Marked by a stop-and-go feel instead of the usual legislative gallop, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned Wednesday having twice blocked an expansion of Medicaid, set in motion a slow death for Common Core but without having approved a school voucher plan or in-state tuition for illegal immigrant high school grads.
Here are the highlights:
Budget passes without too much of a hitch. Lawmakers may have complained about how the state was spending its money, however the General Assembly easily passed a $33.8 billion budget that includes raises for teachers and state employees, more money towards teachers’ health insurance costs, and $120 million for a new Tennessee state museum in Nashville. The budget also included raising the exemption for people who pay the Hall tax on investments and dividends.
Insure Tennessee died early, often. After a special session that euthanized the governor’s Tennessee-specific plan to drawdown of federal dollars to expand Medicaid and health care coverage to some 280,000 Tennesseans, some legislators weren’t ready to let it die. Committees in the Senate twice killed the governor’s “Insure Tennessee” plan, despite protests, song and prayer by demonstrators that strung through the legislative session. The governor says he is still committed to finding a plan, however, legislators appear no more willing to take up the issue.
School vouchers down, not out. Lawmakers and lobbyists on all sides predicted passage of a plan to offer state-funded scholarships for private school tuition to low-income students at or near the state’s lowest performing schools. But, as in years past, the bill found itself caught up in a key House committee without the support to get out. This bill already has the Senate’s blessing and is still on deck for next year’s legislative session.
Delivering on abortion restrictions. Emboldened by last year’s passage of a constitutional amendment granting lawmakers more power to regulate abortions, legislators took abortion providers and regulations to task. Lawmakers agreed a physician should read women details about the risks of abortion and require they wait 48-hours before undergoing the procedure. Legislators also voted to require abortion clinics be licensed as ambulatory surgical treatment centers, a mandate that sponsors believe will result in the closure of three or four clinics. A bill that would have required to women to see or hear details of an ultrasound before proceeding with an abortion was shelved this year with a commitment to bring the bill up again next year.
Where to carry guns anything but a walk in the park. Wanting to finish the job they started when they first OK’d guns in parks in years past, lawmakers stripped local government’s authority to ban guns in their own parks. After a series of showdowns — like over whether guns should be allowed in the Capitol Building or the legality of carrying an imitation gun like a squirt gun near a school — lawmakers agreed that guns would be allowed in all parks except those owned by school districts, and guns would be banned from the “immediate vicinity” of school sanctioned functions at other parks. The governor has expressed concern over the legislation and is receiving pressure to veto the bill.
Closing the book on the Bible debate. After long discussion on whether the Bible should be named the state book, the less enthusiastic Senate decided they wanted more time to mull the idea over. A Senate committee plans to review the idea, and the legal ramifications, first thing next year. Having passed the House, the measure needs only Senate approval to advance to the governor’s desk.
Common Core given slow death. Lawmakers came in this year wanting to deal the death blow to Common Core, but instead administered a slow drip by approving a panel of mostly legislative appointees to review recommendations for changes. Expecting approval by the governor, the new standards would be in place for the 2017 school year, which is a much longer wait time than Common Core opponents had hoped for.
In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants fails, again. Despite solid approval in the Senate, House lawmakers overestimated the appetite for allowing certain undocumented immigrant high school graduates to attend Tennessee colleges at the in-state tuition rate. Lawmakers had thought the bill would squeak by on a three-vote margin, but ultimately fell short by one vote. The measure is expected back next session and will need only House approval to pass.
Cannabis oil an easier medicine to swallow than medical marijuana. Legislators approved a plan to allow people — largely children — with hundreds of daily intractable seizures or epilepsy to use cannabis oil to treat their condition, but didn’t give too much consideration to a Republican-backed measure to permit medical marijuana. Lawmakers have promised to study the later over the summer in hopes of inching legislators closer to passage in future legislative sessions.
After a year of thumping the Bible, revealing details about vasectomies and rejecting Insure Tennessee, lawmakers hope to call it a year and wrap up their business this week.
When legislators come back this afternoon, 92 bills will be waiting for them on the House floor with more expected after a few last-minute committee meetings. That long calendar will likely take a few days to work through. The Senate is taking Monday off and will return Tuesday expecting no more than 40 bills next week.
Here’s are the highlights of what they have left to do, in alphabetical order:
- Abortion, 48-hour wait period: Requiring pregnant women to wait 48 hours before undergoing an abortion procedure and requiring physicians to explain the related risks needs the House’s sign-off before it can go to the governor. It is on the House’s long Monday calendar. The Senate passed Senate Bill 1222 last week on an easy 27-5 vote.
