Tenn. House Passes 'Virtual Classes' Bill

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A Republican-sponsored bill dealing with "virtual classes" in public schools, which passed the state Senate unanimously last month, inspired some hostile questioning from Democrats on the House floor Thursday before passing 69-24.

Sponsor Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said the bill, as amended, would simply allow public schools to charge a "tuition" fee to other students who take a "virtual education program" class over the Internet.

But Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said the bill would tie into a separate Brooks-sponsored bill, HB1030, that allows for-profit companies to operate virtual schools.

In tandem, Stewart contended, the two bills would be a "momentous change" that would have for-profit schools recruiting multiple students who pay them, then "send the tab to our public school systems." The public schools would thus be supplying the courses that make money for the private schools, he said.

Brooks said Stewart was mistaken and, by allowing a charge for attendance, the measure "does just the opposite of what you're perceiving."

Other Republicans rallied to Brooks' support. For example, Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, said a school in his district is now offering a virtual course in Chinese language and attracting students from around the state. The bill would encourage such efforts, Hawk said.

But other Democrats offered further criticism. Rep. Jeannie Richardson, D-Memphis, questioned the overall premise of promoting virtual schools, saying they isolate a student without the need to socialize and thus "eliminate a great portion of what's important in public schools."

All votes against the bill came from Democrats. It now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

Brooks also brought to the floor Thursday a bill, HB1975, that sets up procedures for establishing an "innovative school district," which could bypass some regulations that apply to other public schools.

That measure, too, stirred questions from Democrats.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said the bill appeared well-intentioned but could have "unintended consequences"—perhaps, for example, interfering with the controversial attempt by Memphis City Schools to merge into the Shelby County school system.

Brooks said there was no such intent in the legislation, but agreed to put off a vote until next week to allow colleagues to review the measure.

The House voted 72-19 on Thursday to scale back on publication of foreclosure notices in newspapers as urged by the Tennessee Bankers Association.

The bill, HB1920, will reduce from three to two the number of times a foreclosure notice must be published. It also will shrink the length of notices by declaring that a full legal description need not be published.

In the Senate, the bill has cleared committees and awaits a floor vote next week.

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, House sponsor of the bill drafted by the bankers association, said the current requirements unnecessarily drive up costs of foreclosures.

Critics said the bill undermines one of the few safeguards for borrowers in a state that already makes it easier to foreclose on property than most other states. It is one of just five states without judicial oversight of foreclosures.

The bill sparked some debate, mostly from those who questioned the legislation. Some said there are still cases where individuals learn their property is facing foreclosure through a newspaper notice, even though the law otherwise required notification by certified mail.

One example offered was where a couple have separated and the spouse receiving the notice does not inform the other, who is responsible for payment. And Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, said he knew of a situation in which an accident sent a homeowner into a nursing home for months, where the mailed notice was not received as a bank moved forward with foreclosure.

On the other hand, Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, who operates radio stations, jokingly suggested the bill be amended to require newspapers to publish foreclosure notices on their front page. Matlock said that would not be practical.

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Sen. Stacey Campfield's bill to prohibit any teaching of homosexuality in grades kindergarten through 12 brought protestors to the state Capitol for the second consecutive day. And, for the second consecutive day, a Senate floor vote on the measure, SB49, was postponed—this time until next Wednesday.

The House approved 96-0 and sent to the Senate on Thursday a bill that prohibits city and county governments from imposing restrictions on beekeepers, so long as they are following "reasonable" practices in maintaining their hives.

The bill, HB1671, is sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma.

House Republicans are hoping to wrap up this year's legislative session as early as next week.

House Clerk Joe McCord told members of the lower chamber that the "most optimistic" timetable could see the state's annual spending plan come up for a vote on Thursday. He also asked lawmakers to bring extra clothes in case they need to work through the weekend.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he considers that timetable "unrealistic," given a series of major bills still awaiting consideration.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Tom Humphrey may be reached at 615-242-7782.

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