says he trusts that the departing lawmakers have good reasons behind their decisions to make the trip.

“I know it will be beneficial to the others who attend to get the benefit of their wisdom and their years of service,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. “I think discretion is the better part of valor with these things, and obviously they’ve exercised their discretion and think it’s fine to go. I’m not passing judgment on it.”

Legislators are permitted to let taxpayers foot the bill for out-of-state legislative trips, complete with a per diem, travel and lodging expenses. Even outgoing lawmakers are entitled, said Connie Ridley, director of Tennessee’s office of Legislative Affairs.

“Members of the General Assembly serve as a legislator until the general election in November,” Ridley said in an email. “They are no longer eligible for compensation of any form the evening before the November general election.”

Richardson says she may have lost her primary election, but she still has legislative responsibilities to handle at the conference.

“I signed up because I am one of the representatives, there’s just a couple of us, who represent Tennessee on the Health Committee,” she said. “These are working committees where we share what we’ve done, and find out what other states have done and make policy recommendations for states. So, because I represent Tennessee on the health committee, I still need to come to the meeting.”

Attempts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.

A handful of retiring lawmakers are also on the trip, including Naifeh and Faulk, according to their offices. Herron and Harmon’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Legislators can collect a $173 per diem each of the four days of the conference, for $692 total. Registration to the NCSL event ranges from $549 to $690, depending on when lawmakers registered for the conference online. Guests were encouraged to reserve rooms in downtown Chicago with rates ranging from $199 to $227 a night if locked in prior to Aug. 1. Lawmakers can also be reimbursed for airfare, which runs about $300 roundtrip, and cab rides, which average between $25 to $42 from the airport to the convention site.

If lawmakers decide against splitting hotels and cab fare, the cost to taxpayers could approach almost $2,500 for the four-day, three-night trip.

But no money has left the taxpayers’ pocket yet, Ridley said. Lawmakers will have to submit receipts to have their travel expenses paid for once they return, although the conference’s registration will be billed directly to the state.

While the practice is legal and learning how other state legislatures are tackling difficult policy issues is valuable, sending outgoing lawmakers on an out-of-town trip is still “questionable,” said Dick Williams, chairman of Tennessee Common Cause, a government accountability advocacy group.

“I have mixed feelings about the appropriateness of those going who will not be coming back, whether by the election or their own choice,” he said. “If they’re going to continue to do something in public life, they could make good public use of that.”

Here are the other 22 lawmakers slated to attend, according to the office of Legislative Administration:

House of Representatives

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge

Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville

House Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent, R-Franklin

Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar

Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory


Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville

Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis

Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis

Sen. Steve Sutherland, R-Morristown

Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

Press Releases

NFIB Picks Favorite Incumbents to Support In August Primary

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012: 

NFIB Endorses Candidates in 5 Senate, 20 House Primaries

NASHVILLE, July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, today said it has endorsed candidates in 25 state legislative primary races. The endorsements were made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. State primaries are scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28. NFIB expects to announce general election endorsements later this summer. The general election will be held Nov. 6.

“NFIB supports candidates who understand how important it is to reduce burdens on small business,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “These candidates have consistently supported less taxation and have worked diligently to improve our unemployment and workers’ comp systems.”

Endorsements by Senate and House Districts (NFIB members bolded)

Senate District, Name

2, Doug Overbey

14, Jim Tracy

18, Ferrell Haile

28, Joey Hensley

32, Mark Norris

House District Name

2, Tony Shipley

5, David Hawk

6, Dale Ford

8, Art Swann

10, Don Miller

11, Jeremy Faison

12, Richard Montgomery

20, Bob Ramsey

22, Eric Watson

24, Kevin Brooks

27, Richard Floyd

31, Jim Cobb

45, Debra Maggart

48, Joe Carr

61, Charles Sargent

66, Joshua Evans

71, Vance Dennis

90, John DeBerry

96, Steve McManus

99, Ron Lollar

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to these campaigns. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of these campaigns. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

Education Featured News NewsTracker

‘Gateway Sexual Activity’ Bill a Tease — Won’t Change Much, TN Edu. Official Says

The thrust of sex education classes taught in Tennessee schools will stay the same under a controversial bill awaiting the governor’s signature, according to the Department of Education.

