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Ramsey: Education Choice ‘Valid, Valuable, Growing in Popularity’

Op-Ed from Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey; August 6, 2012: 

Our Republican majority in the state legislature have reached many of our goals these past two years. I’m very proud of our accomplishments. But there is still much left to do. One example is education reform.

Some might find this surprising. After all, Tennessee won the federal government’s Race to the Top Grant because of our willingness to reform. And reform we have. Tennessee has made truly great strides in education in recent years. Not only have we reformed tenure, we removed the monopoly held by Tennessee’s government employee union over our school boards.

Most recently we have implemented a teacher evaluation system where teachers are reviewed, and thus rewarded, based on their excellence.

We have clearly stayed true to my goal of striving to put a great teacher in every classroom. But there is much more to do.

Earlier this month, I saw a public opinion poll which revealed nearly 60 percent of Tennessee voters support opportunity scholarships (or vouchers as they are sometimes called). These scholarships would allow children who were not blessed to be born wealthy to use the money allocated for their education at a school of their choice.

Governor Bill Haslam currently has a task force hard at work on this issue. They continue to deliberate on how opportunity scholarships can be best implemented in Tennessee. I am eager to review their findings and get to work passing a bill that benefits all of Tennessee.

I was proud when, under the leadership of Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Tennessee Senate passed an opportunity scholarship bill in 2011. Unfortunately, the measure failed in the state House. But whether the bill that ultimately passes both houses ends up looking exactly like the one we passed last year, the important thing to realize is that concept of choice is valid, valuable and growing in popularity.

Many of this state’s schools are failing. By the objective criteria we have at our disposal, we now know there are children in certain counties of our state who are not only not getting the education they deserve — they are getting little, if any, quality education at all.

This is a disturbing realization but it is not one we can easily ignore. As I said, one of my primary goals in public service is to make sure every Tennessee student has a great Tennessee teacher. We can spend all the money we want on grand new school buildings, new computers and the latest in educational software but, at the end of the day, it’s good teachers who make good students.

If children in our failing schools do not believe they have good teachers, who are we to stand in the way of their seeking instruction elsewhere? We cannot continue to make students prisoners of geography. We must apply to education those principles we know work in the economic sphere.

As Republicans, we believe in the free market. We know that competition drives excellence. I believe it is time to infuse those principles, if only in a limited way, into our education system.

Studies have shown opportunity scholarships are successful in boosting graduation rates without draining resources from the public schools. Giving parents a choice and improving public schools can be done simultaneously.

According to a study led by Dr. Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, the District of Columbia’s opportunity scholarship program increased the graduation rate of students who were merely offered vouchers by double-digits. The graduation rate of students that actually used vouchers grew 21%. These are impressive statistics. Coupled with the moral and economic rightness of allowing choice — this is a no brainer.

Tennessee has proved over the past few years that we are a state willing to think boldly when it comes to education reform.

And frankly, we don’t have much choice. Tennessee consistently ranks at the top of the nation’s states in numerous categories. Whatever the measure — be it our low tax rate, our high quality of life or our reputation as the best state in the nation to own and operate a business — Tennessee shines. Our rank among states in education stands in strong contrast. It must be remedied.

Opportunity scholarships would provide hope to the children of this state who most need it. We cannot continue to hover near the bottom of the pack in education. We have taken the first steps in reform — but there is still much left to do.

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Dem Leader Forecasts Partisan Fireworks Over Education Again in 2013

Even though Republicans are lately focused primarily on the federal health care ruling, a top House Democrat expects education will again emerge as the most contentious political issue in next year’s Tennessee Legislature.

Debate about college tuition, charter-school expansion and school choice will be among the hottest of hot-button issues come dead of winter 2013, minority-party caucus chairman Mike Turner predicted this week during a conversation with reporters in Nashville.

And Turner doesn’t seem particularly optimistic his party will fare any better getting its way and protecting its interests than has proven the case in the last two years. During the 2011-2012 Tennessee General Assembly, Democrats failed to successfully defend one of their dearest and most loyal constituencies, unionized teachers, from landmark legislative defeats at the hands of a politically aggressive GOP bent on removing the Tennessee Education Association as an obstacle to majority-party education reforms.

“I don’t think next year is going to get any easier,” Turner said. “They may be better at what they’re doing. Governing is new to them, being in the majority is new to them. God help us all if they get their feet underneath them before we get it back.”

