Democrats challenge GOP education bills for Tennessee

photo Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga

Many education bills recently passed by the Republican-controlled Tennessee General Assembly have been less about educational quality and more about power, money and conservatism ideology, Democrats vying for elected office said.

Eight Democratic candidates for state House and Senate seats criticized recent education moves by the General Assembly at an education roundtable on Thursday hosted by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

The candidates rallied against what they called the privatization of public education through Republican-favored charter schools, for-profit virtual schools and voucher programs.

Rep. Tommie Brown said many Republican education efforts were aimed at spreading conservative ideals, like the recently so-called "monkey bill," which encouraged discussing the weaknesses of scientific theories like biological evolution in classrooms. Brown said many pieces of conservative legislation originated from right-wing think tanks that drafted boilerplate bills to be used across many states.

"Let's not see it as an isolated thing," she said.

Many candidates criticized recent education reform efforts, like changes to teacher tenure and the new teacher evaluation model that ties teacher performance to test scores. They encouraged better teacher pay and an end to or heightened accountability for virtual school programs that make a profit.

Sandy Smith, a retiring Hamilton County teacher vying for a seat in the House of Representatives, said many reform efforts were aimed at busting unions. She said those efforts would ultimately lead to broadened achievement gaps.

"If we don't change, we're not going to have a public education system," she said.

Brock Bennington, one of Smith's opponents, said Republicans were spending too much time on "nonissues," like the evolution bill, instead of focusing on the quality of Tennessee education.

"Republicans don't want us educated," he said. "They want to talk about education, but they don't want us educated."