The so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill seeks to punish teachers and third-party groups that promote “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior” and rewrite state code to emphasizes abstinence education — both issues that caught the national spotlight this year.

“It really will not do much to change the current curriculum, the ways schools operate currently,” said Kelli Gauthier, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

Lawmakers easily passed the bill after much debate in the Legislature about whether abstinence education works, whether definitions of “gateway sexual activity” are too vague and whether teachers can get in trouble for not discouraging hand-holding, hugging or kissing.

The legislation points to the state’s current definition of “sexual contact” as “intentional touching of any other person’s intimate parts, or the intentional touching of the clothing covering the immediate area of … any other person’s intimate parts, if that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification.”

“Intimate parts” is defined as “the primary genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock or breast of a human being” in state law.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s unsure what action he’ll take on the bill. From his study of HB3621 so far, “I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice,” he told reporters last week after a groundbreaking ceremony for a new science building at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

But bill sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto says the law’s current definition of abstinence isn’t clear enough.

Abstinence is “being interpreted as anything goes as long as your action will not result in a pregnancy. That’s exactly the way it’s being taught today,” said the bill sponsor, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville.

According to the U.S. Census, the percentage of Tennessee teen pregnancies is down 19 percent to 9,254 pregnancies in 2010. But the pregnancy rate is still among the top 10 in the nation.

In the House, the bill passed 68-23 with some bipartisan support. The bill won near unanimous approval in the Senate with only one holdout, Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

“We want to teach our children to be abstinent, but in the event that they don’t listen to us, we need to protect our children and see to it that they don’t fall victims to unwanted or unneeded pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” she said on the Senate floor shortly before the bill passed.

Democratic leaders in the House were split on the issue, with Caucus Leader Mike Turner saying the bill was merely an example of Republicans being “obsessed with sex this year” and Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh saying bill is flawed only because it does little to address teenage pregnancy.

Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis, instead, says the state finds itself in a quandary between supporting personal freedoms and trying to legislate behavior to stop unwanted pregnancies.

“We have a whole state department that takes care of somebody else’s mess,” he said, adding that one school in his district was home to 70 girls who had become pregnant.

“We can’t tell people what they shouldn’t do. Well, when we don’t tell them what they shouldn’t do, then we end up paying for what they do. At some point in time, we have to say, change the behavior,” Deberry said before voting for the bill.

Critics cite another rub: The bill would give parents the power to file complaints against any instructor or organization that promotes or demonstrates any sort of sexual activity.

Only instructors teaching sex ed and promoting “gateway sexual activity” would be subject to discipline. If the individual is employed by an outside group to teach the material, the teacher or its organization can be fined up to $500. Science teachers, instructors verbally answering students’ questions about sexual activity in good faith and teachers of other courses would not be subject to discipline.

Education Featured News

Tensions Run High at Capitol as Education Bills Face Floor Votes

Tennessee lawmakers are close to approving stricter standards for teachers to earn and keeping tenure.

The plan has passed both chambers of the Legislature, but needs a final look in the Senate next week before it heads to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, who proposed the legislation to start with.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill would subject new teachers to a five-year probationary period, instead of the current three, before they could be considered for tenure. Teachers would be evaluated annually, and they could lose protected status after two years of poor performance.

Although its passage appears certain, the bill must go through one more round of voting in the Senate as early as next Thursday to clear up technical differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill.

“The governor’s tenure bill passed with overwhelming support in the Senate earlier this month, and we foresee no problems in passing it once we receive the bill from the House,” said Adam Kleinheider, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s spokesman.

Democrats say they believe the tenure reform is largely a good idea but still argue that the new law would be premature if it goes into effect for the 2011-2012 school year. The bill would tie tenure to performance based on a set of evaluations the state is still testing.

