Education Featured NewsTracker

Haslam Promises ‘Full Vetting’ of Common Core as Teachers Appear to Sour on Standards

A new survey gauging the mood of Tennessee public school educators indicates a growing number are casting a jaundiced eye toward the state’s controversial English and math standards assessment program.

The survey, conducted by Peabody College at Vanderbilt University, shows that in 2014 only 39 percent of teachers support Common Core. That’s a significant drop from the 60 percent who voiced support in 2013.

Conservative Republicans have long been aiming criticism at Common Core, which is advocated by the National Governors Association and the Obama administration. But the Vanderbilt survey would seem to indicate suspicion of the program is spreading roots across Tennessee’s political landscape.

Last week Gov. Bill Haslam indicated he favors a “full vetting” of Common Core going forward in order to “let people have a chance to talk very specifically about what they like and what they don’t like about those standards.”

“We’re going to, on a very specific basis, look at the standards,” Haslam told reporters on a conference call Thursday. The standards have been in place for four years, long enough now to have an informed discussion about what “might be lacking,” he said.

But the governor indicated that while he hasn’t yet fully analyzed the survey in detail, a cursory examination doesn’t lead him to believe the results indicate an irreversible entrenchment of opposition to Common Core among teachers. There were “several reasons” for why the teachers voiced opposition to the standards, Haslam said.

“Some of those had to do with the use of that data for evaluations, which is really a separate issue than standards; some of it had to do with the amount of testing that happens in our schools, which really has nothing to do with Common Core; and some of it is teachers saying, ‘I’m not certain these are the right standards to teach,'” Haslam said.

According to the findings of the survey, in its second year of existence and completed by about 10,000 teachers in both rounds, there was “no single, simple explanation for this shift,” though a strong connection between opposition and poor implementation of standards was apparent. Also, teachers unhappy with evaluations were found to be more likely to oppose the standards, as were teachers unhappy with their career.

However, the survey showed no apparent connection between opposition to the standards and poor student response in the classroom. Likewise, response bias was not found to be “an important factor.”

But while the survey findings support Haslam’s view that evaluations and assessments likely play a big role in teacher dissatisfaction, he still reiterated the comments made to reporters following his education summit last week — the standards need a “full vetting,” which represents a departure from his stance earlier this year: a delay in the implementation of the standards would slow the momentum of the state’s improvement.

“You hear everything from standards are too difficult to they’re too easy, and what we’re committed to doing is to get a full vetting of those standards,” Haslam said. “And then get a chance to make certain that we have the right things in place.”

Press Releases

Ball Pushes Lamar for Response on Amendment 1 Vote

Press Release from the Gordon Ball for U.S. Senate Campaign, July 18, 2014:

Sen. Lamar Alexander was asked a simple question yesterday by Gordon Ball, democratic candidate for US Senate, on Fox Memphis 13. “How was Lamar going to vote on Amendment 1 when he returned from Washington?”

Alexander has declined to respond to media requests or to the candidate.

“This extreme amendment would give legislators unbridled control over what women can do with their bodies after they have been raped, victims of incest or if their lives are in jeopardy,” Ball said. “Private healthcare decisions should be made by a woman with her family, her faith and her doctor.”

A recent poll by Vanderbilt University revealed that more than 70 percent of Tennesseans are opposed to Amendment 1.

“This sets a dangerous precedent for women’s healthcare,” Ball added.”I asked a fair question, and believe Tennesseans deserve a straight answer. Lamar is a darling of the special interest PACs funding this attack on women’s rights, so he should be happy to explain why he is willing to force his ideological will on victims of rape and incest and women fighting for their lives.”

Press Releases

Haslam Announces Statewide Program to Produce ‘Highly-trained Principals’

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; October 29, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced a new preparation program to build a pipeline of highly-trained principals for schools across the state.

The state will work with Vanderbilt University and local districts to nominate, select and train up to 30 participants a year in the school leadership program.

The program is aimed at closing achievement gaps in lower performing schools and maintaining high levels of achievement for all students.

“Principals are responsible for hiring and retaining great teachers, being the instructional leaders of their schools, creating positive learning environments and managing complex operations within their buildings,” Haslam said. “Successful organizations have great leaders at the top, and one of the most important things we can do to transform our schools is to have each one led by a great principal.”

“Tennessee has many great principals already, and we want even more,” Haslam added. “There are also some important efforts already underway in the state around principal preparation, but I want to thank Vanderbilt University for working with us on this significant step toward using an innovative approach to strengthen education in Tennessee.”

