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Lawmakers in Mad Dash to Compete in ‘Race’

State representatives and senators laboring over education laws in this weeks’ special session expect the legislation will pass — though members of both parties say they’re feeling rushed.

The House Education Committee passed the measure 21-1 Thursday afternoon after almost 10 hours of debate over the last two days.

“Once we get to the floor we’ll be okay,” said Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory. “There will be some debate on the floor. Probably some lively debate on the floor but I expect it to pass on a pretty comfortable margin.”

The General Assembly is attempting to iron out any snags in Tennessee education law that could weaken the state government’s chances of scoring as much as $485 million in federal “Race to the Top” grant monies. The reform-based grant application is due in Washington by Jan. 19.

“We’re going fast on this. But what’s the biggest thing that happens when you’re going fast? Mistakes are made. You’ve just got to be real, real careful,” said Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough.

State Rep. John DeBerry, Jr., a Memphis Democrat, criticized the plan to link student performance to 50 percent of a teachers’ evaluation during this week’s marathon Education Committee meeting that stretched over two days. He said lawmakers should tread carefully before “we’ll jump through every hoop” for millions of dollars for education from Washington.

“I agree with the lofty goal of trying to better education in the state of Tennessee, but the more we talk about this bill, the less I like it,” said DeBerry during the House Education Committee meeting Wednesday. “I categorically cannot consciously sit here and continue to listen to this without saying that we need to go back and think about this for a second. Because there is something very, very, very, very wrong going on here.”

Hill, who sits on the House Education Committee as well,  introduced several amendments to key legislation Gov. Phil Bredesen wants lawmakers to approve within the next few days. The committee reviewed roughly 16 total changes to House Bill 7010 in today’s committee hearing.

The bill, which lawmakers have debated for 10 hours in the education committee for a 21-1 vote, faces two more committees before a vote on the House floor.

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said amendments won’t bog the bill down.

“It’s just all in how the dominoes fall,” said Brooks who chairs the committee. “We need to take sufficient time to be very thorough, be very careful, ask any and every question we need to ask. We don’t need to ever leave this meeting, and or this session saying, ‘I did not know what I was voting on.”

Bredesen called lawmakers into a legislative special session this week, saying “the stars have aligned” to dramatically improve the state’s public education system.

The two-term Democrat, who is serving his last year as governor, wants the Legislature to link student test scores to yearly teacher reviews — a practice now banned. He also wants the General Assembly to OK the creation of a state-wide “achievement” district that will take over operation of failing schools.

The ideas Bredesen is proposing aren’t particularly new, and they ought to be implemented even if they don’t come with massive federal aid, said Dr. J. E. Stone, president of the Education Consumers Foundation, a Virgina-based education think tank that develops school ratings.

Using the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System that tracks a student learning each year, Stone said his organization has developed a highly effective method for grading teachers using factors like student test scores, peer- and principal-feedback, and other factors.

Effective methods for measuring teacher proficiency based on student-achievement data have been floating around for years, he said.

“It’s an idea who’s time has come,” Stone said. “Basically, we have this huge body of data that’s probably being used by less than half the schools in the state.”

The state has been collecting the student data since 1993, but it is now illegal to use it for teacher evaluations of tenure. Education officials say the information is also difficult to digest because it uses complicated formulas.

In October, U.S. Senator Bill Frist and the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education came up with more than 60 recommendations for improving the education “pipeline.”

The SCORE report suggested Tennessee could lead the Southeast in education within five years if it adopts certain reform measures, like finding a more constructive way to use the mountains of data collected on student performance.

Lawmakers now have only a matter of days to approve legislation needed to set Tennessee apart for the “Race to the Top” grant competition. Turner expect to pass the bill in the House before breaking for the weekend.

Only the handful of states that show the most commitment to education reform will win the grant money, the Obama administration has said.

Republicans Sounding Agreeable to Bredesen’s Education Reform Pitch

Gov. Phil Bredesen’s speech before a joint meeting of the House and Senate for the special legislative session on Tuesday drew skepticism from some in his own party. But to many Republicans on Capitol Hill, the reform plan outlined by the Democratic governor was just what they wanted to hear.

