Education News

SCORE: Prioritize Principals

Tennessee’s in the throes of implementing various teacher- and classroom-focused reforms, but an area that’s fallen through the cracks is better training and support for school principals, reports an influential state education advocacy group.

Cultivating good principals and continuing to train them are among the top four education issues the state needs to focus on in the next year, concluded the State Collaborative for Reforming Education in the 2011-2012 installment of its “State of Education in Tennessee.”

Prominent education-focused lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they agree.

“Any school you go into, you’re going to find that that school is just as strong as that principal,” said Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the House Education Committee Chairman.

Over the last year, SCORE says the state has made “little progress” on developing a strategy for grooming and developing people to lead schools, that “more work remains to ensure that there is a statewide pipeline of effective school and district leaders.”

“District partnerships with colleges and universities, as well as non- profits and businesses, provide opportunities for building leadership pipelines that can be leveraged to broaden the pool of candidates to lead schools throughout Tennessee,” the SCORE report’s executive summary suggests. “In particular, small and rural districts should consider creating a principal pipeline through consortia models in collaboration with institutions of higher education, as these systems often lack the personnel or capacity to build effective pipelines of their own.

Better prepping of principals is an issue Tennessee’s faced for several years, said Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, who heads the Senate Education Committee.

“It’s not fair to people to put them in positions that they’re not prepared for, and we want to make sure that our principals are prepared for the jobs that they must do, that we expect them to do,” Gresham said.

The lobbyist for the state’s largest teachers’ union agrees.

“You cannot have a good, strong school without a good, strong principal,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association. “Particularly with the emphasis on teacher quality and evaluation, you’re going to have to have principals who know what they’re doing and have the time to do it, which is a huge problem right now.”

Other issues identified by SCORE include policy leadership, focused professional development for teachers and strengthening training for the state’s future teachers, according to the group’s report, issued Tuesday.

SCORE is soliciting feedback and data on the state’s new teacher evaluation system, in use for the first time this school year. The group’s study, which is due to the governor by June 1, is in response to anxiety among educators, who point to numerous weaknesses and concerns about how they’re graded.

Montgomery says the results of that study will also help determine how the state — including the Legislature — can give principals more of the tools they need.

“That’s going to help us and give us a lot of the information. Where are the weak links? Where do we need to really concentrate our effort to get the best bang out of our buck, so to speak?” he said.

Education Featured News

Polls Give Mixed Scores to Teacher Evaluation Reforms

As education experts dig through piles of feedback from teachers and administrators on the state’s teacher evaluation system, the public is split on whether it is good for education, according to a recent survey.

Roughly half of Tennesseans surveyed said they don’t know whether the new evaluations are helping or hurting education, according to a poll Middle Tennessee State University released last week.

“The number one factor of a student’s success is effective teaching in the classroom,” said Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education and one of the original drivers behind mandatory teacher evaluations. “The impact won’t be seen overnight.”

The MTSU poll found 18 percent of the 512 people surveyed thought the new evaluation requirements increase the quality of education.

Another 16 percent said the evaluations decrease education quality, and 19 percent said it makes no difference. But almost half — 48 percent — said they didn’t know what they thought.

“It’s brand new. We’ve gone through one year of it,” said House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville. “A lot of people were very nervous, very apprehensive because it is something brand new. It’s totally different from what they’ve experienced before.”

Leading House Democrat Craig Fitzhugh says the fact that most are uncertain about the new evaluation system is evidence the state threw it into play too quickly.

“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves. We got in too big a hurry, and we threw this evaluation system together and made it … effective to use, before we looked through it all. And now after the fact, we’re taking time to look at it,” said the Ripley lawmaker.

Gov. Bill Haslam asked SCORE to analyze the new teacher evaluation system and report back to him by June 1 with recommendations for whether or how to improve it.

Since then, the collaborative has assembled two of eight regional roundtable discussions with educators across the state, started soliciting feedback online and reached out to various education associations looking for suggestions.

Woodson, a former state senator from Knoxville, declined to detail exactly what she’s hearing from teachers and administrators and what aspects of the evaluations educators are most concerned about, adding “we’re trying diligently to be listeners to the process.”

Another poll found different results. A survey commissioned by the national nonprofit StudentsFirst found that 73 percent of Tennessee voters surveyed were “totally positive” toward evaluating teachers four times a year and basing half the evaluation on whether test scores improved.

