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Legislature May Reach School Choice Accord in 2013

One of the GOP’s strongest advocates of school choice in Tennessee believes the political environment may be ripe for passing voucher or “opportunity scholarships” legislation next year.

Germantown Sen. Brian Kelsey said he’s hopeful that the governor-appointed task force report released late last month will provide the foundation for a policy that can gain support in both chambers of the Republican-run Tennessee General Assembly.

In the past, legislation giving parents access to taxpayer-funded scholarships for sending their children to private schools has passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Kelsey said he expects Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration officials to play a central role in education policy discussions related to school-choice vouchers in the coming months, and that that could have the effect of comforting Republicans who’ve been hesitant to jump on board with the experiment.

“House members were not familiar with this concept back in 2011 when we first presented it to them,” said Kelsey. “House members are much more comfortable with the idea of giving low-income children more options.”

Kelsey sees more scholarship money being available for kids, and also pointed to a growing consensus that any voucher law should apply to all 95 counties, not just the four counties with the highest number of low-income students, which was a plank of the 2011 bill.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said the state Senate again will work aggressively to pass a law on school vouchers.

“It’s blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure simply because of the zip code they’re born in, and their parents, if they choose, ought to have a choice,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “I’m in favor of it, and I think you will see the Senate take the lead in that.”

He also criticized public school officials who have been opposing vouchers.

“It’s not going to hurt public education. It’s really not. It’s just that they don’t want competition,” he said. “They throw up every red flag, every red herring they possibly can as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t want competition.’”

Voucher programs in the state have faced heavy opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, who served on the governor’s nine-member opportunity scholarship task force, said he has “no idea” what shape legislation may ultimately take. He said, though, that he thinks any child accessing tax dollars to go to private school ought to face the same testing that public school children undergo to gauge their achievement progress.

“I feel very strongly about that,” Nixon said.

Nixon said he could see himself supporting a voucher program in Tennessee if it is limited to lower-income children and is used as “another arrow in the quiver for students in low-performing schools to have an opportunity to improve their education and outcomes.”

He said he does not favor opening vouchers up for all students in the government’s school system.

“I am a public school educator. I believe in public schools,” he said.

Opportunity scholarships are apparently popular with Tennessee voters. Nearly 60 percent of them support school vouchers, according to a survey released jointly over the summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, both supporters of school choice.

Trent Seibert and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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Education Featured

Bypassing Locals on Charters Looking More Likely: Harwell

If the Tennessee legislature approves a statewide authorizer for charter schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell said that charter students’ test scores — and the per-student money to educate those children — would flow away from local school districts into the state system.

“Those children’s test scores would come out from the local school system and be counted in the state system — not the local,” Harwell told TNReport in an interview at her office Thursday. “In addition, the money would (follow the students) as well.”

As it stands now, charter school students’ scores are counted with the government-run district schools. And although public money follows the student even if he attends a charter school, it is common for the government-run public school to take a slice of that money for administrative overhead.

A statewide authorizer for charter schools may change that scenario, based on Harwell’s comments.

Momentum appears to be building for the legislature to create such an authorizer, which would serve as a place where the non-profit charters could go to get approval to start teaching.

Triggering this momentum was the Metro Nashville schools’ decision last month to ignore state orders to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district. The board of the Metro Nashville Public Schools contends that the first of five proposed schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

Officials for Great Hearts have told TNReport that, despite the denials, they are in Nashville for the long haul and are still hoping they can open five schools in the metro area.

Harwell indicated that there may be a scenario in which local school boards retain control over authorizing charter schools.

“We want to work with our local school boards,” Harwell said. “We are willing to do that and want to do that, but not at the detriment of our children.”

Trent Seibert can be reached trent@TNReport.com, at Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Education Featured

Great Hearts Gearing Up for Legislative Fight

Great Hearts Academies, whose application for a charter school was denied by the Metro Nashville Public Schools board, is in Nashville for the long haul, a spokesman told TNReport this week.