- Abortion, ambulatory surgical centers: Legislation that would likely result in the closure of four out of seven operating abortion centers in Tennessee is also awaiting a final House vote before it can move to the governor. The bill would require abortion facilities that perform more than 50 abortions a year to meet the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center. The Senate passed the bill without debate on a 28-4 vote last week. SB1280 is on the House calendar for Monday.
- ASD fee, empty seats: Will schools in the middle of a state-sponsored turnaround be able to enroll kids who live outside that school zone? That’s the question in one of two remaining bills regarding the Achievement School District, a state agency in charge or improving student performance at some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The bill had a rough go of it in the House last week where lawmakers allowed the ASD to accept certain students outside the school zone and charge its schools an administrative fee of up to 3 percent. In one of the chamber’s closer votes, House Bill 473 passed 59-31. The Senate version is scheduled for a vote Tuesday.
- ASD takeovers. Schools flagged for low performance can escape state takeover if they improve test scores “above expectations,” according to a second ASD bill still floating through the legislature. The Senate voted 31-0 for SB758 last week. The House version is on Monday’s calendar.
- Common Core: After entering the hallways of Legislative Plaza promising to stick a pencil through the heart the politically unpopular education standards, lawmakers have slow-walked a compromise idea up to the Capitol. Instead of repealing Common Core, lawmakers want to add their own layer of scrutiny to the governor’s standards review by appointing a panel of people to examine the recommendations. The addition would take away the governor’s “unilateral control” over the outcome, lawmakers said. While the plan is generally agreed upon by the legislature and administration, some lawmakers are worried the bill doesn’t go far enough to fully erase Common Core. HB1035 is scheduled for a House floor vote on Monday and a Senate vote Tuesday.
- Hall tax: Lawmakers are still looking to whittle away at the state taxes on investments and dividends this year, though not as much as they’d like. Having done away with more far reaching bills this year, lawmakers have a smaller one that would raise exemptions for those paying the tax. SB32 is awaiting a Tuesday hearing in Finance Committees in both the House and Senate.
- Longevity Pay: The governor wants to change how state employees are rewarded for service, switching from a formula based on tenure to one measured by merit and job performance. Amid pushback from state employees, and lawmakers bombarded with emails and phone calls, the governor’s office has agreed to keep longevity pay for current executive branch state employees and shift to the full merit system for new recruits. HB647, passed the Senate 26-3 and is on the House calendar for Monday.
- Revenue Modernization Act: Legislators will have to decide whether to give final approval to a proposal from the governor’s office which modernizes the state’s tax code to ensure out-of-state businesses pay their share of taxes. It was an easy decision for the House which passed HB644 90-3 last week. The bill is on the Senate's Tuesday calendar.
- School vouchers: The long debate over whether the state should cover low-income students’ tuition at private and parochial schools is still unresolved. The measure, which has historically stalled in the House despite many successful years in the Senate, still needs approval from the lower chamber’s Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee (tentatively scheduled for Tuesday). If passed, it will then face the full Finance Committee before it reaching the House floor. Leadership, advocates and opponents alike predicted earlier this year vouchers would have a much easier time winning approval in the past, which makes this end-of-year slowdown concerning to fans of the bill. SB999 swept through the Senate 23-9 last month.
- Special Ed school vouchers: A bill that would allow students with special educational needs to use school vouchers is also waiting in the wings. The bill has yet to reach the House or Senate floor for a full vote. Like the original school voucher bill, HB138 needs to face a battery of House finance committees before it can reach the floor. The Senate version should be on the floor Tuesday.
Jokingly referring to himself as a “recovering superintendent,” Education Instruction & Programs Committee Chairman John Forgety has a pitch for replacing Common Core State Standards that looks a lot like Gov. Bill Haslam’s ongoing revision.
“My legislation, my stuff makes it law. I haven’t mandated that we use the governor’s process, I haven’t mandated that we not use the governor’s process. I want to leave that decision to the subject matter experts,” said Forgety, an educator of 40 years, after an education subcommittee meeting Wednesday.
Forgety added that he’s entertaining a so-far unreleased pitch from Rep. Billy Spivey, R-Lewisburg, that could avoid legislation entirely.
House Bill 3 calls for involving teachers and parents in the standards’ development — as opposed to the governor’s plan, which will charge educators with analyzing comments about the standards and recommend changes to the state Board of Education.
Several bills are looking to scrap Common Core standards and replace them with something else, although the administration is in the midst of seeking statewide feedback on the standards in hopes of crafting revisions that will garner more support.
“We want to better understand the impact of the bill,” said the governor’s spokesman, David Smith, about HB3. “ The governor believes that an evaluation and review of our current standards needs to happen, and we have a process underway. One thing that is a priority to the governor through the process is that Tennessee professional educators are developing new Tennessee standards."