He added, “I think education next year will be a big fight again.”

Gov. Bill Haslam has said his next big issue is indeed higher education. Haslam has said he wants the state to re-evaluate the system’s costs, boost the number of graduates and better weave degrees with Tennessee employers’ needs.

On that particular education issue, and likely few others, Turner hinted that Democrats and Republicans might be able to find some common ground trying to determine how to diminish bloated, upper-level bureaucratic dead weight in the state’s university system.

“Higher ed has got to learn that we are in difficult times. When they cut, they just tend to cut the bottom,” said Turner, a firefighter from Old Hickory who isn’t facing a re-election opponent this year. “They’ve still got their 19 vice presidents and their department heads and above them they’ve got chancellors, and I don’t think they live in the real world up there. If the United States can have one vice president, I’m not sure UT needs 19.”

Such concerns are in fact presently on the minds of some of those attending government-funded colleges. Recently, students at the University of Tennessee launched an online petition drive in Knoxville to protest a $22,000 raise for its chancellor at a time when student tuition is expected to jump an average of $289 per semester.

Nevertheless, Turner characterized the pending evaluation of the costs of higher education as something of “a crisis coming” for college-bound students of low-to-moderate means.

Turner expects the Republican-led Legislature to take another shot at raising the bar on awarding the state-funded Hope Scholarship. Students now need either a score of 21 on the ACT or a 3.0 grade point average.

Haslam last year slid school choice issues to the back burner, asking a panel to study the implications of allowing parents to send their children to private, charter or other public schools outside their local area using a voucher program. The panel is expected to report its findings to the governor this fall.

“I think vouchers will be in play, big time this time,” said Turner. “I think they’re going to push them hard.”

Turner also anticipates a GOP-led push to expand charter schools, which he predicts “will ultimately lead to private re-segregation of the schools.”

Haslam began his first few months in office working to lift the cap on the number of charter schools that can open statewide.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Haslam: Let’s ‘Catch Our Breath’ on Education Reform in ’12

Gov. Bill Haslam says he put the brakes on a proposal to further open up school choice in Tennessee because the concept of vouchers has “too many unanswered questions” and the timing was off.

The plan to allow students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers like scholarships to attend the public, charter or private school of their parents’ choice was one of the most anticipated going into the next year’s legislative session, but the governor shut the door on that last week, saying he’d rather a task force delve into the subject for the next year.

“I didn’t think the timing was right,” the governor told reporters at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Nashville Tuesday. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Give us a chance to catch our breath here,’ which I thought, given everything that’s going on, was a fair request of them.”

The Republican-led legislature this year swept a pile of education reform bills into law, such as making teacher tenure more difficult to earn, eliminating collective bargaining and making it easier for students to enroll in charter schools. Meanwhile, the Department of Education this fall began implementing a new teacher evaluation system.

Although the Senate OK’d the vouchers bill in the spring, the proposal was left behind by House Republican leadership who opted to hold the bill over until 2012.

Haslam’s administration spent months trying to decide where it sat on the idea by studying how vouchers have been used in other states, whether they have worked well and what kind of effect they’ve had.

“We hadn’t really tried to say what would this look like in Tennessee? How much of the state’s money would go? What would be the ramifications of that?” Haslam told reporters.

The issue is now being passed off to a task force made up of education experts and some legislators who are expected to report back next fall — not far from the November election. A spokesman for the governor said his office does not yet know when the task force’s inital meeting will be.

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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.

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Business and Economy Education Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

WSJ: Unholy Alliance of Business, Labor Killed School Vouchers Bill

The Wall Street Journal in an editorial today lambastes Tennessee chambers of commerce and unions for helping squash a bill that would have opened up access to school vouchers for poor students in the large urban school districts.

Senate Bill 485 by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, won approval last month in the Senate but was then sent to a summer study committee by the House, meaning it can’t pass this session.

The Journal lays some of the blame at the feet of the teachers unions but saves the real zingers for the business community, calling out the chambers in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga for opposing the bill:

The Tennessee chambers aren’t nearly as opposed to public money going to private institutions when they receive the checks. A study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research discovered that over the past several years the Chattanooga Chamber has received $450,000 in state and local funds. The Nashville Chamber has received nearly $3 million in taxpayer subsidies.

