Published Online: January 15, 2010

Bredesen 'Mule Team' Finishing Education Money Bid

Administration officials and consultants worked Friday to complete Tennessee's application for $485 million in federal "Race to the Top" money while lawmakers sought to reconcile differences on a bill seen as key to the state's bid.

The group nicknamed the "mule team" has been meeting on the 13th floor of the Tennessee Tower — overlooking the legislative office complex — while putting the finishing touches on the 180-page application and 340 pages of exhibits and attachments.

Will Pinkston, a senior adviser to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, said the "vast majority" of the application was done, though it wouldn't be complete until the Legislature passes the bill and it's signed into law.

"The introduction that's being written will emphasize that conditions are ripe in Tennessee for education reform," Pinkston said. "It's a Haley's Comet type of event to see Republicans, Democrats, teachers' unions, business groups and advocacy organizations all come together in agreement."

The U.S. Department of Education's "Race to the Top" program is a $5 billion competitive fund that will award grants to states to improve education quality and results. The program, created in the economic stimulus law, is part of Democratic President Barack Obama's efforts to overhaul the nation's schools.

The main focus of Bredesen's proposal has been on an effort to require half of teachers evaluations to be based on student achievement data, including 35 percent on "value-added" scores that measure a student's progress on standardized tests over time. Tennessee currently has no data requirement for teacher evaluations.

Lawmakers and administration officials expressed confidence that the bill will be passed by Tuesday's deadline for mailing off the application. But lawmakers on Friday were still negotiating over key elements like the makeup of a special committee to determine evaluation standards.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said his chamber was poised to pass the bill Friday, but wanted to make sure it wasn't "drastically different" from the House version.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said the major point of disagreement is over the House's insistence that the 15-member standards panel be made up of at least eight educators and have "a racial diversity that reflects the state of Tennessee."

He said the Senate version would not give educators a majority on the panel and would require only one minority.

"What they envision is 14 white men and one minority," said Turner of Nashville. "That is not acceptable."

Other elements of the proposal include requirements for annual evaluations for teachers and setting up a statewide school district for failing schools.

Turner said he was confident that lawmakers were "pretty close to getting this worked out."

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