Money, tempers flare over vouchers in House committee

“You’ll learn,” Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said wide-eyed as he leaned across his seat toward two Democrats hell-bent on making a school voucher bill as difficult to pass as possible. “You’ll learn.”

Freshman Rep. John Ray Clemmons had decided to make his stand against vouchers in the Government Operations Committee. Sensing a cold wind blowing from Republicans who cut short debate on the guns-in-parks bill on the House floor Monday night, he said now was his chance to put on the record his opposition to vouchers.

“I’m concerned about what rules are going to be put in place to replace the dollars that are being stolen from our public school systems by this bill,” Clemmons said

McCormick and the committee then erupted with objections and immediately called discussion on the bill to a close, concluding more than an hour-long debate. The bill passed easily and quickly on a voice vote, followed by McCormick repeating his warning to Clemmons and quietly dressing down Rep. Mike Stewart before leaving the committee room, steaming.

“Won’t let them get away with it,” McCormick said on his way through the hallway.

But to Democrats, who have been unable to significantly affect much legislation, they came out with what some would consider a win. Before needling the sponsor on the merits of a program that gives low-income students a ticket to private and parochial schools on the government’s tab, members voted to delay the launch of school voucher program until Jan. 1, 2016. The amendment came from Chairman Jeremy Faison, who worried the state doesn’t have enough time to promulgate rules for a voucher program by the fall 2015 school year.

After years of failed attempts at establishing a school voucher program — which would allow low-income students in five counties to attend participating private schools on taxpayer-funded scholarships — this session appears the most favorable to passage. Republicans have increased their majority in the House and major advocates for vouchers have poured in the ballpark of $900,000 into legislative campaigns last year.

Four legislators on the 10-member Government Operations Committee that approved vouchers on a voice vote Tuesday collectively received more than $31,000 in contributions and independent expenditures from key pro-voucher groups StudentsFirst and the Tennessee Federation for Children, according to a Post review of campaign finance records. They include Rep. John Ragan with $17,065; GOP Caucus Leader Glen Casada with $7,992; McCormick with $5,000 between his campaign and political action committee; and Rep. Dan Howell with $1,000.

The bill now moves to the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee, where six of 23 members have collectively accepted $24,500 worth of campaign contributions — and another bared the brunt of $37,000 in spending against him. Beneficiaries include Republicans, namely Finance Committee Chairman Charles Sargent with $6,000; Rep. Patsy Hazlewood with $6,000; Finance Subcommittee Chairman Mike Harrison with $4,000; Rep. Ryan Haynes with $2,000; and Rep. Mike Carter with $1,500. Democratic Rep. Bo Mitchell, saw the pro-voucher groups spend $37,065 spent against him last year.

“I don’t know what happened, but tempers blew up, didn’t it,” said Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada.

Apr 1, 2015 7:00 AM

Pro-voucher groups dropped $260K on lawmakers in ed committee

The committee of House lawmakers poised to vote on a school voucher program today saw more than $260,000 from school voucher advocates flow into their election races last year.

Five lawmakers sitting on a newly formed education committee collectively received more than $52,000 in direct contributions and independent expenditures from two pro-voucher groups, according to a Post Politics review of state records.

But the bulk of the money, $152,000, went to keeping two people out of the legislature who would cause trouble for a voucher program. An additional $58,000 went to a favored candidate who lost by just more than 50 votes.

StudentsFirst and the Tennessee Federation for Children collectively spent approximately $894,000 in last year’s election, spreading money to lawmakers in both chambers but focusing largely in the House of Representatives where voucher proposals have tripped up in recent years.

Together, the groups spent $136,000 against incumbent Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat and teacher who pushed strongly against school vouchers during her first and only term. The two groups spent just shy of $39,000 in favor of her opponent, Eddie Smith, a Republican who went on to win the election by less than 200 votes.

Smith, an event and production manager, now sits on the Education Administration and Planning Committee that is scheduled to vote on a school voucher program today. He sits on the committee with fellow freshman Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Rock Island Democrat and teacher who outran Republican Robert Dunham by 54 votes.

That race was for an open seat vacated by Rep. Charles Curtiss, a Democrat. StudentsFirst and the federation together spent $15,745 in opposition to Dunlap in last year’s election and spent more than $58,000 in favor of Dunham.

