published Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Teacher compromise aids Race to the Top bill

Audio clip

Gov. Phil Bredesen

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's application for $485 million in federal Race to the Top funds appeared to be on track Wednesday night after the state's largest teachers' union accepted Gov. Phil Bredesen's plan to let student achievement data count for 50 percent in teacher tenure and evaluation decisions.

The education overhaul legislation cleared the Senate Education Committee late Wednesday afternoon with 12 yes votes and one lawmaker abstaining.

House Education Committee members worked into the evening arguing over bill provisions the governor says are necessary to make the state competitive in its federal application. They agreed to recess around 9:30 p.m. EST and will resume discussion today.

Gov. Bredesen has urged lawmakers to move quickly in the special session so he can sign changes into law by Tuesday, when the state has a deadline on submitting its application to U.S. Department of Education officials.

After the bill passed the Senate Education Committee, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said he was "very optimistic we'll pass the bill tomorrow (out of Finance Committee). It could be on the floor by Friday morning."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Kent Williams said that if one of the other reasons for the special session, a proposed overhaul of higher education, doesn't begin moving by either Friday or Tuesday, lawmakers may decide to address it in their regular session instead of remaining in the special session for another week or so. The higher education changes are separate from the Race to the Top application.

The state's chances of moving ahead with the K-12 legislation improved after the 55,000-member Tennessee Education Association's directors agreed to let students' value-added test scores count for 35 percent in teacher and principal evaluations, with an additional 15 percent coming from a "menu" of other student-achievement data.

The value-added tests can measure the impact of individual teachers on a student's gains. They now are not used in evaluations or tenure decisions. The 15 percent student achievement data can include things such as other standardized tests, ACT scores, Advanced Placement exams and student work.

The TEA previously had accepted the 35 percent figure on value-added tests but balked at the additional 15 percent.

TEA's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters, said the group agreed to the combined 50 percent figure in part because Gov. Bredesen agreed to put the 35/15 percent language in the legislation. The percentage previously would have been left up to a committee.

"We're supporting the legislation as long as it doesn't get substantially changed over the next couple of days," Mr. Winters said.

In the meantime, Mr. Winters said, "we're prepared to go with the governor to Washington to work the case for the Race to the Top application."

While Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, has said he could pass the bill despite TEA opposition, he said "the thing that's really important to me on this is that they're going to move forward. I also think, even more importantly, they're going to move forward enthusiastically."

The education department's guidelines reward states that gain the support of their teacher unions.

But while on track, things looked a little wobbly at times in both the Senate and House education committees.

Senators got stuck on language that said teachers and principals being evaluated on the 15 percent achievement data "shall mutually agree" with the evaluator on what measures to use. Committee Republicans objected, saying it put too much power in the hands of those being evaluated.

Sen. Kyle agreed to change the language to leave the ultimate decision on what measures to use to the evaluator if disagreements arise.

In the House, Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, launched a multi-faceted attack beginning with the bill's creation of a statewide "achievement" district for troubled or failing schools.

"We're going to separate, isolate students. I want to know where the data is to substantiate this and the impact on those people and children we're going to isolate," said Rep. Brown, a retired sociology professor.

She went to criticize any number of provisions in the bill and demanded scientific analysis.

When the bill's sponsor, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville, said he admired her "passion" on the issue, Rep. Brown unloaded, saying she was attempting to find the underpinnings of Race to the Top provisions.

"If you haven't done it, shame on all of you," she said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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