Tennesseans for Student Success — a new group to the state’s education conversation led by the governor’s former campaign manager Jeremy Harrell — is opposed to the legislation because it would disregard the work already done under the governor’s ongoing survey of the standards, which has attracted reportedly 80,000 comments.
The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents released a letter Tuesday signed by 114 of the state’s 140 school district leaders telling lawmakers to back off from changing education standards.
The letter, which includes signatures from the state’s four largest school district and omitted the words "Common Core," added that superintendents are awaiting the governor’s standards review to fully unfold and thus drive edits to the standards. Meanwhile, they say, changing standards now would be a “huge blow to the morale of educators” as they prep for a new state test in 2016.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen echoed that sentiment Tuesday after presenting to a House education committee, telling reporters the governor’s review will be a vehicle for editing and developing a set of standards “that truly are Tennessee’s academic standards.”
An a high of frustration with the federal government, several legislators have pushed to repeal the state's standards, known as Common Core, which have been adopted and in some cases repealed across the country. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told Post Politics after the governor's State of the State address that “Common Core is dead,” and said last month he expects legislators to work late into the session combing through the results of the governor’s review to set new education standards this spring.
Standing in front of the General Assembly for the third time in so many weeks, Gov. Bill Haslam said he wants to get the “right answer” on health care and education standards while following through on a giving teachers a pay raise and restructuring state worker pay.
After his annual State of the State address that avoided tackling controversial issues, the governor released a $33.3 billion budget plan for the legislature to take up. Both are available here.
Here’s what lawmakers had to say about the governor’s speech and his plans for this year’s legislative session:
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, regarding health care and education standards: “Excellent speech. He hit on exactly the things he needed to hit on. First of all, that the Insure Tennessee special session is over, let’s move on. Something may come back, but when it does, let’s address it at that time. And then of course on education, he said when we leave here, be able to look back and say you’ve actually made a difference in the state of Tennessee. And let’s be honest, we’ve always been relatively pro-business, we’ve always been relatively well-run. But the one thing we’ve always lacked is improving education scores in the state of Tennessee. We’ve done that the last four years, and I’m one that realizes that Common Core is dead, but at the same time we’ve got to maintain these high standards. We have to.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell, D-Nashville, regarding the governor’s speech: “I think more than anything, you walk away realizing the governor has tremendous good will in this body, receiving standing ovations, so everyone wants to see him continue to be successful as our governor. So, I think you’re going to see a good working relationship between the legislature and the governor.”
Harwell regarding continued focus on health care and education standards: “I think everyone agrees with that. I think this whole nation needs to continue to work on health care. There needs to be total, true reform in the health care system. We can’t sustain it as a nation. And if you look at the Tennessee budget, what goes into TennCare, that’s not sustainable either. I think he’s right, it’s a long-term issue for our nation…. I think the governor, I think he said it clearly: we need to develop Tennessee’s standards by Tennesseans for Tennessee students. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, regarding the $33.3 billion budget proposal: “I think the fact that it’s a conservative budget and it’s one that’s based on some fairly conservative revenue estimates, that could always change. Unfortunately, recently we’ve seen a lot of up and down fluctuation in the collection of revenues, particularly in the franchise and excise tax and he mentioned that. But I’m hopeful for the proposal he had on F&A collections, we can make that a little more stable in the future. Because it’s paid in advance, it’s going to have some degree of instability.”
Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, regarding education standards and budget proposal: “For those like myself who’ve always had concerns about the federal involvement in Common Core and acquiescing or abdicating our state sovereignty with regards to education standards, I thought he hit it head on. Let’s develop Tennessee standards here. They can be high standards but they can be standards that we create here in Tennessee for Tennessee students... I think that the focus and really drawing attention to the fact, the complexity of our budget situation. We’re painting a picture of, we have $500 million in increased expenses in the state, we have $300 million to spend on it, which is pretty easy math. You end up with about $200 million in reductions that have to be made. And those are tough decisions, but I applaud the governor for focusing on education, giving teachers a raise which are long overdue. That’s very good news for the state of Tennessee.”
Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, regarding proposed teacher pay increases and health care: “I think last year the governor took some real hits. I think he took some real hits for making a proposal and then backing off of it a little bit. And so I don’t think he’s going to go down that road again. I think he’s going to stick. Even tonight with respect to Insure Tennessee, even though he didn’t win — whatever that means — on Insure Tennessee, it didn’t pass, we didn’t get to consider it, he pretty much stuck, He stuck firm out there, he said, ‘Hey, Insure Tennessee was a good idea. We still have this problem out here. I’ve offered up one solution.’ And impressively, he challenged the legislature to come up with a solution on its own. He’s been pretty firm, and I have to give him credit, he was pretty firm on those kinds of things.”