Other contributions included $2,000 to Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville; $2,000 to Rep. Debra Moody, D-Covington; $1,000 to Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis; and $8,243 in contributions and independent expenditures to benefit Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro.

Which committee the voucher bill would end up in was not predetermined, according to the House clerk's office, which spent weeks deciding which of two new education committees the voucher legislation would be assigned to.

The spending is part of an escalating investment by pro-voucher groups in Tennessee who favor school choice by way of allowing parents to send their children to private schools using taxpayer dollars allocated to public schools. The idea is controversial in Tennessee, able to gain favor in the Senate but consistently falling short in the House. Last year, the American Federation for Children spent $800,000 on television ads urging voters to sway their Republican lawmakers who are on the fence about vouchers. 

This year, lawmakers in leadership say the believe there are the votes to pass HB1049, the governor’s preferred version of a voucher bill, would allow children from low-income families that qualify for free or reduced lunch to attend participating private schools by using the state-funded scholarship. Students in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools would give first dibs, followed by low income students elsewhere in those counties. The bill is up for debate in the House Administration and Planning Committee at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Mar 24, 2015 7:00 AM

McQueen task force to examine student testing

Little more than a month after taking office, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is launching a special task force to examine how best to use student standardized tests.

Pointing to the concern of “too much testing," McQueen said the Tennessee Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment will sort through various tests to determine how they are used and the best ways exams should inform decisions ranging from teachers to student learning.

“We want to make sure it’s not testing for the sake of testing, but it’s testing where we’re using it to make decisions," McQueen (pictured) told reporters Monday. "And so the timing of this seemed to make sense. As I’m new and giving a scan of the state and what the concerns and challenges are, this is one that continues to come up. We need to have a reality check on what are we doing and [understand] are these the practices we should be doing going forward."

The study comes as the state prepares to administer a new test, called TNReady, in the spring of 2016.

The 17-member committee includes McQueen and Tennessee Board of Education Executive Director Sara Heyburn, who is also newly named to her post. Other members include three chairs of the House and Senate education committees, five district-level administrators, three teachers, one school principal, one student, the president of the Tennessee School Boards Association and a member of the Knox County Parent-Teacher Association.

The group will begin meeting in March after administering a district assessment survey and expects to report its findings this summer.

In addition to McQueen and Heyburn, members of the task force include the following:

Dolores Gresham, chairman, Senate Education Committee

John Forgety, chairman, House Education Committee

Harry Brooks, chairman, House Education Committee

Mike Winstead, director of schools, Maryville City

Wanda Shelton, director of schools, Lincoln County

Mary Reel, director of schools, Milan Special Schools

Nancy Ashe, assistant director of schools, Lebanon Special Schools

Beth Unfried, director of elementary schools, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools

Sharon McNary, principal, Richland Elementary, Shelby County Schools

Philip Eller, teacher, Cedar Grove Elementary, Rutherford County Schools

Becky McBride, teacher, Brighton High, Tipton County School

Valerie Love, teacher, Dobyns-Bennett High, Kingsport City Schools 

Susan Lodal, president, Tennessee School Boards Association

Jasmine Carlisle, 11th-grade student, Mt. Juliet High, Wilson County Schools

Virginia Babb, member, Knox County Parent-Teacher Association

Ex-officio members include the following:

Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education

Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education

Emily Freitag, assistant commissioner, curriculum and instruction, Tennessee Department of Education

Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner, data and research, Tennessee Department of Education

Eva Boster, teacher ambassador, Tennessee Department of Education

Alyssa Van Camp, director of policy, State Collaborative on Reforming Education

Mar 2, 2015 12:52 PM

Five things to know about this year's vouchers legislation

Without success, lawmakers have battled for years over whether to allow parents to send their children to private school with public school tax dollars. Lawmakers suggest this year might be the warmest ever for vouchers — also known as opportunity scholarships — although the legislation still faces a long line of hurdles.

Here are five things to know going into this year’s attempt:

1. Haslam dropped his voucher bill. Vouchers have never been the governor’s top priority, but he’s spent much of his first term trying to steer the conversation away from a large-scale program and then toward small-scale pilot. After two years of fighting off proposals that are too big in Gov. Bill Haslam's eyes, the governor and his administration decided against running a proposal this year.

