Bredesen's special-session timetable prompts lawmaker concern

Bredesen's special-session timetable prompts lawmaker concern

December 17th, 2009 by Kelli Gauthier and Andy Sher in Politics State

NASHVILLE - Gov. Phil Bredesen's one-week timetable for a special legislative session to enact sweeping changes in K-12 education and higher education appears a little too ambitious to some local lawmakers, who question whether everything can be properly considered in that short a time.

"Will we give the state of Tennessee due justice here?" said Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, a House Education Committee member. "Will we examine the issue? Will we debate the issue?"

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he believes he and fellow senators can act on K-12 proposals such as linking the evaluations of teachers and principals to student test scores. But he voiced concern about the inclusion of higher education, saying it may be better addressed in the regular session.

"I'm not interested in a rapid special session that attempts to reform K-16 education," Sen. Watson said, noting he worries that a proposal to tie college and university funding more closely to graduation rates could result in graduation standards actually falling at some institutions.

The governor publicly unveiled the plan Tuesday, saying he plans to call the General Assembly into a special session Jan. 12.

Gov. Bredesen told reporters that the K-12 changes must be approved by Jan. 19 so his administration can submit an application to the U.S. Department of Education enabling the state to compete for "hundreds of millions of dollars" in "Race to the Top" grants.

"I don't want to (act so quickly), but I have no choice," Gov. Bredesen told reporters. "If this is not in law at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time when we send our application off, it will not be a part of the application and without it ... I think it dramatically affects our chances."

The Race to the Top money, about $4 billion in competitive grants, will reward states that have raised student performance in the past and have the capacity to boost achievement gains with "innovative reforms," according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, is among lawmakers serving on the bipartisan panel looking at changes to higher education. Lawmakers have been talking about changes in higher education and K-12 education for several years, he said.

"Obviously the Race to the Top dollars have spurred us to move quicker," Sen. Berke said. "It's going to be challenging, but I think it's necessary to get the discussion going now."

Noting the application is due Jan. 19, Sen. Berke said, "I think the goal is to put ourselves in the best position to potentially get hundreds of millions of dollars as well as make sure our education system is working to its best capacity."

The governor said he didn't think including higher education would "muddy" the waters for lawmakers. There is "fairly broad agreement" on the bipartisan committee of lawmakers that has been working with the administration for months on higher education changes, Gov. Bredesen said.

"Second of all," the governor said, "we're not asking that those necessarily be done on the 19th. Those can go on a little bit beyond that. It's really only the Race to the Top stuff that has that hard date."

Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said she wants specific information about the proposals and how they would work "so I could be reading over it ... I think that would give me opportunity to ask questions and also find out (information) from educators in other states rather than rush through it."

Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, said that while the Senate might be able to act quickly, he can't say the same for the House.

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "I'm just not sure if we can."

Linda Mosley, vice chairwoman of the Hamilton County Board of Education, said she was glad to hear Gov. Bredesen had called the session.

"It made me feel very confident that we might actually get some of that money," she said. "It'd be a huge boost for us."

Another factor that could complicate the timetable is the Tennessee Education Association, which is questioning the reliance on student test scores for teacher evaluations.

Gov. Bredesen said he would like those scores to account for as much as 50 percent, a figure that TEA President Earl Wiman told the Tennessean newspaper was "inappropriate and morally wrong."

Gov. Bredesen said he considered calling a special session earlier than Jan. 12 - the time the regular legislative session begins - but opted for the one-week Jan. 12 proposal on the advice of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is Senate speaker, and House Speaker Kent Williams.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey told reporters this week that the House and Senate Education Committees can begin their work earlier than Jan. 12. Then, he said, lawmakers can move quickly once the special session begins.

"It can be done, especially if we inform the members between now and then exactly what we're talking about," he said.

CHANGES TO CONSIDER

Gov. Bredesen announced Tuesday he intends to call lawmakers into a special session Jan. 12 to deal with changes in K-12 and higher education. Here is what lawmakers will consider:

K-12:

* Mandating annual teacher and principal evaluations

* Evaluations and initial granting of teacher tenure would be based in part on student achievement as gauged by test data

* Creation of a statewide "recovery district" to handle failing schools or failing school systems

Higher education:

* Change the state funding formula to put more emphasis on graduation rates instead of enrollment

* Require students needing remedial education to attend community colleges and not four-year institutions.

* Standardize basic community college courses to ensure students can transfer credits from two-year schools to four-year institutions.

* Allowing dual enrollment in two- and four-year schools.