We doubt a single child of officials in these chambers of commerce attends a school in the poor parts of Memphis or other places where dreams die before high school. Yet these captains of industry are willing to deny that choice to others. Business executives who really want to make the U.S. more competitive ought to stop contributing to lobbies that want to preserve the dreadful status quo.

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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.”

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Education News

Senate Chooses School Vouchers

Republicans approved a plan in the Tennessee Senate Thursday allowing dollars derived from taxpayers to follow low-income students and fund their tuition in the public or non-public schools of their parents’ choosing.

The bill, SB485, would apply only to the state’s four largest counties, including Shelby, Davidson, Hamilton and Knox Counties. It constitutes the state’s first official foray into the realm of school vouchers.

The “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act” passed Thursday allows low-income students to use public funding to attend private, parochial, charter or different public schools, opening up a larger discussion on school choice.

“It’s going to give them more choices of where they want to go to school,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, the bill’s sponsor and a Germantown Republican who for the last four years has been pushing the concept. ”They can take these scholarships to whatever public charter school, whatever parochial school, whatever independent school whatever public school within their own system that they want to go to,”

Gov. Bill Haslam touched on the discussion about school choice earlier this year in proposing that the Legislature allow any student — regardless of income level — to enroll at a charter school. Children from low-income families would still be priority enrollees, according to to the legislation. That proposal is still working its way through the committee system.

Shortly after swearing in as governor, Haslam characterized vouchers as “an interesting concept” but said he wouldn’t make the issue a part of his education agenda.

Senate Republicans approved the measure Thursday 18-10 — capturing just one more vote than the 17 needed to approve legislation — falling mainly on partisan lines with only one Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry, voting in favor.

Four legislators abstained from voting on the bill, including three Republicans — among them, outgoing Speaker Pro Tem Jamie Woodson of Knoxville, who is slated to head up the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a non-profit now led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“We don’t really have clear information on what it means when significant populations of children leave a system. And we don’t know for sure that that will even happen, but because we don’t know those answers right now, I was a little bit uncomfortable voting for it today,” she told TNReport, adding that she still has “very good feelings” about the bill.

SCORE hasn’t taken a position on the bill, but a spokesman said the organization believes choice is an important piece of any comprehensive education reform.

The other lawmakers who declined to vote on the bill were Republicans Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville and Sen. Ken Yager of Harriman and Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate.

Top Republicans say they favor the idea of school choice, although House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick said his chamber is running out of time to advance its copy of the bill, adding “I don’t know that we’re in an urgent rush to get that done.”

The measure now sits in the House Education Subcommittee which is scheduled to hear the last 37 bills on the agenda next Wednesday before shutting down for the year.

Democrats argued the arrangement would draw too much money out of the traditional public school system. Every time a student takes the scholarship and moves on to a different school, half the government dollars allocated to educating that student will stay with the local school district. The other half of those funds follow them to their new school.

The voucher bill is another one of several “divisive ideas that get us nowhere,” Sen. Andy Berke, a high-ranking Senate Democrat, said on the Senate floor.

“It seems to me it’s not going to be a windfall for that school system,” he said. “They’ve got to come up with the money from somewhere.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said she’s not worried about using government dollars to pay for the students’ private or alternative school experience because parents will keep the schools in check.

“Keep in mind, that parent is a tax payer and that’s their child,” said Harwell reacting to questions about how to keep private institutions honest if they receive public dollars. “If they care enough to make an active choice in where their child attends school, I suspect they’re going to hold a high standard there as well.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who said he was under the impression that the House version of the bill would have no problem advancing, said he’d personally work on making sure the bill survives the last committee meeting next week.

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Education Featured News

No More Waiting: Huffman Named Haslam’s Top Education Official

Gov. Bill Haslam has often positioned himself as a supporter of bold innovation in the realm of education reform.

The Republican governor has also said that in order to “capitalize on the momentum that exists right now in education,” his administration will energetically institute the “First to the Top” K-12 reforms initiated in 2010 by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee General Assembly. That bipartisan legislative effort positioned Tennessee to later win $501 million from the U.S. Department of Education as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program designed to entice states to adopt higher education standards.

On Thursday, after a nationwide search, the governor named a prominent national advocate of bold and dynamic education reform efforts to oversee the state’s public schools and serve as the governor’s point man on “First to the Top.”