Local districts will nominate candidates for the program and provide placement during the program as assistant or associate principals with effective principal mentors.

Vanderbilt University, which has the No. 1 ranked education school in the country in Peabody College, will combine in-person and online instruction with mentor training and a school-based clinical experience to train future school leaders.

“Tennessee has become a test-bed for school improvement, and Peabody College has long been a resource for leadership practices in education,” said Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Peabody. “We are excited to engage with promising school leaders statewide to help close achievement gaps and strengthen Tennessee schools.”

The program will use identified best practices and promote the use of these practices in other existing leadership preparation programs.

Press Releases

Dunn Questions Cost-Effectiveness of Pre-K in TN

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; August 5, 2013:

(NASHVILLE) — Last week, researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University released findings of their 2013 pre-kindergarten study – a research effort dedicated to detailing the effects of pre-kindergarten on the long-term academic success of Tennessee students.

The findings show that by the end of kindergarten “the differences between participants and non-participants were no longer statistically significant”, except in one case where the children who did not attend Pre-K actually outperformed those who did.

“Tennesseans were told that Pre-K would increase graduation rates and even prevent 80 murders and 6,400 aggravated assaults each year,” said State Representative Bill Dunn (R–Knoxville), citing Pre-K advocate literature. “I truly hope people will recognize this was all very expensive hype.”

According to estimates, the total cost of implementing a full-scale Pre-K program in Tennessee would exceed $460 million per year.

“If you do a cost-benefit analysis on this extremely expensive program, you will come to the conclusion that it is like paying $1,000 for a McDonald’s hamburger,” Dunn continued. “It may make an initial dent on your hunger, but it doesn’t last long and you soon realize you could have done a lot more with the money spent.”

Instead, Dunn called for shifting resources to places that have shown to have a real impact on students, like having a great teacher in front of every classroom.

“Our teachers have stepped up with the new educational reforms that have been initiated and have shown improvement on annual test scores for three years in a row. For all of this hard work, I think they should be rewarded,” concluded Dunn.

Bill Dunn serves as Chairman of the House Calendar & Rules Committee. He lives in Knoxville and represents District 16, which includes a portion of Knox County.

Business and Economy Featured Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Vanderbilt Should Voluntarily End ‘All Comers’ Policy: Haslam

People are right to condemn Vanderbilt University for concocting an anti-discrimination policy that seems prejudiced against students seeking to assemble with others who share their religious beliefs, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Thursday.

But Haslam said he still plans to veto a controversial bill the state Legislature passed recently that prohibits public colleges from enacting so-called “all comers” rules that require groups using campus facilities to accept as members and leaders anyone who expresses interest in joining, regardless of whether they embrace the group’s mission and values. The sticking point for Haslam is that the legislation also specifically includes Vanderbilt, a private university that accepts millions in state taxpayer dollars to provide medical care to the poor.

Conservatives who value limited government should resist assuming government has the legitimate authority to dictate operating policies to private establishments, said Haslam.

“I think Vanderbilt should do away with the policy. I don’t think it makes sense. I don’t think it’s fair. I really don’t,” he told reporters after a ceremonial bill signing at Brick Church Middle School in Nashville Thursday.

“But I don’t think the remedy for that is the state telling them, as a private institution, what they should do,” Haslam said.

Three dozen members of Congress — including four from Tennessee — sent a letter to the university urging it to abandon the “all comers” policy. The letter said the members, who belong to the Congressional Prayer Caucus, “are deeply troubled that Vanderbilt would use its freedom as a private institution to create a nondiscrimination policy that discriminates against religious student groups.”

Leadership at the university is “two-faced on this issue,” said Rep. Bill Dunn who sponsored language in the bill singling out Vanderbilt’s policy.

“In my view, they don’t really mind if this protects religious groups. But if this affects their fraternities and sororities, they might actually feel some pain,” said Dunn, a Knoxville Republican.

As of this posting, Haslam has yet to veto the bill, HB3597, although he told reporters Thursday “I haven’t changed my mind.” The hold up, he said, was the bill took a while to land on his desk. According to the General Assembly’s website, the legislation was sent to the governor Wednesday.

Education Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Bill to Thwart ‘All Comers’ Policies Moves Forward

Religious student organizations in Tennessee would be free to require that their leaders, or members, hold certain beliefs under legislation passed unanimously by the Senate Education Committee.

The bill, SB3597 brought by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, comes in response to a controversial Vanderbilt University nondiscrimination policy. The “all comers” rule mandates that groups must allow anyone to join and that all members be eligible for leadership roles.