And lobbyists for the Arizona-based nonprofit will by no means be playing hookey from the Tennessee Legislature during the 2013 legislative session.

“The Nashville board’s disregard of the truth and repeated defiance of state law illustrates why an impartial Tennessee charter school authority is needed,” Great Hearts attorney Ross Booher said. “Since the governor and legislature gave all children the freedom to attend public charter schools, the board apparently now fears that many more parents and children will choose public schools that the board does not completely control.”

Booher: “If Tennessee puts in place an impartial state charter authority, Great Hearts would re-apply to that authority.”

The idea of creating a statewide authority that would give the OK to charter schools likely to become the next hot-button education reform issue at the Capitol.

Great Hearts is still hoping to ultimately open five schools in the Metro Nashville area, Booher said.

Booher also weighed in on the Metro school board’s decision to boot the Great Hearts charter application.

“The board has a major conflict of interest. It is desperately trying to stem the tide of public charter schools that it sees as its direct competition when it should be embracing innovation and partnerships that provide children with additional school options,” Booher said. “Allowing parents to freely choose the public school that is best for their individual child is the ultimate in local control.”

The company, headquartered in Phoenix, was mired in controversy during its long-running battle with the Nashville school board as it tried to open a West Nashville charter school.

Critics said that the Great Hearts school would lack diversity and would not provide adequate transportation for students.

“Any suggestion of that is just completely baseless,” Booher said. “It’s not borne out by the facts at all. When you look at the plan that Great Hearts had for Nashville … it exceeded what Metro does for its own students at schools of choice.

Trent Seibert can be reached at Trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Education News

Both Sides in Clash Over Union Power Look to Haslam for Support

On a day when 3,000 or more unionized Tennessee teachers and their supporters marched on Legislative Plaza in the rain, Gov. Bill Haslam refused Saturday night to get into the fray over a bill to end collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and local school districts.

Haslam is for now sticking strictly to his own education agenda, which includes changing the state’s tenure system for teachers.

“We, from the very beginning, put the things forward that we thought could make the most difference in the classroom, and I’ve said that repeatedly, and I’ll continue to say that,” Haslam said at a Republican Party Reagan Day dinner in Rutherford County.

Haslam referred to “name-calling” on both sides of the collective bargaining issue, the most contentious of several GOP-sponsored legislative efforts in the General Assembly right now that have drawn union ire.

“Obviously, there is a lot of disagreement about the collective bargaining issues and name-calling on both sides, and we want to be on the side of the people who are solving problems. And we’re going to continue to do that — the things that we think will impact the classroom the most.”

It wasn’t clear, however, if the governor knew he’d himself been nicknamed “Mister Rogers” by one speaker at a much smaller tea party rally at the Capitol earlier in the day.

Raymond Baker, a former Republican political consultant, was critical of Haslam, whom he views as too soft to be counted on in a bare-knuckle political brawl with the powerful teachers’ union.

“Bill Haslam, where are you? Where are you?” Baker asked.

“Speaker (Beth) Harwell, where are you?” he added.

Baker then reeled off the names of other states’ GOP governors battling public employee unions or actively leading on issues important to conservative Republicans.

“Here’s the deal. Wisconsin got Scott Walker. Florida got Rick Scott. South Carolina got Nikki Haley. Arizona got Jan Brewer. We got Mister Rogers,” Baker said. “You cannot govern Tennessee like it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

After his remarks to the tea party crowd, Baker said Haslam is prone to give in on the issue.

“He is completely non-confrontational. He is a compromiser,” Baker said. “He has met with the TEA and cut a compromise deal with them that will still allow for collective bargaining while claiming that it doesn’t. He simply doesn’t have the backbone to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee.”

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who sponsors SB113, the collective bargaining bill in the Senate, attended the tea party event and said Haslam has done nothing to force any sort of compromise on the issue.