StudentsFirst was founded by national education reformer Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. The organization has emerged as a significant player in contributing to Tennessee political campaigns, according to the the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Education Featured NewsTracker

TEA Opposes Haslam’s 2012 Education Reforms; GOP Lawmakers Moving Forward Nonetheless

Lawmakers say they’re hearing concerns about the governor’s plan to authorize more local control on class size and teacher pay, but they predict the outcry will not be as heated as last year’s.

“We’re going to work real hard to get some consensus. Everybody may not agree 100 percent, but I think we’re going to be doing some moving here before we do anything to make sure everybody’s kind of on board and is fairly happy with it,” said House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville. “If everyone is unhappy with it, we may have even done a pretty good job.”

Gov. Bill Haslam wants to give local school districts the discretion to disregard existing pay scales based on longevity or degree accumulation and instead set their own teacher salary plan. He also wants each district to have the power to set class size restrictions for itself.

“The change in anything is painful. It is. I understand that. We’re in the middle of some of those growing pains right now. The worst thing in the world to do would be let our foot off the pedal,” Haslam told civic and business leaders in Cookeville Monday.

Lawmakers last year raised the bar on how teachers reach tenure, built in grading scales to measure teacher performance and eliminated mandatory collective bargaining over teacher contracts.

Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said members of her education committee haven’t dug through the governor’s new bills yet, but she’s heard some public criticism of the legislation centered on potential changes, in particular with respect to class sizes.

“Most teachers and parents are concerned about the classroom issue. They want effective teaching, and an effective teacher can just do more with fewer students,” said Senate Education Committee member Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “People see that more as a direct problem for results than the merit pay issue.”

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, says it’ll push back against the governor’s latest initiatives as vigorously as they did with last year’s GOP-sponsored reforms. In 2011, the TEA held protests and rallies that turned out teachers by the dozens to sometimes thousands.However, the legislation they were protesting passed, albeit without much Democrat support.

“I think it’s a huge political battle that’s shaping up,” said Jerry Winters, the TEA lobbyist. “It caught us off guard. I think it caught a lot of legislators off guard.”

Education NewsTracker

Early Timeout Taken on Bill Restricting Human Sexuality Discussions in Public Schools

A measure making it illegal for public elementary or middle schools in Tennessee to teach about homosexuality has cropped up again in the state Legislature and suffered a minor setback Wednesday.

But Rep. Joey Hensley delayed committee action on the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, after a request from House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery.

Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who serves as the number two man on the committee and chairs the subcommittee where the bill currently rests, told TNReport Wednesday the controversial legislation will most likely reappear in three weeks.

House Bill 229, which has become the source of an annual hubbub on the Hill and was to be the target of protests Wednesday, would prohibit schools from providing “instruction or materials” that discuss sexual orientations other than heterosexuality.

The proposal has previously drawn national media attention, falling on sympathetic ears as well as eliciting criticism that it turned the state Senate into “a national laughing stock” when that body last year passed a version of the bill – Senate Bill 49 – by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. The measure died in the House.

Montgomery, R-Sevierville, said he asked Hensley for the delay after several committee members asked for more time to look at it. Explaining the move to the committee, Montgomery said the bill would be packaged with other curriculum legislation and taken up at a later date.

Hensley recently replaced Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, as the bill’s lead sponsor. Dunn, who still appears as a co-sponsor, said, “The key point was strategy.”

As a committee leader, Hensley is well-positioned to shepherd the bill forward, and Dunn noted Hensley’s status as a father, a doctor and a former school board member as reasons his sponsorship might be advantageous for the legislation.

Hensley has also just announced plans to to run for a new state Senate seat.

Montgomery said he hasn’t surveyed the committee’s membership and that he’s still on the fence himself.

“I’m not sure yet where I’m at,” he said. “I’d like to get all the knowledge we can first.”

One leading statehouse Democrat said the early appearance of such a controversial bill sets the wrong tone for the legislative session.

“Why are we doing this? It’s just a political move,” said Democratic House Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley. “The first meeting out of the box, I think you have to set the tone, and this is not a good tone to set.”

Both Hensley and Dunn said they feel confident they have the votes to get the bill out of committee this time. But if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it’s going away. Campfield, who has pushed the measure for years, said another delay wouldn’t phase him.

“Hopefully it will make it up to the House,” he said. “But if not, we’ll be back again next year.”

Education Featured News

GOP Support for School-Choice Legislation Lacking in House

Update: Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the formation of an “opportunity scholarship” task force intended to study the issue of vouchers “before legislation is pursued any further in this session.” The body is directed to report back to the governor’s office in “the fall of 2012,” long after the Legislature is expected to adjourn. The 2012 General Election is Nov. 6.

