Published Online: January 12, 2010

Tenn. Lawmakers Given First Look at Education Plan

Lawmakers got their first detailed look Monday at Gov. Phil Bredesen's education proposals for a special legislative session, though some complained that they weren't given a full account of the plan.

The Democratic governor is urging lawmakers to approve a series of changes that he says are needed the strengthen the state's application for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal "Race to the Top" money.

Some lawmakers chafed at attempts to keep some elements of the plan under wraps for fear of losing a competitive advantage over other states bidding for the federal money before the Jan. 19 application deadline.

"It kind of puts us in a precarious situation of wondering what we're actually building and buying here," said Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville. "I think it's only fair that we get a little bit of a vision of where we're headed with this without giving away state secrets."

The special session officially begins Tuesday afternoon.

A key change would include using student testing data in evaluating teachers and for making decisions about tenure.

Susan Bodary, of Seattle-based Education First Consulting, told a joint meeting of the Senate education and finance committees that federal guidelines consider the use of testing data "as one of the linchpin issues of this competition."

The Tennessee Education Association, which represents 55,000 teaches and other educators, has announced that it could support no more than 35 percent of evaluations being based on testing data. The Bredesen administration wants 51 percent of evaluations to be based on data, but wants to leave the specific amount up to a special advisory panel of the State Board of Education.

Tennessee's application is based on "the belief that great teachers and great leaders make the greatest difference in student learning, unequivocally," Bodary said.

The state's main competitors for the federal money are Louisiana, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana and Massachusetts, she said.

Current evaluation criteria for Tennessee teachers don't use any testing data. Republican House Speaker Kent Williams of Elizabethton said he is hesitant about making such a large leap over concerns it could further hamper the ability to hire and retain teachers in rural areas, he said.

"To me, 50 percent is a monumental change — 10 percent could be a significant change," Williams said.

Other K-12 changes would include requiring annual evaluations of teachers and principals and creating a special school district for failing schools.

Some lawmakers raised concerns about the federal government meddling in the state's responsibility for education.

"I think the whole scheme is patently unconstitutional, but there too much money not to go with it," said Democratic Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville.

Others said they worried about what will happen after the federal money runs out. Education Commissioner Tim Webb said the administration would design a program that would seek to avoid creating "a vacuum where the districts get sucked into a funding problem."

Republican Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville said she's also concerned about "federal impositions on what is very much a state obligation," but added that the changes could have a positive effect on Tennessee's education system.

"What I see this as is an opportunity not just to chase federal dollars ... this is an opportunity for us to rethink education policy, to rebuild the box," she said. "It's potentially transformational."

Bredesen is also proposing as series of changes in higher education, including changing the funding mechanism to focus on graduation rates instead of on enrollment and placing more emphasis on community colleges.

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