NASHVILLE — Armed with evidence that Tennessee's education reforms are paying off, Gov. Bill Haslam is showing little need to give on issues like school vouchers and big changes to Common Core standards sought by some conservatives.
Last week's release of the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, showed Tennessee fourth- and eighth-graders making the most progress nationwide on math and reading.
The result vaulted the state overnight from its mid-40s rankings among states to the low or middle 30s in most instances.
After four years, Haslam has argued for a pause to gauge the effect of reforms that implemented tougher course requirements, tied teacher tenure to student performance and gutted educators' collective bargaining rights.
He and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman had come under fire from teachers, nearly half of the state's school superintendents and legislative Democrats.
But the NAEP result gives them ammunition against those critics as well as Republicans seeking even more changes.
Even as Haslam and Huffman celebrated last week, the governor told reporters he intends to stick to a limited school voucher plan, which allows parents to send their children to private schools with taxpayer money, instead of the much-expanded program proponents want.
"In my mind there's not a deal to be struck," said Haslam, who reluctantly backed a limited voucher plan last session but shelved it after Senate proponents sought to expand it. "We honestly proposed last year what we thought was the right approach, and there's nothing that's changed our mind."
As for the controversy over Common Core standards, which opponents are trying to label as "Commie Core," Haslam said the standards are "critical to continue the progress we're making."
The national standards were developed "with a lot of input from Tennessee," he said, and the state is in its third year of implementation.
"And so we're making great progress in education in Tennessee, and I'm committed to not backing up," Haslam added.
Common Core critics and Republican lawmakers complained long and hard about the program during September hearings in the state Senate Education Committee.
The standards are an effort to decide what concepts students should be learning and better measure their progress. Conservatives have blasted Common Core as a federal takeover of education, and also are upset over the security of personal information collected on students.
Sharon Ford, president of the Tennessee Republican Assembly, a coalition of tea party and conservative groups, said in a statement last month that "we are already seeing the negative effects of Common Core in our schools, and now we will have thinly veiled socialist and communist agendas promoted with Tennessee tax dollars."
The group pointed to a state grant to Vanderbilt University, which they said was used to send a group of Tennessee teachers to China to look at instruction methods.
The group also released a mock-up of a campaign mailer featuring Chinese students in red scarves holding up a portrait of late Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung with the caption "Commie Core?"and asked why is "Representative John Doe supporting Commie Core???"
Last week former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, joined Haslam to celebrate the state's NAEP showing at a Wilson County middle school.
Bredesen, who started education reform in Tennessee by toughening student curricula and pushing through other changes that led to a $501 million federal Race to the Top grant, defended Common Core as another move to inject tougher standards.
"I think that stuff is very misguided," Bredesen said of attacks on Common Core, which he called a "state-led effort."
When the Obama administration embraced it, he said, "suddenly it has this aura about it that it's somehow an Obama administration initiative" and "the federal government's taking over," he added.
That's the wrong kind of thinking, he said.
"These standards came out of the states, states coming together to set them, and that ought to be exactly the sort of thing that the conservative or liberal would think is exactly the right thing," Bredesen noted.
Republican senators and conservative activists also are in an uproar over the state Textbook Commission, a governor-appointed panel that recommends texts for adoption by the State Board of Education.
Critics charged in hearings this month that the commission is top-heavy with educators and out of reach of average citizens.
They said Tennessee schoolbooks are crammed with bias and liberal slants: more space devoted to Islam than Christianity; creationism given short shrift in favor of evolution.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, declared "this can't be fixed."
He wants to replace a new commission formed along lines similar to those operating in Utah, Virginia and Louisiana.
That could include more non-educator members.
Haslam said last week he'll study whatever recommendations come from the discussion.
"I'm always willing to sit and listen and to hear," he said. "I think there is a process now that gets a lot of input from folks."
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, scoffed at the Senate conservatives' outrage over schoolbooks.
"It looks like at least the Senate's off on a textbook tear," Fitzhugh said. "The Legislature's going to start being the textbook czar. ... Can you imagine that? I think the problem's obvious. You seen what the Legislature's done lately? Directly educating our children by choosing and writing our textbooks? No, I don't think so."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
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, ...