The governor plans to weigh in any day on whether to offer parents broader school choice options for their children next year, but high-ranking House leaders are hinting that idea is not in the cards for 2012.

Both the Republican Caucus chairwoman and the Education Committee chairman say they’d rather let the education reforms they passed this year soak in before pushing controversial legislation that would give parents in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga money to help send their children to different public, charter or private schools.

“We don’t need to be passing it yet,” said Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, the Education Committee chairman who helped halt the legislation last spring. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of other people who feel the same way I do, that it’s a good year to learn as much as we possibly can and see if that’s something we really want to do.”

“We did do a lot last year,” said Rep. Debra Maggart, GOP Caucus chairwoman. “I do think that the voucher conversation is very complicated. … I think you’ll see a good conversation about it.”

Parents would have been able to use taxpayer-funded scholarships, or vouchers, to send their children to schools of their choosing under a bill that stalled last year as the Republican-controlled legislature overhauled teacher tenure, eliminated collective bargaining, opened up the doors to virtual schools and loosened enrollment restrictions on charter schools.

The measure passed in the Senate 18-10 mainly on party lines in the spring, but House Republicans put the brakes on the bill in favor of waiting until 2012 to take it up again.

“I think there are some people who want to say, ‘Let’s cool things down, let’s let things work,’” said Rep. Bill Dunn, who plans to take another stab at the voucher bill next year. “And then I think there’s another camp that says, ‘Hey, we have the momentum going. Let’s go ahead and fix everything that we can.’”

Dunn, R-Knoxville, plans to make the bill more attractive by beefing up accountability requirements on schools accepting students admitted via vouchers and by reducing the state tax dollars that would follow each student out of their district school as they enter another institution.

Although the measure has already cleared the upper chamber, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, has introduced a new piece of legislation to allow school vouchers, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships,” although it currently lacks a House sponsor.

But the House plans to spend most of its time reviewing the reforms it wrote into law last year, said Montgomery, like tweaking the evaluation scores teachers need to earn tenure, reviewing specific pieces of the teacher evaluation reforms and assessing results of the wider charter school provisions.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has for months studied the voucher issue, and he has said he expects to announce his official position before the holiday.

Education Featured

Disagreement Runs Deep Over School Vouchers

The philosophical lines on school vouchers are so distinct and the passions on both sides so pronounced it probably shouldn’t be surprising that even guns in bars crept into the debate on a voucher bill Tuesday in a Tennessee legislative committee.

House Bill 388, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, would provide scholarships and school choice for low-income students in the state’s four largest counties. It was the focus of considerable discussion in the House Education Subcommittee. The issue drew familiar themes of rhetoric, but it was flustered Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who brought guns into the conversation.

Naifeh, no supporter of vouchers, told the subcommittee he had read that 65-70 percent of the people in Tennessee are opposed to vouchers.

“I know that doesn’t mean anything to those that are for vouchers, because a larger percentage of people in this state were against guns in bars also, but that didn’t seem to matter, so I guess this doesn’t seem to matter either,” Naifeh said.

Subcommittee Chairman Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, asked Naifeh to stay on topic. But Naifeh wasn’t holding back on his recent reading.

“I have also read where private schools are really hoping this passes, because enough of them are in financial trouble, and this may be somewhat of a bailout for them,” Naifeh said.

Dunn’s bill won’t go anywhere until the Legislature reconvenes in January, and Tuesday’s discussion was only for study, but he is prepared to bring the voucher bill up next year, and the debate figures to be just as passionate when the action goes live.

Dunn’s bill, called the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act, would give low-income students vouchers — or scholarships as they are called — to attend another school in their district. The opportunity would apply only in the state’s four largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton. Advocates for vouchers see it as an innovative way to help educate children who would like an alternative to their current school. Opponents see it as taking money from public schools and subsidizing private schools.

Metro Nashville Schools Director Jesse Register, representing the school boards in those heavily populated counties, spoke in strong opposition to the bill. Register told lawmakers he supported the reforms recently passed by the General Assembly but he flatly opposed school vouchers.

“Vouchers have been around a long time,” Register said. “There is simply no evidence that private school vouchers work.”

Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr., an at-large member of the Shelby County Board of Education, testified by speakerphone to the subcommittee, advocating vouchers. The Shelby board recently passed a resolution opposing a voucher bill, but Whalum said he will not sign the resolution.