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, regarding a proposed 4 percent increase in teacher salaries: “We’ve heard this story before but this is a promise I think the governor has a moral obligation to keep and it is incumbent on us in the legislature to fight for and make a real priority. It’s one thing to make a promise. It’s a whole other thing when the going gets tough to make sure teachers aren’t the first thing on the chopping block.”
But [Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores] Gresham told The Associated Press that she's now OK with the current standards after talking with teachers and other educators who have convinced her that "children are really learning."
"I have talked to teachers who have told me in so many words, at last, we are no longer dumbing down our children," she said. "That kind of encouragement is very important when other people are not so enthusiastic."
Asked what his chairwoman’s change of heart means for swapping out the education standards, his spokesman said: “Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s position has not changed. For our state’s rapid improvement in education to continue, Tennessee must have high standards.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters Wednesday that the Senate Education Committee already has begun work on replacement standards that should be ready by the end of the legislative session.
The Blountville Republican said the effort would work alongside a review launched last fall by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the State Board of Education. But Ramsey added he does not wait for that review to be completed before taking up the matter legislatively.
“Something’s got to happen,” Ramsey said. “If you’re going to do away with the Common Core and replace it with something, something’s got to happen.”
Tennessee’s past, present and future in education will be up for examination later this month in a summit called by Gov. Bill Haslam and the legislature’s two speakers.
Nearly two dozen advocacy groups are invited to participate in the conference, including multiple teachers unions, groups representing superintendents, special education administrators, colleges training teachers.
“I think it’s an opportunity to examine what we have done right, and then to go a step further and look for ways to make some changes to do things even better,” Speaker Beth Harwell told Post Politics. “I think it’s an opportunity for us to come to the table to talk about things going right, things going wrong, where do we want to go from here.”
The agenda is a work in progress, according to the governor’s office, although Harwell said she expects a “full plate,” including discussion on Common Core, teacher evaluations and the charter movement. She said she expects the governor to digest the information and decide what policy moves he wants to make going into the next legislative session.
The event is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 18, at the Sheraton Nashville Downtown Hotel.
From the inbox:
“There is nothing more important to the future of our state than getting education right,” Haslam said. “We are making historic progress in Tennessee, and as part of that progress there has been a lot of change and discussion. This is a chance to review where we’ve been, take a look at where we are today, and make sure we’re planning for where we want to go.”
“The progress our state has made in education over the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable. As the cause of reform continues, it is important to take stock and reflect on our past successes with an eye towards mapping our future progress,” Ramsey said. “It is now more important than ever to ensure we provide our students with a strong, world-class education rooted in Tennessee values. I look forward to this opportunity to listen, learn and discuss how Tennessee can build on its historic gains in education.”
“We need to ensure that Tennessee students are getting the very best education possible, so that they can compete on the global stage,” Harwell said. “One of the most important things we can do as policymakers is facilitate discussions with those stakeholders who are working with our children every day, and determine what progress we have made, and where we can do better. We have made significant progress, but there is more that can be done.”
Participants of the meeting will be educators, administrators, elected officials, business leaders, higher education officials and representatives from advocacy groups including the following:
Achievement School District
Drive to 55 Alliance
Professional Educators of Tennessee
State Collaborative on Reforming Education
Superintendent Study Council
Tennessee Association for Administrators in Special Education
Tennessee Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
Tennessee Board of Regents
Tennessee Business Roundtable
Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Tennessee Charter School Center
Tennessee County Services Association
Tennessee Department of Education
Tennessee Education Association
Tennessee Higher Education Commission
Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association
Tennessee Municipal League
Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents
Tennessee Parent-Teacher Association
Tennessee Principals Association
Tennessee School Boards Association
Tennessee State Board of Education
University of Tennessee
Gov. Bill Haslam said he and his administration want to concentrate on higher standards and how to assess them, he told reporters Tuesday.
“I think what you’re going to see from us is more focus really on the higher standards,” Haslam said. “And then we’ll have some discussion about the whole assessment vehicle that we’re using about PARCC, or in delayed PARCC, and using TCAP another year."
The state had the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, PARCC, lined up for students to take in the Spring of 2015, but the legislature demanded the state put the exam out for bid as part of push back against the administration for its use of the politically touchy Common Core standards.
To the chagrin of the Haslam administration, the state now must wait until 2016 to offer a new test. The state put out a request for proposals last month.
"Whatever wins the RFP to be the new assessment vehicle, I think you’ll see some discussion about that,” Haslam said.
Meanwhile, the governor says he's also undecided whether to run a school voucher bill again next year.
Blake Farmer at WPLN looks at the ways that candidates are describing Common Core:
Common Core has become political kryptonite in GOP primary campaigns for Congress. And two Tennessee legislators running for higher office helped vote in the new educational standards, but they have very different ways of defending it.
“I’ve always been against [Common Core,” says state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), who is running against incumbent Congressman Scott DesJarlais.
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