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Tennessee Governor Calls Special Legislative Session on Education

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Nashville--Gov. Lamar Alexander has called the Tennesseel Assembly into an "extraordinary" session limited to consideration of education reforms--including a revised but still controversial master-teacher proposal--and the taxes to pay for them.

The legislature was scheduled to reconvene Jan. 10 at noon, but in a surprise move the Tuesday before Christmas, Governor Alexander announced that he would call lawmakers into special session at 11 a.m. The special session takes precedence over the regular session, which cannot begin until the other concludes.

Legislative observers speculated last week that the special session would last anywhere from two to four weeks. It was considered possible, although unlikely, that the legislators might adjourn the session shortly after it began.

Under the Tennessee constitution, the Governor has the power to call a special session and to dictate what legislation can be debated and enacted. The last special session called by a governor was in 1966.

Governor Alexander, a Republican, announced the special session at a press conference after a two-hour meeting with leaders of the legislature, which is controlled by the Democrats.

Contending that Tennessee education reforms can become a model for the nation, Governor Alexander said, "The quality of the legislation will be best if the legislature gives education all of its attention until it has finished the job."

Governor Alexander noted that other states, such as Florida and Mississippi, have held special legislative sessions to consider their education-reform packages. (In both states, substantial reforms were enacted during recent special sessions.)

Heavy Lobbying

Last year, Mr. Alexander's master-teacher proposal and other reforms were delayed for further study following heavy lobbying by the Tennessee Education Association. In November, despite continued opposition from the union, a legislative committee approved a revised version of the plan.

The revised legislation provides for stiffer entrance requirements for teacher-training programs, a four-year period before a beginning teacher can be tenured, and a five-step career ladder with annual pay supplements based on performance. The supplements range from $1,000 to $7,000 for those teachers on the top three steps. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1983.)

To pay for the master-teacher and other proposals, such as computer-skills curricula and alternative schools for disruptive students, the Governor seeks a one-cent increase in Tennessee's 4.5-percent sales tax. That appears to have been one area of contention between the Governor and the Democratic legislative leaders at their meeting, according to legislative sources.

In the meeting, the Democrats told the Governor he should allow "tax reform" to be considered with the special session, legislative sources said. In Tennessee, "tax reform" is sometimes viewed as a code word for proposals for a state income tax.

"The Governor is proposing substantial new taxes," said House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter, a Democrat. "This may be the time for excellence in education and equity in taxes."

Legislative observers speculate that the Democratic lawmakers want an alternative to a full one-cent hike and may propose broadening the sales-tax base. This would mean imposing the sales tax on currently untaxed items, such as legal services or commercial leases.

The one-cent sales-tax hike would raise an estimated $280 million in new revenue in the 1984-85 fiscal year. It is estimated that the master-teacher proposal and other education reforms will cost more than $1 billion over the next three years.

Opposition Disparaged

In announcing the session, Governor Alexander indirectly disparaged the opposition of the Tennessee Education Association to his proposals.

"There is no excuse for more study," the Governor said. "The legislature's [education] task force began its work two and a half years ago. I offered my better-schools program 11 months ago. Other committees have been hard at work for six months. More important, delay hurts the children."

Governor Alexander has endorsed the committee's proposal, while tea officials have said they cannot support it without amendments. The tea contends that the legislation has potentially negative effects on tenure and negotiations between local school boards and tea affiliates.

Governor Alexander said the lawmakers could consider alternative legislation proposed by the teachers' union. But the language of the call for the special session refers consistently to legislation approved by the select committee and provides only that "amendments" for "alternatives" can also be considered.

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