“The important part is we’re just getting this cart before the horse,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic caucus leader. “We need to know what the evaluation system is before we adopt a major revision of our tenure.”

Republicans in the House approved the bill Thursday on a 65-32 vote margin with all but one Democrat, Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, voting against. The Senate voted 21-12 in favor of the bill two weeks ago, also with the help of a lone Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville.

Teacher tenure is one of Haslam’s key legislative priorities this year and the first one to make it this far.

The only difference between the House and Senate version is the cutoff for teachers who would be grandfathered in. In the Senate version, teachers who are awarded tenure by June 15, 2011 would not be subject to the new evaluation-based tenure requirements, but the House sets that date as those granted tenure before July 1, 2011.

If passed, teachers would need to meet the following requirements to become eligible for tenure:

(1)  Has a degree from an approved four-year college or any career and technical teacher who has the equivalent amount of training established and licensed by the state board of education;

(2)  Holds a valid teacher license, issued by the state board of education, based on training covering the subjects or grades taught;

(3)  Has completed a probationary period of five (5) school years or not less than forty-five (45) months within the last seven-year period, the last  two (2) years being employed in a regular teaching position rather than an interim teaching position;

(4)  Has received evaluations demonstrating an overall performance

effectiveness level of “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” as provided in the evaluation guidelines adopted by the state board of education pursuant to § 49-1-302, during the last two (2) years of the probationary period; and

(5) Is reemployed by the director of schools for service after the probationary period

Under the new system, educators must score “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” for the last two years of their probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure. Those ranking as “meeting expectations,” “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations” could not be recommended for tenure, although the district could continue to employ them.

Teachers could lose their status if they have two consecutive years of “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations” scores. They would need another two years of “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” ratings to become eligible for tenure again.

Tensions are running high on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner and Republican Rep. David Hawk butted heads on the House floor Thursday after Hawk publicly scolded legislators for badmouthing a GOP bill to remove the Tennessee Education Association from the ranks of appointees to a school safety board. The bill passed 62-34. Only one Democrat, John DeBerry of Memphis, voted in favor.

Turner, who had just finished calling the legislation an attempt at bullying the TEA and said, “One day there will be a reckoning,” approached Hawk on the floor. The two appeared to engage in a heated exchange before leaving the chamber, followed by at least a dozen legislators. The two returned moments later, saying Turner had apologized.

Both lawmakers told reporters later that pending education bills — including a proposal to curb the power of teachers’ unions — have created a tense mood at the Capitol.

Lawmakers are aggravated, said House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick. He said Republicans are frustrated that Democrats characterize their education bills as attacks on teachers, and Democrats are stressed because they can’t move their agenda forward.

“They’re not used to having to actually consult with us, and they’re certainly not used to being outvoted,” McCormick said, “and I think those tensions are flying pretty high right now, but I think they’ll get used to it.”

Turner said of his GOP colleagues, “We feel like this has not been handled fairly. It’s been rushed through.

“We think a lot of the stuff they’re doing today is punitive.”

Education News

Senate, House Taking Up Haslam’s Teacher Tenure Initiative

In debates over education reform this year, Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to make it harder for teachers to earn and keep tenure hasn’t been as starkly polarizing as other Republican-backed legislation.

But it is nonetheless provoking resistance from the Tennessee Education Association, the union that represents more than 50,000 of the state’s public school employees.

Eight Republicans and one Democrat in the House Education Subcommittee voted Wednesday to approve Haslam’s tenure reforms. Four Democrats voted against the bill. The full Senate is expected to vote on its version of the legislation Thursday morning. (UPDATE: the Senate bill passed 21-12)

The tenure measure would require new teachers to spend five instead of three years in the classroom before earning tenure, which generally offers job protection. A series of evaluations would determine whether an educator could be put on probation or have her tenure revoked.

The legislation would not affect teachers who currently have tenure. If passed into law, teachers who have tenure as of the next school year would continue to use the current system while those who have yet to receive tenure will be subject to the new rules.