“He has asked us to be bold and join him in this opportunity to prepare students for this global economy and I’m excited about the opportunity,” said Senate Education Committee member Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville. “I think this is an excellent opportunity for Tennessee, and I look forward to this week so we can work together.”

Bredesen is offering two legislative proposals for the special session.

One, called “Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010,” is designed to position Tennessee to snatch up a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration is dangling in front of states in “Race to the Top” education funding grants.

The other bill, the “Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010,” is written with the idea in mind of trying to boost lagging college completion rates in Tennessee. “On average, only 46 percent of full-time students at four-year schools graduate within six years, and only 12 percent of full-time community college students attain associate degrees within three years,” Bredesen told lawmakers.

For every 100 students who enter ninth grade in our public schools, Bredesen said, 67 graduate from high school in four years. Of those, 43 go directly to college after graduation, but only 29 return for their sophomore year.

“Just 19 graduate with an associate’s degree in three years or a bachelor’s degree in six years,” Bredesen said. “We can do better. We’ve got to do better.”

For Tennessee schools to have a chance at some of the “Race to the Top” funding, which is part of the stimulus package the Democratic-led Congress and the Obama administration passed last year, changes need to be made to how teachers here are evaluated, said Bredesen.

The “Race to the Top” application specifically requires that student achievement data be added as a “significant factor” to teacher and school principal evaluations, according to the governor. Other states the Bredesen administration sees as “primary competitors” have generally determined that half a teacher’s or principal’s performance evaluation should be based on student achievement.

Currently, it is illegal in Tennessee for school administrators to use student achievement data to rate and review teachers for tenure.

“I know this represents change, but this is not rocket science,” Bredesen said about his proposal to allow student progress to drive official teacher-performance assessments. “It is a commonsense notion; we pay teachers to teach children, a part of their evaluation ought to be how much the children they teach learn.”

Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said afterward that Bredesen “made a very good case on why we need to do this, and that it’s probably the right thing to do.”

Democrats grumbled that all this proposed change is coming at them without much opportunity for considered debate and analysis. The deadline for the state to apply for the “Race to the Top” grants is Jan. 19. That means a legislative package needs to be on Bredesen’s desk before then.

“I think he’s pretty optimistic. I think he’s entered into a contest where we may or may not win and are trying to change the entire system in a very short period of time,” said Rep. John C. Tidwell of New Johnsonville. “A lot of the details don’t work out.”

While everyone “would love the luxury of time,” said Woodson, “this isn’t the only time in our legislative history that we’ve been talking about these important issues.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said tying teacher performance reviews to student test scores “is something (Republicans) have been pushing for years.”

Ramsey predicted that getting the legislative changes Bredesen wants passed through the chamber over which he presides probably won’t be too difficult. “I think we can do it,” said Ramsey. “I don’t see a lot of problem on the Senate side.”

‘Race to Top’ Application Taking More Prep Time Than Feds Estimated

Tennessee education officials figure the state will invest more than twice the 681 hours in work time the federal government estimated states should take when preparing requests for special stimulus package school-funding grants.

Lawmakers are at the capitol this week at Gov. Phil Bredesen’s behest to try and pass legislation he hopes will give Tennessee a better chance of snatching  more than $400 million in one-time federal education funding.

Officials in the Volunteer State began working on the 102-page grant application in early Fall when initial details of the program were released. Two workers from Education First Consulting joined the effort full-time in November after federal officials issued applications.

Those two workers, who are responsible for producing an attractive Tennessee application for the “Race to the Top” grants, are paid by the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation will cover up to $250,000 of the consulting firms’ costs, but none of that money trickles down to Tennessee staffers working on the grant, said Rachel Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

State education staff have also poured hours into the the RTTT application, Woods said. As many as 40 people have been writing up explanations of key education programs to paste into the application.

Others are collecting grant agreements from the state’s 136 school districts.

