Monthly Archives: December 2013

AP story on textbook, Common Core controversies in TN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee education officials trying to implement the federal government’s new Common Core academic standards face opposition from a tea party-linked group that also objects to what it considers biased passages in some state-approved textbooks.

In September, the Senate Education Committee held hearings to discuss concerns about the standards that are designed to prepare students for college or a job by the time they graduate from high school. Two months later, the same committee called hearings to review the role of the Tennessee Textbook Commission, which recommends its selection of books to the State Board of Education.

At just about all the hearings were representatives of the Tennessee Eagle Forum, a conservative group that shares many tea party beliefs. It seems to have the strongest influence on Republican lawmakers proposing measures for the upcoming session that seek to change the standards and the textbook commission.

“There will be legislation in January, because we’ve been working on that,” said Eagle Forum president Bobbie Patray. “There are going to be major changes.”

At a recent news conference, House Republican leaders told reporters there will be discussion about Common Core and the textbook commission in the upcoming Legislature. They didn’t specify any legislation, but said they welcome the input of tea partyers.

“They should have the same rights as anyone else to have their views known, and we need to consider them seriously,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga. “We actually agree with most of what they’re advocating anyway.”

In the case of the textbook commission, Patray said there will likely be legislation that seeks to involve more public input in the selection of books, particularly from parents, whom she’s been rallying for months.

Earlier this year, parents in Williamson County raised concerns about a question in a world geography textbook that asked students to consider whether a suicide bomber attacking civilians in a cafe in Israel was terrorism or retaliation for military actions against Palestinians.

Critics say the question is among passages that display bias.

Emily Barton, assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction for the state Department of Education, acknowledged during one of the hearings that more public input is needed and suggested instituting online reviews “so that all citizens can have equal access to reviewing these materials and sharing their comments and feedback.”

Michelle Farnham was at the hearing and said that’s something she’d like to see.

“My daughter will be in public schools at some point and I want to make sure they (books) are up to standard,” Farnham said.

As for the Common Core standards, Patray was more vague about legislation. She did cite concerns echoed by other opponents: costly implementation, untested, and data gathering believed to infringe on students’ privacy rights.

However, supporters of the new set of standards being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia for reading and math say they’re needed to equip students with the critical thinking, problem-solving and writing skills needed to prepare them for college and the workforce — as well as global competition.

“For years, Tennessee has shown a commitment to raising standards for students,” said Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier. “Implementing the Common Core state standards is the next step of that journey, and one we believe will ensure that all of our students graduate high school prepared for college or careers.”

Whether it’s Common Core or the textbook commission, Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said tea partyers and groups linked to them seem to have a “distrust of anything government designs.”

“Their initial assumption is there must be something wrong with it,” he said. “In some cases it’s conspiratorial, but in other cases just an immediate distrust.”

TennCare awards three new statewide managed care contracts

News release from TennCare:
Nashville, Tenn. – The Bureau of TennCare awarded managed care contracts to AmeriGroup, BlueCare Tennessee and UnitedHealthcare. The apparent winners of the three-year contracts with possible one-year extensions were announced on December 16, 2013. Following a 10-day inspection period the contracts were officially awarded and signed on December 27, 2013, beginning a one-year transition period.

“We are pleased to continue our relationship with these organizations,” said Health Care Finance and Administration Deputy Commissioner Darin Gordon. “All three managed care organizations (MCOs) have proven their ability to efficiently administer our integrated benefit package of physical, behavioral and long term care services and have shown each is willing to take additional steps to further improve quality and better align incentives for members and providers.”

Each MCO will accept full financial risk to participate in the TennCare program and will be paid set monthly capitated payments to manage and deliver care to members. Additional requirements of these new contracts are each MCO must have the network capacity to operate statewide. Previously, the Bureau of TennCare awarded regional contracts by selecting two companies to operate in each of the three grand regions – West, Middle and East. The new contracts will take effect January 1, 2015 with full statewide implementation completed by the end of the calendar year 2015.

“TennCare is currently working with the health plans to ensure the transition will go as smoothly as possible for our members,” Gordon said. “Continuity of care is the utmost concern as we plan for implementation in 2015.”