“One reason is I am tired of watching as poor children across our state are continually denied high-quality education because of the behemoth administrative bureaucracy that does more to perpetuate the system than to educate children,” Whalum told the subcommittee. “I assure you the parents I represent would jump at the chance to allow the kids to just have a chance, just have an opportunity at a quality education.”

Whalum said studies opposing school choice vouchers are “inconclusive, at best.”

Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee, wasn’t ready to commit to vouchers.

“I personally am going to be very, very reluctant to support a program like this until we get every bit of information we can possibly get, look at it, evaluate it, and see what the pros and cons are,” Montgomery said. Montgomery had expressed similar discomfort when the bill was considered by the subcommittee in the last session.

The subcommittee also heard from John Husted, secretary of state of Ohio, who was a legislative leader in enacting that state’s EdChoice voucher system. Husted appeared via teleconference.

“I have great respect for what you’re all going through,” Husted told the Tennessee lawmakers. “I was at the beginning of school choice in Ohio, and I know a lot of people question your motives, your motivations, whether you’re a proponent or an opponent.”

Dunn asked his colleagues to consider the way higher education works, where students and their families get to choose the college of their choice and how much better the nation’s colleges stack up in performance when compared to its K-12 schools. Dunn sees that as a strong argument for school choice in the lower grades.

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll found that West Tennesseans believe their local schools are worse than the state norm, while those in Middle and East Tennessee believe their schools are better than the norm.

Education News

School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

Tennessee lawmakers, who approved a slew of sweeping education reforms this spring, hinted this week at the Southern Legislative Conference that they’re not done yet.

The next battle appears to be over school choice.

“It is blatantly unfair that just because a parent doesn’t have the means that another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told TNReport while attending the conference in Memphis, which has drawn lawmakers from 15 states. “I hope we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

The Senate passed a plan in April to offer low-income students in the state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — vouchers to put toward their education at another public school in the district, a charter school or private school.

But leadership in the House refused to advance the bill last session and instead parked the measure in a study committee over the summer. Legislators have yet to tackle that issue, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships.”

The reason for the holdup on the legislation was that House lawmakers weren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with the voucher concept, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, the chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know the impact of what that type of legislation would be, and we need to know that before we start moving forward,” the Sevierville Republican said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is leading the charge for school vouchers, contends that Republicans still have the political will to pass another wave of education reforms despite this year’s contentious debates over removing teachers unions’ collective bargaining leverage, lifting restrictions on charter schools and making teacher tenure harder to earn.

“This is not the time to sit on our laurels,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “I think once the House takes a look at equal opportunity scholarships in particular, they’re going to see how successful it’s been and how popular it is in other states.”

Kelsey’s been teaming up with Michelle Rhee, a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She’s the founder of Students First, a nonprofit seeking to mobilize a national movement to improve education by focusing on good teachers, school choice, smart spending and family involvement.

Rhee, a major proponent of school choice, recently moved to Nashville so her two children can be closer to their father, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“I think the most important thing with any kind of choice, whether it be vouchers, whether it be charter schools, home schools, it has to be around accountability. We have to make sure that the kids are meeting a minimum threshold in terms of their learning gains,” she advised a room full of lawmakers at the legislative conference Sunday.

Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.

Another point of contention is giving families free reign to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.

After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse.

States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.

“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.

Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.

Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry, formerly the Tennessee House speaker pro tem before Republicans swept Democrats to the sidelines, says she’s in favor of school choice and charter schools, but she’s not ready for the state to pass out vouchers — especially once charter school enrollment is opened to all students under the bill the legislature passed.

“I don’t think we need to pass any more reform right now. I think we’ve over-reformed, so I think we just need to see if it’s working,” she said.

Education Featured News

House Approves Collective Bargaining Limitations

The Tennessee House and Senate have approved competing plans overhauling the state’s collective bargaining laws.

But both chambers’ leaders believe they’ll ultimately end up banning unions from negotiating teachers’ labor contracts once everything is said and done.

“I think the vote today indicated that we can get it passed if it’s reasonably drawn and reasonably written. I think we have the opportunity to pass it here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters after she presided over a grueling four-hour debate on her chamber’s floor.

On a 59-39 vote, majority Republicans moved to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Opponents included all the House Democrats, one independent and five Republicans. They pitched more than two dozen alternatives to weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.

One opponent to SB113/HB13o, Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland, wheeled out an easel and poster boards to help illustrate what he thinks collective bargaining has accomplished to aide teachers beyond helping them get better contracts. The system has allowed them to pressure school boards into purchasing additional “instructional supplies” and other educational materials for their classrooms, he said.