As amended by the committee, Beavers’ bill would prohibit the state’s Board of Regents or any school in the University of Tennessee system from implementing such a policy.

Another amendment, proposed by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville, would have applied the bill to any school participating in the lottery scholarship program, including private institutions, and punished nonconforming institutions by making them ineligible for those funds. The proposal drew strong opposition from outgoing Chattanooga Democrat Sen. Andy Berke, who said it would prevent him from supporting the bill. Eventually, Kelsey withdrew the amendment.

Beavers’ bill now heads to the Senate floor. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, is on the House Education Committee’s calendar next week.

Press Releases

TCPR: Many Benefits Would Result from Restricting ‘Lawsuit Abuse’

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, March 1, 2011:

NASHVILLE, TN – Tennesseans can expect to see job growth, more affordable health care insurance, greater access to health care (particularly in rural counties), decreases in property/casualty rates, and a more predictable civil justice system should lawmakers pass much-needed lawsuit abuse reform, a panel of legal experts recently stated at a public education forum held on the campus of Vanderbilt University.

The three-member panel of James Blumstein, a law professor at Vanderbilt University; Ted Frank, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Charlie Ross, a former State Senator in Mississippi, presented their perspectives on how Tennessee businesses and citizens would benefit from lawsuit abuse reform, or tort reform. Their experiences are based on before-and-after findings in states where reform has passed, as well as academic research discussed in a newly released white paper called Lawsuit Abuse Reform in the Volunteer State.

Panelists agreed that Tennessee’s current civil justice system is both inconsistent and unsustainable. Senator Ross, who successfully led lawsuit abuse reform efforts in Mississippi, said “Reform brought more predictability to our civil court system. Our objective was never to take away the right of someone to file a lawsuit; our objective was to create more balance, and we did that.”

Other key points included:

  • Based on reforms in other states, lawsuit abuse reform could result in 30,000 jobs a year or 577 jobs each week in Tennessee.
  • Reform could mean 67,000 more Tennesseans would have health insurance.
  • Reform means greater access to medical care, particularly in rural counties.
  • Reform could lead to legal settlements that are more in line with actual harm done.

Representatives for Focus577, a recently launched campaign to educate citizens about the need for reform in civil lawsuits, say lawsuit abuse reform is quickly becoming a hot topic for the Tennessee General Assembly. The goal of Focus577, named for the potential of 577 new jobs created each week through reform, is to educate Tennesseans of the positive legal and economic impact that lawsuit abuse reform has had in other states.

February’s forum was sponsored by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan think tank committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee. For a detailed account of the forum, see the Tennessee Report at

Through research and advocacy, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research promotes policy solutions grounded in the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. For more information about lawsuit abuse reform, visit or

Press Releases

Vanderbilt Research Group Releases New Pre-K Study

Press Release from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute, Feb. 24, 2011:

Children who attended state-funded prekindergarten classes gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not attend, researchers from the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University have found.

The initial results are from the first rigorous longitudinal study that has been conducted on the effects of public prekindergarten attendance on a statewide scale.

“This research is difficult to do but critically important to evaluating the effects of Tennessee’s investment in pre-k,” study leaders Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran said. “Such evidence is especially important in the context of the current budgetary constraints in Tennessee and other states that have made commitments to pre-k education.”

For the study, 23 schools in 14 Tennessee school districts randomly admitted children to their pre-k program. All of the schools received applications from more students than they could accommodate. The children admitted to pre-k were then compared to the children whose families applied but were not admitted. A total of 303 children were involved in this phase of the study.

Assessments at the beginning and end of the prekindergarten year found that the pre-k children had a 98 percent greater gain in literacy skills than children who did not attend a state pre-k program, a 145 percent greater gain in vocabulary and a 109 percent greater gain in comprehension. They also made strong, but more moderate, gains in early math skills (33 percent to 63 percent greater gains). Overall, the average gain across the board was 82 percent more than for the children who did not attend state pre-k.

Results from a second parallel study corroborated these findings. That study compared 682 children who attended 36 pre-k classes in rural and urban middle Tennessee schools to 676 children who had to enter a year later because of the birth date cutoff for pre-k eligibility.

The second study also found that children enrolled in state-funded pre-k classes scored significantly higher on emergent literacy and math assessments than the children who had not yet attended pre-k once the age difference was accounted for.

The strongest differences were again in the areas of literacy and language skills, with more modest gains in math skills.

