Tennessee lawmakers OK new bill to prevent TNReady fiasco from harming teachers

Tennessee House holds state's $37.5 billion budget hostage in bid to protect educators

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
The Tennessee House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - The Tennessee General Assembly's traditional end-of-session jockeying over last-minute bills boiled over into dramatic brinkmanship Wednesday with a focus on the latest TNReady student testing fiasco.

The House seized the state's recently passed $37.5 billion budget as hostage, demanding senators and Gov. Bill Haslam agree to guarantee teachers' evaluations won't be at risk after the latest problems.

The House then quickly amended and passed a bill on an 89-0 vote to hold teachers harmless and prevent the state from using scores from the latest botched rollout of student TNReady assessments from applying to educators this school year unless teachers want them used.

The move threw proceedings into turmoil at the Capitol for hours, with Senate leaders saying the problem had already been fixed with legislation rushed through last week. Other bills became embroiled, and a full-fledged fight was on.

But Wednesday night an agreement was struck. A new bill was whisked through the Senate on a 32-0 vote - as senators continued to gripe it was much ado about nothing.

In the House, the bill was eventually passed 84-0, although some members remained suspicious their teachers were adequately being protected with one member charging the House had "blinked."

Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, stood with majority Republicans in the well of the House and said "we did not blink."

"This body made it abundantly clear that no adverse action can happen," Fitzhugh said. "It's that simple."

The language of the bill says: "Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, no adverse action may be taken against any student, teacher, school, or LEA based, in whole or in part, on student achievement data generated from the 2017-2018 TNReady assessments."

Lawmakers then turned to other legislation as they began a rush to wrap up business and adjourn their annual session.

Earlier, House Republican leaders warned their Senate counterparts they'd better join them in ensuring TNReady assessments not be used in evaluating teachers in the 2017-2018 school year.

"To my Senate colleagues watching right now: Pass this bill now," Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville said as they passed a bill designed to do that.

The aggressive move on the already passed budget came after talks between Haslam and leaders of the House and Senate on other issues, including the TNReady problems, collapsed earlier in the day.

Meanwhile, the governor, Republicans said, is upset over the House torpedoing his Complete College Act.

That bill sought to give college students on lottery-funded scholarships a forceful nudge to move more quickly toward graduation. It would have required them to take 30 credit hours of course work a year or face reductions in the awards. Twenty-four credit hours a year is considered full time.

After passage of the House's first TNReady bill salvo, House Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, told representatives that it was "historical" how they came together as both Republicans and Democrats.

Moreover, Casada added, "I think you need to call your senator and tell them to vote for a certain bill we just sent over to them."

House and Senate leaders later began discussions, working into the evening to find a fix on the TNReady issue to "hold harmless" thousands of teachers.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams of Cookeville told reporters early Wednesdayevening that discussions appeared to be going well, saying, "it's not if, it's how."

The online TNReady test issue erupted last week after the system operated by a vendor was hacked, leading to many students being unable to get online or complete their exams. Another system collapse occurred several years ago with a different company.

Lawmakers and Haslam agreed to legislation, passed last week, aimed at preventing students and schools from being harmed by the latest problems. Teachers, officials said at the time, were to be protected in terms of salary and tenure decisions.

But legislative critics charged that teachers were still vulnerable on their annual evaluations and demanded more be done.

Wednesday's standoff over the issue bled into a number of other last-minute bills.

Lawmakers were hoping to wrap up their annual session Wednesday.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.