Griscom: Tilting at rigid windmills

Griscom: Tilting at rigid windmills

December 20th, 2009 by Tom Griscom in Opinion Columns

Timing is everything.

Gov. Phil Bredesen has found opportunities during his seven years in the state's top position to leverage either a crisis or an opportunity to create significant changes.

He came to office in 2002 with "the ship of state on the rocks." He cited a hemorrhaging health care system, TennCare, that if left unchecked, would push the state toward insolvency. Working through a myriad of lawsuits, activists and Washington bureaucrats, he restructured programs, got federal courts out of the state's business, changed the rules for providers and streamlined eligibility rules for participants.

Faced with the task of competing with surrounding states in the quest for new jobs, Gov. Bredesen set his sights on reforming the state's workers' compensation laws. Amid criticism from Democratic lawmakers, revisions were approved that eliminated a potential barrier to business expansions, relocations and new recruits.

Now with the clock ticking on the governor's final year in office, one other elusive goal looms on the horizon. For those who have observed how this governor works, when he sets his sights on a target, he is relentless.

For five years Gov. Bredesen eyed reforms at every level of education. He revamped the formula for allocating K-12 resources and launched a pre-K program with a funding mechanism. But higher education remained on the sidelines. An effort to offer free tuition for community college students never moved past the bill-introduction stage in the General Assembly.

Without adequate time for a complete higher education overhaul, the governor turned his attention to steps that would begin the reform process but avoid the more explosive political issues such as combining the Tennessee Board of Regents with the University of Tennessee system.

But game changing has been his mantra as governor, and he tossed out a final push in his call to tie teacher and principal pay, tenure and evaluation to student achievement as measured by test data. The proposal also called for a statewide recovery district to handle failing schools or school districts.

The muted response from the teachers union was expected.

Performance tied to student tests or tenure related to student achievement was a non-starter. "We have not reached an agreement as to how much

weight testing should play in evaluating teachers," said Jerry Winters, the lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association.

His response was not unanticipated or unexpected.

Teachers in Hamilton County have been negotiating for a new contract for over a year with the school system. A proposal to raise monthly health premium payments from $25 to $100 even when most of the premium increase is covered by a salary hike has been rejected. There are any number of workers or those who have been laid off who would appreciate employment in order to have health care coverage at all, much less at $25 or even $100 a month.

Gov. Bredesen in his final-year education reform push also put higher education on the table, requesting a funding formula change that rewards achievement and not enrolling more students who may not be ready for college.

His higher education list includes remedial education only at the community colleges and streamlining the ability to shift courses to four-year institutions.

As he laid out his education reform initiative, the Democratic governor was joined by the Republican lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, who is one of four GOP candidates to fill the seat being vacated by Gov. Bredesen.

A Democrat and a Republican coming together on a major issue is a lesson that one hopes is somehow translated to the partisan halls of government in Washington.

Gov. Bredesen may not be successful in revamping the mindset that has resisted change for decades in public education in Tennessee, but one should be careful to place a small wager on his tenacity to get things done.

To reach Tom Griscom, call 423-757-6472 or e-mail