Kevin Huffman, an executive with the Teach for America program, is the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. He replaces Patrick Smith, who had been serving as interim commissioner.

“There is a national conversation going on right now about how to improve our schools and how to ensure that American kids can compete with kids anywhere in the world,” Huffman told reporters gathered for his introductory press conference Thursday. “Tennessee is at the epicenter of that conversation. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m excited to take this job.”

Huffman’s experiences and accomplishments with the innovation-focused Teach for America, where he worked for the past 11 years, uniquely qualify him to lead the department, said Haslam.

The governor said that in the process of searching the country for suitable candidates for the post, he discovered that education experts everywhere are paying close attention to what’s happening in Tennessee.

“At the end of the day I chose Kevin for three reasons,” said Haslam. “Number one, he is committed to the idea that every child can learn. Number two, he understands that having great teachers in the classroom, and great principals in the school, are the key. And he is going to do everything he can to encourage those great teachers to be in the classrooms in Tennessee. Third, is this: He understands a lot of the great things that are happening in Tennessee and wants to be a part of continuing that momentum.”

Teach for America places ambitious young teachers in troubled American classrooms where they commit themselves to “going above and beyond traditional expectations” in order to inspire students to learn. Tennessee currently has more than 250 Teach for America members reaching 18,000 students in high-need public schools, according to the state education department.

Launched in 1990, Teach for America has “become one of the nation’s largest providers of teachers for low-income communities” and is dedicated to “building a pipeline of leaders committed to educational equity and excellence,” the organization’s website says. Teach for America founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp, wrote in a September 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “We are the top employer of graduating seniors at over 40 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Spelman and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”

Huffman, who was Teach for America’s vice president for public affairs and a member of the 28,000-strong organization’s “leadership team” before accepting his new assignment, is taking the job of education commissioner in the middle of a rancorous debate between the state’s powerful teachers’ union and politically energized GOP lawmakers, the most contentious aspect of which is a battle over a Republican proposal to prohibit local Tennessee school districts from engaging in collective bargaining with union negotiators.

The governor is also leading an effort to expand opportunities for children to enroll in charter schools, as well as lengthen the time a teacher has to work in a public school before becoming eligible for tenure — an idea that, while worrisome to some teachers, is popular among Tennesseans, according to a recent MTSU poll.

Huffman, who accepted the position on Wednesday, said Thursday he had not had a chance yet to meet with the Tennessee Education Association.

Asked if he believes the state needs to end collective bargaining with teachers, Huffman wouldn’t say. He said his priorities are aligned with those already articulated by Haslam, who himself has thus far refused to publicly jump in the middle of the collective bargaining brouhaha.

“I’m excited about the focus on tenure reform,” said Huffman. “I’m excited about the opportunity to bring in high-performing charter schools. I’m excited about the chance to improve the level of performance of administrators, teachers and students across the state.”

Huffman was also asked about the state’s pre-K program. Haslam has staked out a position that the state would try to maintain the pre-K program it currently has, but he does not wish to expand it to a universal program.

“My thought isn’t that different than it is on K-12,” Huffman said. “It’s got to be academically focused and focused on measurable results.

“Simply having access to a program that doesn’t actually advance learning isn’t good enough. But every kid should have access to something that readies them to go into kindergarten on an equal playing field. It’s important to look at the outcomes, not just what the access is.”

Huffman has been quite clear in the past that he supports much of what marches under the “school-choice” reform banner.

“In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school,” Huffman wrote recently in the Washington Post — where, incidentally, in 2009 Huffman won the paper’s America’s Next Great Pundit Contest.

“But if you are poor,” Huffman continued, “you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment ‘choice’ school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.”

He further declared in the Post piece, which appeared Jan. 31:

The intellectual argument against school choice is thin and generally propagated by people with myriad options. If we let the most astute families opt out of neighborhood schools, the thinking goes, those schools lose the best parents and the best students. The children stuck behind in failing schools really get hurt.

But kids are getting hurt right now, every day, in ways that take years to play out but limit their life prospects as surgically as many segregation-era laws. We can debate whether lying on school paperwork is the same as refusing to move to the back of the bus, but the harsh reality is this: We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who has himself taken a keen interest in Tennessee education reform, issued a statement Thursday applauding Haslam’s selection of Huffman.