A band of Republicans railed against the bill, too. The GOP caucus members who voted against SB113/HB130 included Reps. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Mike Harrison of Rogersville, Dennis “Coach Roach of Rutledge, Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Independent Kent Williams also voted against the anti-collective bargaining legislation. The former state House speaker from Elizabethton hinted during the floor debate that the bill was no more than “political payback” because the Tennessee Education Association gives dramatically more money in campaign contributions to the Democratic Party than they do the GOP.

Republicans maintained that their efforts were solely about improving education in Tennessee, and that ultimately everyone — teachers, students and taxpayers — would benefit from loosening the union’s grip on policy and personnel discussions.

GOP lawmakers said they believe the TEA has become a force of obstructionism in education reform discussions over the years, and that the process of collective bargaining between a school board and a single employee organization to the exclusion of all others thwarts input and exchange of new ideas.

“We have allowed a professional organization to hijack education in our state for their own agenda,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

Far from being an “attack on teachers,” as opponents of the legislation have painted GOP efforts for months this session, SB113/HB130 represents “the most empowering legislation I’ve seen in a long time for teachers,”said Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Eliminating collective bargaining and allowing school boards to consider other viewpoints and voices when drafting new contracts for education professionals “will help (teachers) succeed,” said Lundberg.

Under the House proposal, teachers unions would no longer be able to negotiate salaries, merit pay, use of grant funding, teacher evaluations, personnel decisions along with policies relating to special education programs like virtual school districts.

Unions would, however, still be able to hammer out issues like benefits and staffing decisions.

Powerful Senate Republicans though have said all along they will accept nothing less than a complete repeal of the 1978 Education Professionals Negotiations Act, which mandates that school districts negotiate with a recognized teachers union.

Not only would the Senate prefer no mandate to collective bargaining, but they’d rather teachers and unions “collaborate” with school districts on issues they want to debate on — but ultimately leave those policy decisions entirely up to the school board.

The rest, they say, they’re happy to compromise on.

So what happens now?

The two chambers will likely play a short game of legislative ping-pong where the Senate rejects the House version of the collective bargaining overhaul then the House turns down the Senate version.

Then speakers from both chambers will name three lawmakers to represent the chamber in a conference committee, essentially a compromise group meant to hash out the differences between the two bills.

Harwell said she’d consider naming Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, bill sponsor Debra Maggart of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville to the committee. Although she will make the committee assignments later in the week, it’s unclear whether she’ll swap any of those members for a Democrat as conference committees traditionally included a member of the minority party.

Education Featured News

One Step Forward, Two Back

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge said he didn’t know prior to Tuesday’s House Finance, Ways and Means Committee meeting that he’d want to put off discussing anti-collective bargaining legislation.

But once the Jackson Republican saw that yet another lengthy amendment was being added to an already much-amended bill, it became clear to him that the House Education Committee was better suited to examine the rewrite than the finance committee. So he made a motion to send the bill back from whence it came.

Four other Republicans and nine Democrats backed him and in the process overpowered remaining GOP members of the committee, including GOP House Leader Gerald McCormick, who personally tried, but failed, to kill Eldridge’s motion.

But Eldridge said later his intentions were not to “derail” the push by his fellow GOP lawmakers that’s become the focus of so much attention this session. “My heart led me that way, and I wasn’t trying to kill it, or persuade it or affect it any way,” he said.

Nevertheless, Eldridge’s move brought to the fore the question of whether the effort to repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act has enough support to pass the House this year.

McCormick told reporters Tuesday night he suspects not.

Despite the caucus leader’s perceptions, though, the one higher-ranking Republican in the House, Speaker Beth Harwell, said Wednesday it’s still too early to start writing postmortems for the legislation this year.

Harwell said the bill, HB130, still has a “razor-fine margin” of support and barring any other big surprises on track to ultimately pass.

The House Education Committee is expected next week to consider the new amendment, which closely resembles language in the Senate version of the bill — SB113 which won approval Monday — requiring districts to develop policy manuals on how they decide labor issues. The move kicks the bill two steps backward as it had already passed that committee along with the finance subcommittee.

The legislation also mandates that school boards sit down with teachers and their respective unions to discuss labor contracts, although the school boards would have the final say on what does or does not get implemented. Unions, however, would no longer enjoy de facto veto authority over school policies they oppose.

House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he “has a feeling” the body will OK it despite its highly volatile nature.

