Press Releases

Republicans Praise Requirement for Civics Instruction in Schools

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; May 23, 2012:

(NASHVILLE, TN), May ­­­­23, 2012 — Legislation implementing a new emphasis on civics education in Tennessee was among bills signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam this week as the state prepares to observe the Memorial Day weekend. Senate Bill 2066, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), aims to give students the skills they need to be better informed about the workings of their own government by requiring civics education be included in the public school curriculum assessed by Local Educational Agencies (LEAs).

The legislation drew praise from former Chief Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor who wrote Leader Norris last week saying, “This important legislation will help make sure that every Tennessee student receives the civil learning that is so vital to their becoming an informed and engaged citizen.” Norris completed the bill after meeting with O’Connor whose efforts to promote civics education are taking root at middle schools and high schools across the nation. The most recent study of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that students perform worse in civics and U.S. history than in any other subjects. To counteract this trend, O’Conner has become a staunch advocate of civics education.

“I share Justice O’Connor’s deep concern regarding the need for a strong foundation in civics education so students will be fully engaged both as citizens and future leaders,” said Leader Norris. “The Memorial Day holiday is a stark reminder of those who fought and died for our freedom and right to self-govern. It is important that students know the underpinnings of our U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions and our democratic framework. It is even more important that they understand how they work together to make life better for those who live under the flag of freedom in this great nation.”

According to Norris, the legislation passed this year is timely as a result of the state’s recent waiver of the No Child Left Behind law. He is concerned that if Tennessee does not test civic knowledge and skills, they could become afterthoughts in education, especially in schools where students are at risk of failing the subjects that are tested. Norris said the project-based assessment put into place under the new law, moves away from testing memorization of facts and puts the focus on the academic skills needed for engaging in social issues and governance.

According to the most recent reports, there are deficiencies in Tennessee’s curriculum, particularly as it effects active, project-based instruction which is the most effective method of learning civics education. Norris’ legislation calls for engaging students in choosing issues of concern to them, followed by investigative research and development of plans for improving their communities.

“Tennessee students will choose issues of concern to them in their own communities, investigate them using rigorous research and develop plans for improving their communities through this approach,” Norris added.

Leader Norris has been engaged in the promotion of stronger civic education in Tennessee public schools since 2006 when the General Assembly established the Commission on Civic Education. He was recently chosen to participate in the National Center for Learning and Citizenship (NCLC) Conference in Chicago in June. The meeting is part of the National Summit on the Role of State Policy in Promoting Civic Knowledge and Civic Engagement in K-12 Schools. He has also been recognized for his efforts by the national Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

Janis Adams Kyser, Director of the Tennessee Center for Civic Learning and Engagement said, “Our children of Tennessee should learn the general framework of their government; know where they come in contact with the government, where government impacts their lives and where their voice is heard within the government. Senator Mark Norris and the Tennessee Legislature have provided an opportunity for our youth to understand the responsibilities of being an active citizen and the important roles they can play in maintaining our democracy.”

“I agree with President Reagan who warned us in his farewell speech that eradication of this knowledge would lead to the erosion of this country,” he continued. “The last sentence of his farewell speech was – for democracy to work, an educated and engaged citizenry is essential. I admire the work of Justice O’Connor in shining a light on civics and am proud to be a part of this effort in Tennessee.”

News Tax and Budget

Lawmakers Not Yet Ready to Give Bonuses the Boot

Tennessee Republicans in both the House and the Senate have been saying they’re trying to purge this year’s budgetary process of the urge to fork out fresh pork, new fish hatcheries and one-time state-employee bonuses.

They’re now indicating an apparent interest in compromise on the latter.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said Tuesday a “major discussion” in state budget negotiations is underway involving state employees getting a little extra at the GOP bargain-basement bonus bin, beyond a certain amount of job security and a steady paycheck.

Some lawmakers have taken to weighing the investment value of a performance enticement of some sort — such as beefed-up health insurance, according to Norris, instead of an across-the-board gratuity as was originally proposed by Gov. Phil Bredesen in his state-of-the state speech.

“No, we can’t afford to give a raise now, but maybe an incentive-based raise in the future. It’s just an option. It’s not very well vetted,” the Collierville Republican said Tuesday. “We’re also looking at insurance benefits which may be tax free. They can have more significant impact than a $300 or $400 bonus.”

House Democrats released a budget plan Tuesday that includes $500 bonuses to state employees, teachers and university professors — a proposal that would cost the state $72.2 million. Government workers’ would see the bump to their bank accounts in the fall, likely a little before election time.