2. Haslam’s preference still stands. “He proposed legislation the past two years to offer opportunity scholarships to low income students in the lowest performing schools and still thinks that’s the best approach,” said administration spokesman David Smith. That means the governor will likely oppose, or at least not support, legislation that opens vouchers up to students from middle or upper income families attending public schools in counties like Shelby or Davidson that are home to a number of failing schools — and issue that has always been a rub between various versions of the bill. 

3. Different education committee in the House. While the Senate has repeatedly approved vouchers in various shapes and forms, the House has had mixed support for a program and that has been a deciding factor in whether any bill actually has a chance. So far, no bill has reached the House floor. That said, House Speaker Beth Harwell split the Education Committee into two bodies this year, putting a new outlook on the legislation’s future. The House clerk will assign the bill to an education committee next week. Rep. Mark White, who last session chaired the Education Subcommittee, had signed onto the bill but withdrew his co-sponsorship this week.

4. Several abstentions in Senate Ed. One of the first moves of the upper chamber’s Education Committee was to approve a bill pitched by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a champion of the voucher movement. He has pushed the conversation for years and was faulted for the bill’s failure two years ago, when he attempted to hijack the governor’s proposal in favor of a larger program. The Education Committee approved his bill on a 5-2 vote this week, but with a rare two-member abstention which sources say could signal a larger desire to put distance between themselves and the proposal carried by Kelsey.

5. Haslam’s flagged it. The governor’s office makes a practice of “flagging” bills that are of concern to them. And Kelsey’s bill, the one on the move in the Senate, had raised such a flag. The administration says the flag is for financial reasons, though, and not philosophical ones. According to the Office of Fiscal Review, vouchers would cost local school district $16 million in its first year and climb to nearly $70 million by year four. 

Feb 13, 2015 2:58 PM

Gov wants to 'better understand' Forgety bill

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.

Feb 11, 2015 2:38 PM

Superintendents: Leave education standards alone

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.  

 

 

Feb 10, 2015 12:28 PM

Haslam focuses on teacher pay, state employees in next budget

Attempting to pivot attention to his budget by proposing teacher raises and reshaping state employees’ pay, Gov. Bill Haslam said not a word about the fresh defeat of his Insure Tennessee plan as he briefed reporters on his budget Monday.

Instead, he said his budget proposes to cut $200 million from the state spending plan to offset rising costs of the state’s Medicaid and education spending and afford promised teacher pay bumps and other initiatives, he said in remarks the media.

“Education is going to be our priority and last year when we had the revenue shortfall and we had to make some adjustments, I came out of that saying the thing that hurt me the most was having to make the adjustments to some of our higher ed items and then to teacher salaries,” said Haslam. “As you’ll see from this budget, we’ve prioritized both of those both from a policy standpoint and through our budget.”

The promise of teacher pay raises in this year’s budget comes after the governor had to cancel a 2 percent increase for teachers and 1 percent for state employees a year ago amid lower state tax revenue that caught state officials flat-footed. The governor said he is also proposing capital projects at the state’s four-year, two-year and technical schools.

With 40 percent of the state’s workers nearing retirement age, Haslam said this year he’s looking to restructure its public sector employee practices to fall more in line with the private sector as the state prepares to recruit their replacements.

“Our job is to make certain that we have not just a position that we can sell somebody, but people can say this really is a career that I’d like to choose and being at the state of Tennessee, will not punish me financially and will give me the challenging type of place that I would like to work long-term,” Haslam said of his proposed changes, which he is expected to explain further in a speech to the General Assembly tonight.

The budget presentation and State of the State speech tonight at 6 p.m. comes less than a week after lawmakers resoundingly rejected the governor’s Insure Tennessee proposal, which would have captured federal dollars attached to the Affordable Care Act by expanding health care access to some 280,000 Tennesseans.

 
Stay tuned with the play-by-play of tonight's State of the State address by following @andreazelinski on Twitter.

Feb 9, 2015 3:00 PM

Governor, speakers call for education summit

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

Teach Plus

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

Sep 2, 2014 5:01 PM

Critic: If Huffman stays, Haslam's education agenda faces tough road

If Commissioner Kevin Huffman is still in charge of the Department of Education next year, the administration is in a for a long legislative session come January, according to Rep. Rick Womick.

He and more than a dozen Republicans are demanding the "immediate removal" of Huffman as the state's head of education. It's a move the governor's office has called a "political stunt" and a letter the Department of Education contends is full of unfounded accusations.