“I think Gov. Haslam has a broad agenda, and reforming education is one of the biggest parts of his agenda as a new governor,” Johnson said. “I think he is going to work with us in the General Assembly.

“There has been no discussion whatsoever of any type of compromise. That discussion may happen at some point. We are talking frequently about his agenda and our agenda and how we can help each other. There have been no discussions about compromise or what the bill will ultimately end up looking like. I just know he is very supportive, and we’re very supportive of him.”

Tennessee’s issues, for the moment at least, are limited mostly to teachers, but Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the GOP will likely target other quarry if they’re successful now.

“If they get the teachers, they’re coming after the firefighters. If they get the firefighters, they’re coming after the police officers. If they get the police officers, they’re coming after the construction workers, service workers and everybody,” said Turner, a board officer for the Tennessee Fire Fighters Emergency Relief Fund

“I’ve been preaching for years that if you let the Republicans get in charge this is what you’re going to get, and this is what we’ve got.”

Turner publicly urged Haslam to “please stop this terrorism against our teachers.”

Haslam has steadfastly refused to pick sides over collective bargaining. He has said there will be “twists and turns” as the legislative process continues, but he has refused to voice his opinion on the legislation, hewing instead to his priorities of extending the probationary period on tenure and opening up the education system to more charter schools.

Increasingly, whether lawmakers institute a ban on collective bargaining appears to be coming down to the degree of Republican support in the House.

“I know we’ve got a number of Republican House members who support our position,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the TEA.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘Who are they?’ Obviously they don’t particularly want to say on the front end. But it’s a moving target, and we’re waiting to see what it’s going to look like. This is not just going to go down Democrat and Republican lines.”

Winters said he thinks it’s a good sign for the union that Haslam is avoiding taking a public position on the bills they oppose.

“I certainly don’t consider the governor a foe. I think the fact that he is not taking a position in support of these really divisive bills is very much to his credit,” Winters said. “He wants to get off to a good start. We want him to get off to a good start. And I think it’s very much to his credit that’s he’s staying out of this right now.

“I think it’s just unbelievable that this many teachers turned out on a stormy rainy day to show their concerns about what’s happening in this Capitol. I’m just ecstatic we had this kind of turnout.”

Turner told the crowd of teachers he had heard what was going on at the tea party event Saturday.

“They were bashing the man who could stop this tomorrow. They were talking about Gov. Bill Haslam like he was a Democrat. If he wants to join us, we’ll welcome him. We’ve got room for him,” Turner said.

“I hope he’s listening today. I hope he’s watching this. He’s from a position of wealth and privilege. I don’t know if he understands what it’s like to go through things we go through to raise our children and earn a living. But I do know this. He’s a good man. He’s reached out to us in the Legislature. He’s trying to do the right thing. But he has the power to stop this madness now.”

Several Democratic legislators took part in the teachers rally, which cast Republican efforts on education as nothing more than political payback after the GOP made historic gains in the last election.

Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, addressed the crowd and claimed Republicans are attempting to get revenge over issues surrounding union campaign contributions. The TEA typically gives much more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“I’ve only been here two years, but I can promise you it’s a much more partisan, much more toxic situation than it has been since I’ve been here,” Stewart said.

“This legislation that’s been brought up, in my honest opinion, is much more about revenge than it is about reform. It’s much more about payback than it is about progress. Unfortunately, folks, I have to tell you, I honestly believe it’s much more about the cash than it is about the kids.”

The Tea Party event speakers included longtime activist Ben Cunningham, former Republican state representative Susan Lynn and former congressional Republican candidate Lou Ann Zelenik. Johnson also addressed the crowd.

Tammy Kilmarx, president of Tennessee Tea Party, said before the event that her group is the one trying to protect teachers.

“We are trying to show support to our legislators that are trying to stand for what the taxpayers elected them for,” she said. “We’re here to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee, because they are the ones that are having to pay for the unions to do what they do.

“The big union bosses make a ton of cash. I think most of the teachers don’t even understand where their dues are going.”