Both studies will continue collecting data for the next four years. The second study will continue collecting data in waves across the state until every region is represented.

“These studies were possible only because of a strong partnership with the Division of School Readiness and Early Learning in the Tennessee Department of Education and the commitment of school districts across the state to learning about the effects of pre-k,” Lipsey said.

The studies are led by Lipsey, research professor of human and organizational development and Peabody Research Institute director, and Dale Farran, professor of education and psychology. Carol Bilbrey, research associate at the Peabody Research Institute, directed data collection.

The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The researchers will report on these and other findings March 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in Washington, D.C.

Business and Economy Liberty and Justice

Talking Tort Reform

A former Mississippi state senator and key figure in enacting landmark lawsuit reform in his state told a group in Nashville Tuesday night that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is offering up beneficial legislation of his own in that regard.

“I’ve looked at the governor’s proposed bill. In my judgment, it is a very good bill. In my judgment, it can only make your system better,” said Charlie Ross, a lawyer and past chairman of a Mississippi legislative committee that hashed out the framework for comprehensive state tort reform in 2004.

“If you look at states like Mississippi, you can see it is not just pie in the sky. I commend you. Try to pass what the governor is proposing,” Ross told an audience of about 70 people gathered for a panel discussion on tort reform at Vanderbilt University.

The program was arranged by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank that plans to hold similar forums across the state as part of the group’s new campaign “to educate Tennesseans on the benefits of lawsuit abuse reform.”

“Like many states, Tennessee is plagued by a flawed civil justice system that allows trial lawyers to abuse the process to the detriment of all Tennesseans,” according to TCPR’s new tort reform-focused website,, The site is named for TCPR’s calculation that lawsuit reform of the sort being proposed by the Haslam administration would result in the creation of 577 new jobs a week in Tennessee.

“Among other consequences, lawsuit abuse costs Tennesseans jobs, limits access to healthcare, and drives up the cost of goods and services,” the site states. “As states like Texas and Mississippi have experienced, lawsuit abuse reform can be the catalyst for substantial job and economic growth in Tennessee. Without question, simply enacting responsible reforms that lead to a more fair and just legal system will have a tremendous impact on our state’s economy.”

The discussion TCPR hosted Tuesday evening included three panelists, all of whom agreed legislation of some type is necessary in Tennessee to mitigate or limit the negative effects exceedingly large judgments can have on the overall business environment or ability of professional services providers — particularly in the field of health care — to profitably operate in the state.

Comments leaned heavily on the issue of unpredictability in the current system. The panelists said defendants need to know what the parameters and possible outcomes of cases are heading into a trial — and that currently there is little or no way to gauge what the size of an award might be.

James Blumstein, a constitutional law professor at Vanderbilt University often quoted in news articles on Tennessee legal matters, emphasized the need to have “safe harbors” of standards, narrowed and focused, and understood by all sides on the front end of a case.

Ted Frank, an adjunct fellow with the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Legal Policy, said industries cannot adequately anticipate what might happen in cases against them. He used the car manufacturing industry as an example, where the safety of specific parts of vehicles come into question.

Frank and former Sen. Ross used common phrases like “jackpot justice” to describe what has been happening.

There were differences of opinion among the panelists as to how to achieve their goals.

Blumstein said he isn’t a big advocate for simply capping damages, an approach that constitutes the thrust of what Haslam has proposed for Tennessee. “I would be very cautious about adopting a cap,” said Blumstein, who has indicated he believes any reform law that applies hard-and-fast caps is destined for serious legal challenge.

Blumstein instead advocates a system of “established scenarios,” with ranges of awards for each of them, that courts should follow. He said that would provide more structure and make awards more predictable — which the system badly needs, he added.

Blumstein compared the current civil-litigation environment with that of criminal law before the adoption of sentencing guidelines, when defendants accused of the same crimes faced wildly different punishments from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Frank argued that any perceived flaws in caps on awards, particularly in the arena of medical malpractice, are outweighed by the positive effects caps have by lowering the insurance premiums doctors pay in general, which in turn entices good doctors to stay instead of moving on to where it is more affordable to operate a business.

Haslam, who just last week introduced his first package of legislative proposals since taking office, has placed education and tort reform at the top of his wish list. While Haslam has made jobs his top priority, he has not made job recruitment, per se, the subject of legislation. Tort reform, however, will make the state more competitive with other states in its recruitment of jobs, the governor argues.

Haslam has called for a cap of $750,000 on non-economic, pain-and-suffering damages in a case, and a cap on punitive damages of two times compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.