“As long as he keeps him in there, we’ll continue to speak out. And when it comes time for session next year, we’ll be presenting legislation that will turn back some of these policies. We may even file legislation demanding his removal,” Womick said. “Everything’s still on the table. It’s up to the governor right now. The ball’s in his court, we’ll see what he does."

While the letter was signed by Republicans in the tea party wing of the legislature — almost all in the House of Representatives — the Rockvale Republican was asked to draft the letter, he said. Womick is one of Huffman's leading critics who has recently joined a chorus of parents, teachers and superintendents who have questioned Huffman's decisions throughout much of the governor's his administration. Womick played a key role this spring in forcing the state to delay a key test aligned with new Common Core education standards by partnering conservative Republicans with most of the state's Democrats.

The letter called for Huffman’s removal in light of the department’s recent delay releasing an initial round of standardized test scores to school districts. The delay caused a stir among school superintendents, leading the department to waive requirements that school officials in over 100 districts factor those scores into students’ final grades, as required by law.

The Department of Education found fault with allegations in the letter from Republicans. Suggestions the department could be altering test scores is "categorically untrue" and the idea that the commissioner violated state law by issuing districts wavers and is trying conceal results is "completely inaccurate," according to a department response emailed late Thursday.

The attorney general is looking into whether waiving using test scores in student grades violates a newly approved state law that bans the commissioner from waiving “federal and state student assessment and accountability.”

In an interview earlier this month with the Post, Huffman laughed when asked whether he plans to stay with the governor's administration for a second term.

“I don’t know. I have no idea. Not a conversation that I’m having, haven’t put thought into length of tenure,” he said. “I have a good job. I’m psyched to be here, that’s enough for now.”

Haslam has stood by Huffman's decision to delay test scores, saying the department did the accountable thing by waiting to release scores until the department was positive they were accurate and ready. He has repeatedly said he supports the commissioner.

House Speaker Beth Harwell both defended the administration and tried to calm the waters within her caucus.

"I’m proud of the accomplishments that Gov. Haslam has achieved in education reform. The NAEP test results showed Tennessee improved more than any other state in the 10 year history of the test, and that indicates we are on the right path,” she said in an emailed statement Thursday.

“Change is always difficult — but setting personalities and managerial styles aside, I know Gov. Haslam and this General Assembly want to do what is best for the children of this state. The taxpayers of this state should demand nothing less and the children of this state deserve nothing less," she said.

Jun 20, 2014 7:57 AM

Band of GOP legislators call for education commissioner's resignation

A group of 14 GOP legislators have signed a letter calling for the immediate resignation of embattled Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, citing last month’s delay in test scores as raising questions about the integrity of the department.

The letter accuses the commissioner of “misguided leadership,” and “dereliction of duty,” as well as potentially violating state law by waiving a requirement that teachers factor  standardized test scores in final grades after the state was late turning the test results over to districts. 

“While we do not doubt your motivation or desire to see improvements in the education of all Tennesseans, we realize that we cannot begin to craft an honest solution to our education problems without first recognizing an even bigger problem: a complete lack of trust in the Tennessee Department of Education that now encompasses this state,” read the letter dated Thursday.

The legislators argue the state’s delay could mean the department is trying to “conceal the disastrous results of this years TCAP test scores” and opening up the ability for the department to manipulate the results.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said it is disappointed in the letter after having met with several of the undersigned legislators this week.

“Education is one of the most serious issues for the future of our state, and the governor believes there is a more productive way to discuss something so significant than through a letter by a small group of legislators more interested in trying to get headlines than substance,” read an emailed statement by spokesman Dave Smith.

“Our office reached out to several of these members earlier in the week to discuss their concerns, and it is disappointing they chose a political stunt instead of constructive dialogue,” he continued.

The letter is signed by 14 members, largely in the House of Representatives which has been more vocal in criticizing the commissioner. They include Reps. Rick Womick, Joe Carr, Tilman Goins, Courtney Rogers, Andy Holt, Terri Lynn Weaver, Mike Sparks, Micah Van Huss, Jeremy Durham, Mark Pody, Sheila Butt, Judd Matheny, Debra Moody, and Sen. Frank Nicely. Sen. Joey Hensley’s name is also listed, but with no signature.

Jun 19, 2014 3:13 PM