Woods said the state will “easily” double the federal government’s 681-hour estimate.

The RTTT application is due in Washington, D.C., by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 19. Lawmakers hope to pass legislation before then that will make Tennessee a stronger competitor for a chunk of the $4.35 billion grant.

Numerous other states also quickly exceeded the U.S. Board of Education’s 681-hour estimate — about 4 and a half months for one person — when filling out the RTTT grant application.

“I will have easily put in 81 hours myself by the time the proposal turns in,” Woods said.

Breaking Down ‘Race to the Top’

Lawmakers will spend the next few days changing Tennessee’s education laws to make the state eligible for an infusion of federal education funding.

But the hottest issue up for debate at the statehouse this week — how strongly to tie student test scores to educators’ tenure and yearly evaluations — accounts for only 12 percent of the overall “Race to the Top” federal grant application.

“That’s just one little technical piece to be taken care of,” said Rachel Woods, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Race to Top pie

The $4.35 billion grant competition, which is a part of the federal stimulus package, will award the top 10 to 20 states with leading education reforms that boost student achievement and graduation rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Tennessee is slated to receive more than $400 million if it wins the grant money.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called this a “once in a lifetime chance” to propel student achievement, will be most interested in how Tennessee fits into the grant’s four-pronged approach for reform.

He and the U.S. Department of Education will measure how well the state can:

  • Adopt measures to better prepare students for college, work and compete in the global economy
  • Build databanks that measure students’ success; use that information to fuel instruction
  • Attract, develop, reward and keep effective teachers and principals, particularly in tough-to-teach classrooms
  • Turn around low-achieving schools.

The 102-page grant application — which scores much like a high school final exam — looks for a state to pitch several education reforms. Sections range from finding ways to improve the transition between preschool and kindergarten, how to use student data to drive instruction, and methods to better prepare students for jobs in complicated subjects like math and technology.

The application, which is estimated to take 681 hours to complete, is cut into several pieces. The slice with the heaviest weight calls for states to find, keep and develop quality teachers.

That section, worth 28 percent of the total evaluation, asks for Tennessee to prove how it will support several initiatives, such as alternative teaching certification programs and attracting quality teachers to struggling schools.

The section also calls for making professional-development programs for teachers and principals more rigorous. It also and includes linking student-performance data to salary, tenure and firing decisions — which accounts for 58 out of 138 possible scoring points.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy group, suggests a state’s performance in this teachers section will “make or break” their application, while winning proposals break new ground in this area.

“It will require break-the-mold initiatives and iron political will on the part of states to undertake a human capital reform agenda — and, accordingly, the Department has assigned the big points and promised the big money for this tough work,” read NCTQ’s “Race to the Top Scorecard” (pdf).

Lawmakers expect to reverse a current ban on using annual standardized tests to help determine whether teachers receive tenure.

In 1992, schools began collecting student performance data through standardized tests. But the Tennessee Education Association convinced lawmakers to make it illegal to use those scores to help evaluate teacher performance for tenure.

Gov. Phil Bredesen called the special session specifically to pass legislation to help the state compete for “Race to the Top” grant money and other education issues.

He said last month the scores would have to weigh in at 50 percent or more to engage the issue. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, agreed last week with 50 percent mark and expects to push the measure through.

The main opponent, the Tennessee Education Association, said it is willing to support test scores accounting for 35 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations.

For “Race to the Top” grant money, Tennessee will also have to prove it has the statewide capacity to follow through on promised reforms and show that — since at least 2003 — it’s already made good headway in improving student achievement, according to “Race to the Top” documents. The section, called “State Success Points,” represents a quarter of the grant application.

About 14 percent of the application depends on the state’s commitment to developing standards other states can later adopt on their own.

Another 11 percent is given based on the state’s recent track record for shifting more dollars to education each year and 9 percent is for using student data to drive instruction. An additional 3 percent — considered a tie-breaker — is given for developing a plan to help emphasize student studies on science, technology, engineering and math, called STEM. The application does not dictate any other specific areas of student study.

