By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the last few years, Tennessee hasn’t shied away from contentious education initiatives as it seeks to remain at the forefront of education reform in the nation.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has even characterized the state’s efforts as “courageous leadership.”
Two big initiatives were proposed during the 108th Tennessee General Assembly: an administrative proposal to create a school voucher program and a so-called parent trigger measure that would allow parents to decide the fate of a struggling school.
Both appeared to have momentum, but failed by the end of the session.
Nevertheless, lawmakers say they’re not giving up on the proposals.
“I plan on pushing the parent trigger again next year because I think it’s vital legislation to education reform,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. John Deberry of Memphis.
Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters at the end of the legislative session Friday that he plans to bring the voucher bill back next session.
“I certainly don’t think it’s dead,” he said. “We plan to come back with that same bill next year.”
Earlier this month, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville asked the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee to hold the measure in the committee, saying he was tired of the “gamesmanship.”
The administration proposed to limit vouchers to 5,000 students in failing schools next term; that figure would grow to 20,000 students by 2016.
However, there were attempts to broaden Haslam’s proposal, as special interest groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads promoting an expansion.
The governor recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that “at the end of the day, it was infighting among advocates and not the opposition’s efforts that derailed the vouchers in Tennessee this year.”
Critics have said they’re uncomfortable with the idea of voucher programs taking needed money from public schools and giving it to private schools to educate children.
Jim Wrye, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said vouchers are “just a bad idea” and that the state should invest more in public schools.
“So we’re going to be working as hard as we can with legislators after the session and bringing the public and getting them to understand … Tennessee schools are great places doing great work and they need investment,” Wrye said. “They don’t need things taken away from them.”
Under the parent trigger proposal, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 20 percent of failing schools believe a drastic change is needed, they can then select from several “turnaround models.” For instance, they may want to convert it to a charter school, change the administrators or close the school.
One issue that caused the bill to stall was lawmakers’ failure to agree on whether the parental percentage should be 51 percent or 55 percent, which Deberry later proposed.
Brent Easley, state director for the Tennessee chapter of StudentsFirst, a national grassroots movement to reform school systems across the country, said he expects that issue and others to be worked out over the summer.
“I think it’s an important tool for parents to have here,” he said of the bill. “It allows them to rally together to force a change that they feel like is in the best interest for their child. We’ll be working … over the summer to try to make sure we have a good bill we can bring back next year.”
The state has previously been praised as a leader in education reform by Duncan for other changes in state law including toughening the curriculum and teacher evaluations. Those changes helped the state win $500 million three years ago in the national Race to the Top education grant competition.
Race to the Top funds are meant to improve public schools by raising educational standards, providing instruction and support to teachers and administrators, helping officials use data to track student progress, and turning around the lowest-performing schools.
Another measure that failed would have changed the way certain charter schools are authorized. Under the proposal, the state Board of Education would be able to overrule local school board decisions on charter applications in five counties where there are failing schools.
Those counties include more than 330,000 students in the state’s four largest cities: Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby. Hardeman County also would be affected.
Currently, local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. There are currently 48 charters operating in Tennessee.
The contentious bill also seemed to have momentum, but its sponsor, Republican Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville, pulled it from the Senate floor on the last day of the session. One reason: She apparently lacked the votes.
The push for a charter school authorizer gained momentum in the aftermath of a fight over Nashville’s refusal to accept the application of Phoenix-based Great Hearts Academies despite being ordered to by the state Board of Education last year. Some feared the school was being located on the west side of Nashville to cater to affluent, white families who live nearby.
When the Nashville school board refused to accept Great Hearts, the Department of Education withheld $3.4 million in state funding.
This session, lawmakers passed other proposals they say will help the state continue education reform in Tennessee. They include:
— Proposal to lift a 1998 ban that forbids municipalities from starting their own school systems.
— Administrative proposal to tighten enrollment requirements at privately run online schools.
— Omnibus charter school bill that includes a provision to improve communication between school districts and charter schools.
— Proposal to allow school districts to hire individuals with prior law enforcement experience for security.
— Measure to revise policies for dismissing and hiring teachers.