“This isn’t about teachers,” Montgomery said. “This is about trying to free up the system so that it operates better and we can all work together better as a team.”

But Montgomery added that he considers it vital to ensure that input from teachers is sought and heard by locally elected school officials.

“At the end of the day we are going to come up with a piece of legislation that I hope will let the teachers feel comfortable that they have a voice,” he said.

The five Republicans who voted to send the bill two steps back in the legislative process all cite different reasons for their actions, ranging purely from not wanting to get their hands dirty navigating through education policies to disagreeing with the underlying motives of the bill, which is the perception among Republicans that the 1978 law mandating local districts negotiate solely with unionized teachers is unfair, unproductive and often unnecessarily antagonistic.

That’s not a view accepted by Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge. Like Maryville Republican Douglas Overbey in the Senate, Roach is with the Democrats on this one, and there’s nothing his fellow Republicans can put in the bill to make him vote for it because he feels the proposal does nothing to improve education or help teachers.

“I can’t support it in any form right now. You add one bad amendment, take off a bad amendment add another bad amendment, it still does the same thing, and what they’re trying to do is the same thing no matter what amendments are on the bill,” said Roach.

Scotty Campbell, of Mountain City, said he’d rather be talking about the government solving persistent unemployment problems and securing disaster-relief funding for his constituents instead of getting sidetracked by thorny debates over the nature and merits of public sector employee unionization.

“We were in the finance committee. I’m not on the education committee. I’m not on the education subcommittee,” said Campbell. “I’m not an education expert, so I voted to refer the legislation back to its proper place.”

Rep. Jim Coley said he voted for the delay not because he’s a teacher and member of the Tennessee Education Association — which is directly affected by the bill — but because the finance committee isn’t equipped to be responsible for the new thrust of the collective bargaining ban.

But the Bartlett Republican said he’s not sure what side of the issue he’ll be on when it’s time for him to vote. And he’s not sure it’ll have enough votes to get to the floor.

“I think the committee is divided. I think you can tell by the vote to send it back to education that there’s some division among Republicans and more unanimity among Democrats,” said Coley. “I think it will be a close vote, either in the committee or on the House floor.”

Education News

House Skips School-Voucher Bill

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was moving right along with discussion of his school-choice legislation in the House Education Subcommittee meeting Wednesday when the panel’s chairman suddenly called for a 10-minute recess.

That recess turned out to be a Republican caucus meeting in the office of Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

And when members returned to the hearing room, a couple Republicans — Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, chairman of the full House Education Committee — expressed their belief that Dunn’s bill ought to be sent to a summer study committee, an oft-used maneuver that puts an issue off for another day yet doesn’t kill the legislation.

The bill, HB388, the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” would allow low-income students in the state’s biggest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — to be given a “scholarship” to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a non-public school.

The bill passed in the Senate last week 18-10.

But in sorting through just who stood where on the bill, the word “comfortable” kept coming up in the House subcommittee discussion.

“I think if we go to the summer study committee, actually look at it, have the opportunity to bring in people from other states who have been shown the success of it, everybody gets more comfortable,” Dunn said after Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s the key word down here. You may have all the facts on your side. You’ve just got to get people comfortable.”

Montgomery said during the proceedings if he had a better “comfort zone,” knowing what impact the measure would have on local school authorities, he could move forward with the bill.

When the Senate voted last week on its version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson of Knoxville abstained, saying she was “a little bit uncomfortable” with the bill because of unanswered questions about the impact on a district like hers.

Kelsey has said he is confident that “once the House studies the issue and feels comfortable with the issue they are going to come to the same conclusion we did in the Senate.”

It appears that in broad terms, state government is testing its own comfort level with where it is on education reform.

The Legislature has taken bold steps, enacting tenure changes for teachers, challenging teachers’ collective bargaining rights, considering lifting limits on charter schools and now entertaining one of the hottest potatoes of school reform — vouchers. It’s hard to see where the education reform train stops or if the concept might actually be slowing down given Wednesday’s move on vouchers.

At one point early in Wednesday’s hearing, during discussion of a bill on licensing non-traditional teachers, Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, blurted out, “I think we’re doing too much reform around here. I think at the end of the year, all the bills will run into each other.”

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for Tennessee Education Association, added later that unionized teachers “are feeling pretty beat down right now.”

“This has been a tough session,”Winters said. “They feel pretty put upon. They feel pretty singled out. And they feel there’s a lot of punitive things happening that are not good for relationships.

“This legislature has burned a lot of bridges.”