Opposition to Bredesen’s February proposal to give state workers a 3 percent bonus costing taxpayers $163 million seemed softer in the House than Senate when the governor first floated the idea.

“Is 3 percent too much? Is 2 percent too much? I don’t know. In my opinion there needs to be something, but how much?” Franklin Republican and House GOP caucus chairman Glen Casada said shortly after the governor made his budget pitch.

But a month ago, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said he perceived a solid “consensus on both sides of the isle and both houses that now is not the year to be giving a bonus to state employees at the time you’re laying those state employees off.” Associated Press reports that Ramsey still thinks a bonus is “illogical” right now.

As many as 1,000 employees could be laid off under current budget proposals, but that number could change in the next few days.

“Paying bonuses right now is just a disconnect for most folks in Tennessee,” Norris said last week. His Senate caucus enjoys a 19-14 majority and has publicly hewn to the tough-economic-times-call-for-belt-tightening-not-bonuses viewpoint.

House Finance, Ways and Means Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said members who helped draft their budget first thought of working in some alternatives to a pay bonus, but came to believe it would create a larger-than-acceptable workload to implement it.

Republican leaders, who hope to settle on a budget next week, have yet to decide how they want to handle any employee incentives or bonuses, Norris said.

“The main issue right now is what does the economic trend show? What can we afford and what can we not afford and our first priority right now is looking at the state employees,” he said.

The governor, along with Democrats, also wants to spend money on a number of smaller projects that have elicited unaccommodating reactions from Republican legislators. Topping that list is a $16.1 million expenditure for a fish hatchery in House Speaker Kent Williams’ home district.

Norris said lawmakers are still hashing out other aspects of the budget, such as how deep the state should dip into its rainy day fund, how much extra money to put aside for flood recovery and — in a late Tuesday night Senate Finance committee meeting — how to handle a sales tax exemption for flood victims.

One issue, Norris maintains, is pretty clear in the Senate.

“Fish pale in comparison to state employees, let’s put it that way,” he said.


Rural Tennessee Unemployment Continues to Soar

While it’s no secret economic times are tough this year all across the Volunteer State, job seekers living in West Tennessee are having an especially difficult time finding and keeping work, according to the latest government unemployment statistics.

As of the end of October, unemployment rates in counties from the Mississippi River to just west of Nashville hovered in the high teens, in some cases pushing 19 percent, according to recent numbers from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

With the exception of Shelby, Montgomery and Dickson Counties, the unemployment rate in every county west of Nashville meets or surpasses the statewide rate of 10.5 percent. Tennessee-wide unemployment was 6.9 percent for the same period last year.

“I think that a lot of the hit that we take has been the erosion of the manufacturing base,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, a Jackson Democrat.

Several plants have closed or announced layoffs in the past year, including Cub Cadet in Brownsville, a lawn mower plant where 480 full time and seasonal workers lost their jobs when the facility closed in July. Haywood County’s unemployment rate now checks in at 17.9 percent.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate is just above the nation’s 10.2 percent rate for October. Since then, the national numbers dropped to 10 percent in November, though state numbers are not yet available.

Lauderdale County’s unemployment rate was 18.9 percent, the highest in the state and a 4.2 percent increase from October 2008.

Henderson County ranks at 17.6 percent and Carroll County at 17.3 percent.

While each western county struggles with unemployment, those home to larger population centers are faring better, although still significantly worse than the state rates from last year. The rate in Shelby County is 10.2 percent and Madison County is 10.5 percent.

That isn’t to say times are flush for job-hunters in regions east of Nashville. Hancock County unemployment hit 18 percent and Scott County landed at 17.8 percent, and most other counties have unemployment rates in low teens or below.

While Finney said he’s encouraged by the recent drop in the national unemployment rate, he says Tennesseans ought not to expect the picture to brighten anytime soon; the state’s employment numbers tend to lag six months behind.

“If other parts of the country experience good news, hopefully that means a few months from now, Tennessee will experience the same thing,” he said.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, predicts it’ll take even longer than that before unemployment turns around.

A former chairman for the Council of State Governments’ Economic Development Committee for the Southern Legislative Conference, Norris says the stimulus hasn’t yet kicked in the way state officials expected, which he says means it’ll take still more time to see positive changes.

“I would say it’s probably not likely we’ll be able to see any appreciable improvement until the third quarter of 2010 at the earliest,” he said.