The proposal is a centerpiece to Haslam’s education-reform agenda, which also calls for lifting restrictions on charter schools and allowing students to use lottery scholarships for summer courses.

The governor says it is currently difficult to get rid of public school teachers who aren’t performing at a level of proficiency deemed adequate by their superiors.

According to a 2008 Legislative Brief from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability (pdf):

The number of annual teacher dismissals and cost per dismissal hearing cannot be calculated with any precision. The Tennessee Department of Education retains no records of the number of dismissals. Despite a lack of concrete data, the estimated number of dismissal cases is fewer than 50 per year – less than one-tenth of a percent of Tennessee’s total teaching force – according to the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) and the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), with the majority of hearings occurring in the state’s largest school systems. Although only an estimate, this number suggests a very small percentage of Tennessee’s teachers are ultimately dismissed from their teaching duties.

Haslam said Wednesday that OREA’s report — issued when John G. Morgan, now chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, was the state’s comptroller — reveals why tenure reform is necessary.

“I think that does show that maybe the way it’s set up now, it’s too hard to replace teachers who aren’t effective,” said the governor. “I think way more of our teachers in Tennessee are good than are bad. I want to be really clear about that. But we need to have the mechanism to replace teachers who aren’t working well.”

Given the bundle of bills that more directly aim to pare the influence of the TEA — banning collective bargaining, eliminating payroll deductions of union dues, doing away with TEA’s ability to select members of the state retirement board — the prospect of curbed tenure protection has provoked relatively little controversy. When about 3,000 union demonstrators marched on Capitol Hill Saturday to protest the mainly Republican-driven education reforms, tenure was hardly mentioned.

But the TEA is by no means unconcerned with Haslam’s plan — as evidenced by a strong showing of union members sitting in on Wednesday’s hearing and the fact that most of the House subcommittee’s Democrats opposed the bill.

Union leaders worry that the plan will base teachers’ probationary period on a set of largely untested measures. The system will leave holes for teachers who can’t be measured by standardized test scores, known as Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System or TVASS, and may leave other teachers continually in a “probationary” status, TEA President Gera Summerford said.

“Not every student can be an ‘A’ student. And not every teacher can be a top-level teacher,” Summerford said. “It depends on so many conditions, the students that you teach, the environment in which you teach, the community in which you teach.”

She said the TEA is willing to look at some aspects of the tenure law, but wants to make sure teachers still have rights to challenge potential dismissals.

Democrats are too, said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. But they’d like to put off some of the bill’s changes until the state can thoroughly vet the new teacher evaluation system.

Studies in other states show it’s both difficult and expensive to give failing teachers the boot. In Illinois, which is home to some 95,000 tenured teachers, only one or two are fired each year for poor performance, according to one analysis.

Memphis Rep. John DeBerry, the lone Democrat who joined with House Education Committee Republicans in voting for the tenure bill Wednesday, said TEA needs to accept that when they signed on to reforms as part of the state’s desire to win $500 million in Race to the Top education funds last year, they were agreeing to an all-out education overhaul.

“Part of Race to the Top was changing tenure and changing education as we know it,” said DeBerry.

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.”


Odom Still Optimistic

Rep. Gary Odom says he doesn’t expect members of the House Democratic Caucus to hold him responsible for the party’s devastating losses in the midterm elections.

“I think the caucus members know what I did at the election. They know what happened,” said Odom, who is seeking re-election Wednesday to another term as his party’s floor leader.

He’s facing a challenge from Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, who chaired the powerful Finance, Ways and Means committee last session, and Memphis Rep. John DeBerry Jr., who leads the Black Caucus.

Last month, Democrats lost almost a third of their representation in the House, surrendering a 64-34-1 majority to the Tennessee GOP.

But as far as the campaign, how he would have comported himself or conducted the party’s political affairs over the past year, there’s not much Odom says he would have done differently.

