Published Online: December 16, 2009

Tenn. Gov. Pursues 'Race to Top' Funds

Gov. Phil Bredesen announced Tuesday he will call lawmakers into a special session next month to take up education changes needed for Tennessee to qualify for a share of federal "Race to the Top" money.

The proposed changes include requiring teacher and principal performance evaluations to be based on data, to require tenure decisions to be made on those evaluations and to mandate annual teacher assessments.

Tennessee would also create a statewide recovery district for failing schools, the Democratic governor said.

"With these changes in the law we are in a very strong position, we have a very strong application," Bredesen said. "Without these changes, we are probably an also-ran in this competition."

Bredesen said the special session will begin on Jan. 12 to coincide with the scheduled start of the regular session. The changes would have to be approved by Jan. 19 to meet the application deadline for the federal money.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who joined Bredesen at the news conference announcing the special session, said he supports the changes.

"When a teacher is granted tenure, it's something that you need to have some objective criterial you looked at and not simply the opinion of one or two people," Ramsey said.

Ramsey said the state has had education data available since enacting the current school funding formula in the early 1990s, but that lawmakers "watered down how we used that data year after year."

"We have the data, but we're not using it properly."

Bredesen acknowledged that the Tennessee Education Association is likely to have some reservations about the changes, but said that the federal rules leave him little choice.

"Part of the point I've made is that this is not some ideological thing that's suddenly come to the fore," Bredesen said. "This is a requirement put on the table by the most liberal national administration of my adult lifetime."

TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said a main sticking point may be how much weight will be given to student scores.

"But generally, if several hundred million dollars is at stake to come to Tennessee at this time when money is so critical, we want to be part of making that happen," he said.

Bredesen said he'd prefer the Tennessee State School Board to determine what percentage of evaluations would be based on student scores. But he said it would have to be at least 50 percent "to really engage the issue."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said the governor spoke to his members on Monday and "really had no push back" about his proposals.

"I assume that barring something we don't know about, I think he will have a lot of support within the Democratic Caucus," he said.

Bredesen said he will also propose a series of changes in higher education, though they will not face the same tight deadline as the K-12 proposals. They include:

• Changing the state funding formula to emphasize graduation rates instead of enrollment levels.

• Standardizing community college courses to make it more clear which credits transfer to four-year schools.

• Shifting remedial education responsibilities from four-year schools to community colleges.

• Enabling dual enrollment in two- and four-year schools.

The special session is not expected to delay Bredesen's Feb. 1 presentation of his annual spending plan.

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