“Kevin Huffman is exactly the type of reform-minded individual that Tennessee needs to lead its public school system,” Frist said.

“Kevin’s experience in the classroom, in education law, and in leadership at one of our nation’s most innovative education organizations give him the unique knowledge and background to make a significant positive impact on behalf of our state’s children.”

Huffman is originally from Ohio. He’s worked as a lawyer specializing in education matters and was a bilingual first- and second-grade teacher for Teach for America in Houston. He was previously married to Michelle Rhee, a prominent school reformer who was featured in the film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which a number of Tennessee General Assembly members watched during a special screening at Legislative Plaza last month.

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Business and Economy Education Featured News

Superkids Waiting

Look! Look! Up on the screen!

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

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

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

Another Inconvenient Truth

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

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

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

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

Wanna Be Your Superhero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform Eradicators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kryptonite Sold Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Legislative Locomotive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Education News

School Choice Bill Stuck In Senate Committee

A pilot program that would have given some poor parents in Memphis the money to transfer their children to private schools stalled in a Senate committee last week, even as it moved with support from Shelby  County Democrats in the House.

The bill would have taken Tennessee a step closer to expanding school choice, a growing issue of debate as the state increases its number of charter schools that take on students from struggling families or with poor grades.

“I think that any special interest group that wants to come forward and oppose this should be ashamed, should be ashamed that they’re not looking out for these children,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who presented the bill before the Senate Education Committee.

“They should be ashamed that they’re putting their interests ahead of allowing these children to receive the opportunities that they deserve. They deserve a quality education, too, and they shouldn’t be punished because they live in a poor neighborhood,” he said.

The pilot program would target three failing schools in Memphis — an elementary, middle and a high school. Parents with an income up to two and one half times the federal free or reduced lunch benchmark could be given a scholarship to remove their child from the failing school to another institution.

“A parental choice scholarship program would put decision-making back in the hands of parents, allowing them to take control of their children’s education,” according to a policy brief from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank based in Nashville.

The bill, called the “Parental Choice Scholarship Act,” got hung up on a 3-3 vote Wednesday. Committee members voted along strict party lines — Republicans for and Democrats against. The measure needed five total “yes” votes to pass, according to Senate Rules.

Three members of the committee opted out of the vote. Representatives abstaining included Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate along with Republicans Rusty Crowe, of Johnson City, and Bill Ketron, from Murfreesboro.

The measure would have pulled as much as $3.9 million from Memphis public schools via vouchers and allowed low-income parents to direct that money to charter, private or other public schools where they would prefer their children attend.

Opponents of the measure balked at that.

“This is about those $4 million that will be taken out of Memphis City schools,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “Accordingly, I’ll be casting a vote no, and instead thinking that there are ways we can be moving education forward rather than backward.”

The whole concept behind this bill is taking public education dollars and sending them to private and parochial schools, according to the state teachers’ union, which is adamantly against the school-choice bill. The union argues it is unconstitutional because it would give money to Catholic or other private religious schools.

“Where choice comes in, there’s an old saying: ‘If you don’t want your child to swim in a public swimming pool, fine. But don’t expect the government to build a pool in your back yard,'” said Jerry Winters, director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association.

The measure will stay in committee, however members do not expect to meet again this legislative session.

A partner bill circulating in the House of Representatives had better success. It was OK’d in the Government Operations Committee Wednesday on a 9-4 vote and now heads to the Education Committee.

“Whether this bill passes or not…there are a lot of issues about education that we’ve got to talk about,” said Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who is sponsoring the bill in the House. “And we’ve got to talk about the parents’ right to send their children to schools where they know they can be educated, rather than where a bunch of pencil pushers want to send them because their numbers aren’t working out very well.”

The purpose of the bill is to get children out of failing schools, and to give parents who can’t afford it the ability to send their children to better schools, said Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, who voted for the bill.

“It’s not dealing from the outside in, it is really dealing from the inside out — and giving them the opportunity that if their families want to get them out of the school, and have another opportunity for them, it is giving them that advantage,” she said.

Voting against the bill were Democrats Karen Camper of Memphis, Lois. DeBerry of Memphis, House Democratic party Leader Gary Odom of Nashville and Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory.

Memphis Democrats Mike Kernel, G.A. Hardaway and Barbara Cooper joined Republicans on the committee who voted in favor of it.