“I racked my brain to come up with some notion, some idea. We failed at getting a good message out, but I think we had a good message, and we tried to get it out. I just don’t think anybody was listening,” he said.

National politics drove this election, Odom said. He added that he and other members were featured in campaign ads tying them to President Obama and then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The new breakdown in the House cripples the caucus’ ability to check Republican-backed initiatives on the floor. But despite his party’s waning influence as an agenda-setting force in Tennessee politics, Odom says Democrats will still energetically attempt to shape, influence and nudge policy at every opportunity.

“This is a time where yes, we suffered a lot of losses as far as our Democratic caucus. We lost 14 seats, but that doesn’t change the agenda,” he said.

Education, job growth and providing additional aid for flood victims top Odom’s list of issues on which Democrats can make their voices heard.

“We’re going to work on things that are good for Tennessee. If it’s a Republican idea, if it’s a Democratic idea, it shouldn’t matter,” he said.

And while he’s never been known to pass up opportunities to lock horns with Republicans on the House floor, Odom says he hasn’t ever made it a practice to go out of his way to pick partisan fights.

“I always want to be cooperative, but sometimes there are just fundamental differences that need to be demonstrated, that need to be explained,” he said.

Odom, a two-time caucus leader, expressed confidence going into Wednesday’s party leadership election: “I’m as optimistic as I am in entering any election. I have a record and just like any incumbent has a record, you are going to be judged on that.”

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Lawmakers Looking to Haslam for Leadership out of Unemployment Doldrums

Joblessness in Tennessee has reportedly eased somewhat since Bill Haslam was on the campaign trail. But there’s still widespread agreement among elected state leaders that a most pressing task at hand is enacting policies that breathe life into the stagnant employment market.

With an unemployment rate that has for many months shown 1-in-10 Tennesseans without work — and often much higher in rural counties — Haslam and other political candidates spent a lot of campaign time assuring voters that improving people’s chances of connecting with a private-sector paycheck would be a top priority for state government in 2011.

Candidate Haslam, now Tennessee’s governor-elect, vowed to make Tennessee No. 1 in the Southeast for job creation. But with six weeks to go before he officially takes office, there’s still no solid plan on the table for making that a reality.

At its highest, the Tennessee unemployment rate topped off at 10.9 percent in summer of 2009. A few months later, national unemployment hit a record 10.1 percent, the highest since the economic downturn began in December 2007.

Since then, unemployment numbers have slowly fallen. Last month, national unemployment measured 9.6 percent, slightly higher than Tennessee’s 9.4 percent. But numbers released Friday indicate American unemployment, now at 9.8 percent, could be on the uptick again.

Economists say this is the longest streak of 9 percent or higher unemployment rates since World War II, and they don’t expect a significant drop anytime soon. Those numbers will likely fall to about 9 percent by the end of next year and hover around 8 percent by the end of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.

No one can accuse Haslam of not having done the legwork necessary to get a grip on the severity of what people are facing across the Volunteer State.

He was on the campaign trail through the worst of it, driving around the Grand Divisions during some of the hardest months for Tennessee workers since the Great Depression. Last March he embarked specifically on a three-week “jobs tour” to survey business owners, community leaders and economic-development officials for ideas that would spur growth and demand for work.

He offered few hard-and-fast policy details about how he planned to help create jobs, preferring instead to offer a vision for using yet-to-be-fully-developed regionally focused approaches for tackling issues that stand in the way of job-market recovery.

“Are the economic development needs of every part of Tennessee the same?” Haslam said in a commercial aired in May. “No, they’re not. Every region has its own unique strengths. Let’s develop a regional approach, each area with its own job creation strategy.”

Haslam has said he wants to develop 12 to 14 regional economic development centers that can leverage the needs and strengths of each area — such as a vibrant medical district or proximity to state parks. These hubs, he said, would be better equipped to develop strategic ways for attracting jobs to those area than centralized solutions cooked up in Nashville.

In part of his larger restructuring of the Department of Economic Development, he said on the campaign trail he would create a new director’s position specifically focusing on small towns, rural development and agricultural issues to develop strategies for each region.

