The national education-reform group StudentsFirst continues to demonstrate it intends to be a serious player on Tennessee policy regarding public education.
After making substantial campaign contributions to state lawmakers and commissioning a poll to show support for its issues, StudentsFirst now is running television ads urging viewers to contact state lawmakers to support three bills the organization backs in the Legislature.
"Last year our legislators took courageous steps to rebuild our schools with great teachers in every classroom," says the 30-second spot, which employs colored building blocks to begin constructing a school. "Let's keep building. To make it easier to hire math, science and business professionals who want to teach, stop forced placement and put the right teachers in the right schools.
"Empower parents," the narrator continues. "Give them a trigger to force school boards to take aggressive action to fix broken schools. Call your legislator. Tell them to keep putting students first. Support comprehensive education reform."
The measures include an alternative certification bill expanding schools' ability to hire professionals with expertise in math, science and other areas, including college professors, who don't have teacher certification.
Another bill requires that both a principal and the teacher must consent before a teacher is placed in a vacant position in a school. The third supports Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal and would make it easier for the state's new Achievement School District to turn around failing schools.
The ad lists legislative numbers of specific members of the House and Senate Education committees, where the bills are scheduled to be heard next week.
StudentsFirst says its spending on the ads is in the "six figures."
Full-court presses by groups are fairly common in Congress, but the combination of polling and campaign contributions, which benefit lawmakers, combined with paid TV ads is still somewhat rare in Tennessee.
StudentsFirst was founded by former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is the former wife of state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Tennesseans busy rebuilding their homes from last year's storms and last week's slew of tornadoes would get some help on sales taxes under legislation sponsored by Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland.
The bill authorizes a sales tax refund on purchases made by people receiving insurance settlements or filing insurance claims for damage resulting from last week's tornadoes, which swept through Hamilton and Bradley counties as well as other parts of the state.
"Bradley County and many parts of Tennessee have felt the destructive effects of tornado damage and severe weather over the last year," said Watson. "Hopefully, Tennesseans will take advantage of this sales tax refund to rebuild their homes and their lives after these deadly storms."
Democratic efforts to require lawmakers to disclose what special interests are proposing the "model legislation" members often introduce died in a party-line vote last week in Republican-run House subcommittee.
"This is a bad bill ... horrible bill, really," Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said during the House State and Local Government Subcommittee meeting. "I know what it's getting back at. It's getting back at ALEC."
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national group of businesses and conservative legislators from across the U.S. Critics say the group is really a front that gives large corporations a big hand in writing bills introduced in dozens of states in areas ranging from anti-teacher union measures to voting.
Todd is a board member.
The disclosure bill's sponsor, Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said it "does not particularly talk about ALEC" and noted it also would affect groups like the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. "It's just good disclosure to know where these bills come from."
Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, also defended the bill, saying, "All it does is tell us the source."
The bill died on a voice vote.