Niceley frets about 'shenanigans' on anti-Common Core proposal

Niceley frets about 'shenanigans' on anti-Common Core proposal

March 20th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Republican Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, right, listens to proceedings on the Senate floor in Nashville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - The Senate sponsor of a House-passed bill that would impose a two-year delay on Tennessee's Common Core education standards says he's worried about "shenanigans" on a fiscal analysis that will send the measure to the Senate Finance Committee.

He questioned the $10 million fiscal note on the bill, saying it doesn't account for what he believes is $50 million in savings to local school systems if implementation of the standards is pushed back.

"I think it's almost some shenanigans. Everybody talks about the shenanigans on the House floor," Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, said Wednesday, chuckling over the word's use when conservatives and Democrats coalesced to take over the bill on the House floor. "I've never a seen a shortage of shenanigans down here."

After being blocked all session in the House Education Committee, critics of Common Core standards and the accompanying standardized test assessments hijacked a Niceley bill on the House floor dealing with the teaching of history, inserted the two-year delay of the program and then passed it.

Niceley said he will accept the anti-Common Core changes made in the House to his bill. But Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said the bill is "exactly the wrong thing to do."

The Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states, specify by grade what skills students should have in math and reading. The accompanying PARCC tests will replace current state testing and assess what students are learning.

Critics like Niceley question the national standards, arguing they smack of Big Brother-like federal intrusion in education. They also complain the PARCC assessments are untested and worry about sharing of students' personal information.

Meanwhile, Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has said he sees no need for the House-passed bill because a Senate bill approved Monday deals with concerns over sharing of student data among other things.

In other legislative action Wednesday:

• Gov. Bill Haslam's "Tennessee Promise" plan offering free two-year community college for high schoolers is back on track in the Legislature after the administration struck a compromise with four-year institutions over reductions in awards for lottery-funded scholarships.

Senate Education Committee members on Wednesday approved the measure on an 8-1 vote, following similar action on Tuesday in the House Education Committee.

The proposal would provide free tuition to two-year schools for any high school graduate. Doing that is estimated to cost $34 million per year.

Short on cash to carry out his election-year pledge, the Republican governor wants to take $300 million from a lottery-funded scholarship reserve, put it into a separate account and use interest and earnings from the new pot of money to get to the $34 million.

But his initial idea of cutting back on Tennessee Lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship awards for freshmen and sophomores attending public and private four-year institutions created blow back from higher education leaders, leading to weeks of delay.

Initially, Haslam sought to lower the current $4,000 lottery scholarship amount at four-year colleges to $3,000 for freshmen and sophomores. But it would increase it to $5,000 for juniors and seniors. Parents, students and the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association objected.

So the compromise makes the amount $3,500 for freshman and sophomores, and $4,500 for juniors and seniors.

"To say we don't still have some concerns would not be accurate," TCUA President Claude Pressnell told the Nashville Post. And Presnell and other higher education leaders say they intend to keep a close eye on how it impacts HOPE scholarships.

• A bill moving in the state House that bans "mass picketing" by unions is unconstitutional, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper says in a legal opinion.

Cooper's written opinion says the bill violates free speech rights under the First Amendment and targets unions. It may also violate the National Labor Relations Act, Cooper wrote.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner sought the opinion on the bill, filed by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. The House Consumer Affairs Subcommittee approved it last month. It's been scheduled for a vote in the full committee next week.

"HB1688 presents a content-based restriction upon speech. It would criminalize 'any form of mass picketing activity in the context of a strike, lockout, or other labor dispute,'" the opinion says.

It notes the bill "includes labor-dispute-specific proscriptions on conduct that do not apply in non-labor contexts. Furthermore, the injunction provision of HB1688 ... would establish a different standard for business and private-property owners who are the targets of labor-related mass picketing."

One of Turner's questions was whether the bill amounted to an "invalid" restriction on speech under the First Amendment. Cooper's short reply, before presenting a detailed legal analysis of prior court decisions, was "yes."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.