Haslam also wants to create a statewide online jobs clearinghouse to hook up job seekers with hiring employers, saying the website would include information on economic trends and projected workforce demands so entrepreneurs and potential employees could learn more about the area’s needs.

Another leg of his plan for job creation includes keeping taxes low and removing some “burdensome” business regulations to create a business-friendly atmosphere, which will likely be key priorities in the Legislature, Republican leaders from both chambers say.

Tennessee’s business climate now has mixed ratings among independent groups, although the state is usually categorized as more business-friendly than many, often even most.

Small business owners are generally happy with the state’s business climate, but they would have an easier time creating more jobs if a couple key issues were addressed, said Jim Brown, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business which represents 85,000 companies in the Volunteer State, more than half with three or fewer employees.

The NFIB has already begun talking with Haslam’s crew, as well as newly nominated House Republican Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, all of whom Brown said are agreeable to taking the legislative steps to make doing business easier for small companies.

NFIB’s wish list includes capping punitive and non-economic damages — such as pain and suffering — in “frivolous lawsuits,” closing loopholes that allow unemployment abuses and keeping an eye out for workers’ compensation fraud, all of which, he contends, would free up money for small business to hire more employees.

The governor-elect has not said whether these ideas or others would be part his jobs-creation push. Since his Nov. 2 election, he has been hand-picking people to sit on his leadership team, like department commissioners and inner-circle administrators, said his spokesman, David Smith.

Lawmakers in Tennessee agree that their top priority next year is to create jobs, but the top Republican legislative leaders say they’re unsure how Haslam wants them to do it.

Even though he’s met with Haslam at least half a dozen times since the election, Ramsey said the specifics of “what’s in his jobs package” haven’t been laid out for him.

Harwell, a strong supporter of Haslam’s gubernatorial campaign, indicated she’s agreeable to giving the new administration latitude and time to fully develop and implement a strategy for putting people back to work.

“We look forward to the proposals that Governor-elect Bill Haslam will bring forward,” she said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday. “We remain focused on laying the groundwork to help small businesses create jobs in Tennessee, and fostering an environment in which the economy here in Tennessee can thrive.”

The governor-elect’s spokesman said the governor needs a team in place before anyone can carry out policy-making assignments.

Rank-and-file lawmakers say they don’t know what to expect from the new governor, but whatever it is, it better be good.

“We’ve been given a job to bring jobs home, and we have to do it because we’re on probation,” said Sen. Jim Summerville, a newly elected Dickson Republican who unseated well-known Democratic Sen. Doug Jackson in last month’s election.

“If we don’t respond and succeed with growing jobs, then we’ll be out of a job in a couple years,” he said.

Even though Democrats are still smarting from the loss of 14 seats in last month’s election, some have suggested that the change-up in political dynamics might not have been the worst thing to have happen in order to encourage taking a clean-slate look at this persistent problem facing Tennessee.

New blood might bring in some good new ideas, said Rep. John Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville. Although it’s not like paving the way for job creation is something elected officials never though of before, he added.

His district includes one of the most economically depressed counties in the state, Perry County, which has a 13.4 percent unemployment rate.

“Would you not think that I’m doing everything I can possibly for job creation?” said Tidwell. “There’s a lot of things the state of Tennessee is already doing. If he’s going to do anything more that what we’ve been doing, I’d like to hear of a fresh idea.”

Most of the job-creation policy leadership should come from the governor himself, said Rep. John DeBerry, Jr., D-Memphis, who is seeking his party’s nomination for House Democratic Party leader.

A major part of the new governor’s job will be convincing businesses — both within the U.S. and worldwide — to relocate to Tennessee, he said, while lawmakers of all political stripes make sure they avoid passing laws that hinder businesses.

“As a legislator, I understand my limited impact on this issue and I understand that what we do is not getting in the way of job growth and not creating legislation that makes people want to do business anywhere beside in the state of Tennessee,” he said.