Another section includes turning around lowest-achieving schools. To do this, lawmakers expect to create a statewide “achievement” school district that will adopt those institutions and take over instructional oversight such as hiring and firing decisions.This section makes up 10 percent of the application and requires lawmakers to pass new legislation this week.

The application is due by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 19. Winning states will be announced in April.

The U.S. Department of Education will accept a second wave of applications on June 1, 2010, from states that missed the first deadline or were rejected in the Spring.

Guv Taking Hands-Off Approach to Health Care Reform Challenge

Gov. Phil Bredesen indicated today he won’t push to try blocking federal health care legislation in court.

While Bredesen, a Democrat in his last year in office, has in the past taken issue with the hefty $1.5 billion price tag the plan could mean to Tennessee in expanded Medicaid costs, he said the decision-making authority to file legal action is properly left to Attorney General Bob Cooper.

“I think it just encourages really bad behavior on the part of legislators just seeing everything as an opportunity to hold things up and get something. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” he told reporters Monday after addressing the Nashville Rotary Club.

Cooper said last week he’s going to hold off deciding whether to pursue a legal course against the federal government’s health care reform package until the final legislation is ironed out in Washington.

Republican state Reps. Susan Lynn, Mt. Juliet, and Debra Young Maggart, Hendersonville, urged Cooper to begin investigating now whether Tennessee has a case against the health care overhaul on the basis that the federal insurance-purchase mandate is a violation of Tenth Amendment state sovereignty protections.

Another sticking point for many critics was the political compromising behind the U.S. Senate’s bill, which exempted Nebraska from paying its share to expand Medicaid programs.

State Senate speaker Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor in 2010, has also called on Cooper to “examine the constitutionality of federal legislation which singles out Nebraska for favorable treatment over 49 other states.”

Sen. Diane Black, a registered nurse from Gallatin, said she’d too would like to see Tennessee fight the federal government’s health care plan on the basis that it creates a mandate and favors one state over others.

“I would just assume they just not try to mandate how health care should be conducted in our particular state,” the Republican said.

Bredesen said he was “very unhappy” that Nebraska will be spared the full cost of the legislation.

“I will be honest. It is just a huge load on the states at a time when we’re still digging out of this recession,” Bredesen said about Washington’s efforts at health care reform.

The governor stopped short of saying whether he felt the state should join or ignore the 13 other Republican attorneys general who have lined up to fight the health care package.

Legislators in at least 16 other states have introduced bills or constitutional amendments to stifle the health care package, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Upcoming Leglislative Session’s Focus on Fiscal Concerns

Lawmakers say they don’t need a crystal ball to know that passing a budget will likely be the greatest challenge in the Tennessee General Assembly this year.

“This is going to be my 14th budget, and this is going to be the toughest one,” said Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden.

The current year’s budget is roughly $1.5 billion in the hole due to lackluster state revenues, said Sen. Republican Leader Mark Norris, a lawyer from Collierville. With unemployment up and family incomes down, next year doesn’t look much better.

Because 2010 is an election year, lawmakers will be cautious not to upset voters too much, which makes filling the hole with a tax increase unpopular and unlikely, said Maddox. Last fall, Bredesen asked state departments to highlight ways they can cut up to 9 percent from their budget.

The legislature could also dabble with cleaning up the guns in bars legislation, moving more money to the TNInvestco to invest in capital investment firms, increasing transparency and possibly paring down programs the Tennessee lottery is funding, lawmakers said.

First on lawmakers’ 2010 calendar, though, is a special session designed to try and help Tennessee gobble up a chunk of $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” education grants. To do that, the legislature will have to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores before the Jan. 19 deadline.

Gov. Phil Bredesen also wants lawmakers consider linking the state’s higher education funding formula more heavily with performance measures like higher degree completion rates. That topic, too, might come up in the Jan. 12 special session.

“These are all things that need to be done. I’m not sure they need to be rushed in a special session when we have other burning and otherwise unresolved financial issues,” said Norris.