AmeriGroup currently serves approximately 2.8 million members in 12 states and is dedicated to offering real solutions that improve health care access and quality for members, while proactively working to reduce the overall cost of care to taxpayers. BlueCare Tennessee and BlueCare are independent licensees of the BlueCross BlueShield Association. The Chattanooga-based company focuses on managing care and providing quality health care products, services and information for government programs. UnitedHealthcare is an operating division of UnitedHealth Group, the largest single health carrier in the United States delivering innovative products and services to approximately 70 million Americans.

TennCare is the state’s Medicaid program that provides health care for 1.2 million Tennesseans.

More federal education funds flow into TN

Tennessee is one of seven states that will receive more than $43.4 million to continue efforts to turn around persistently low-achieving schools.

The funds — Tennessee will receive about $9.2 million — are part of the U.S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grant program, reports the News Sentinel.

Tennessee’s funds, as well as those for Missouri, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, will be used to continue the third year of programs already now operating with help from the money.

The other two states, Arkansas and Kentucky, will receive funds to establish new competitions for previously unfunded schools in their states.

Of the seven states, only North Carolina is receiving more money than Tennessee — $13.6 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

School improvement grants are awarded to state education departments that then make competitive subgrants to school districts which demonstrate the greatest need for the funds and the strongest commitment to provide adequate resources to substantially raise student achievement in their lowest-performing schools.

Gun rights advocate laments GOP leaders’ issue evasion

A Tennessee gun-rights group is firing at top Republican leaders for displaying insufficient enthusiasm for major changes to the “guns in parking lots” law enacted earlier this year, notes the Chattanooga TFP.

Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris, in a recent letter to members, called it “shameful” that “the Republican establishment leadership plans to continue ignoring the constitutionally protected rights of law-abiding gun owners, including the right to defend themselves and their families against criminals.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said earlier this month they did not intend to take the lead in revisiting the Safe Commute Act, although they expect the issue to emerge.

…Speaking with reporters last week, Harwell didn’t rule out revisiting the issue but raised the specter of harm to the state’s at-will employment laws.

“I believe there is some movement among individual legislators to look at [whether we can] make some changes to what passed last year,” Harwell said. “We want to be supportive of Tennesseans’ right to own and bear arms.”

But that has to be balanced with business owners’ right to hire and fire at will, she said.
“We’ll try to balance that as we always try to do.”

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said Thursday he’s awaiting developments.

“Unless we get somebody who’s been fired, I don’t know that it’s necessary to take action on it. If one of these big employers does fire somebody as a result, I think we would pass legislation very quickly, and should if that were to happen.”

Note: Harris’ fundraising letter, cited in the TFP article, is below.
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Haslam appoints Crockett County lawyer to Court of Appeals

News release from governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed Brandon O. Gibson of Crockett County to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section. She will replace Judge David R. Farmer upon the expiration of his term on August 31, 2014.

Gibson, 38, has been in private practice at the Pentecost & Glenn law firm in Jackson since 2003. Her practice there has focused on governmental entity defense, employment defense, commercial litigation, civil rights litigation, and transactional services. Her work for the firm has included its satellite office in Crockett County.

“Brandon Gibson will be an excellent judge on the Court of Appeals,” Haslam said. “She has vast experience in private practice, and I know she will serve the citizens of the Western Section well in this role.”

Prior to her work at Pentecost & Glenn, Gibson was at the Waldrop & Hall law firm in Jackson from 2001-2003. She was at the Potter Minton firm in Tyler, Texas, from 2000-2001.
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THP out for ‘no refusal’ blood in eight targeted counties

News release from Department of Safety:
NASHVILLE— Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) Colonel Tracy Trott today announced plans for a “No Refusal” enforcement campaign during the New Year’s Eve holiday period. This special enforcement will begin at 6 p.m. on Monday, December 30 and conclude at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, January 1, 2014.

The “No Refusal” enforcement will be conducted in one county in each of the eight THP Districts across the state, and is aimed at deterring impaired driving and reducing fatal crashes on Tennessee roadways. The “No Refusal” legislation allows law enforcement officials to seek search warrants for blood samples in cases involving suspected impaired drivers.

The participating “No Refusal” counties include Sevier (Knoxville District); Grundy (Chattanooga District); Wilson (Nashville District); Tipton (Memphis District); Washington (Fall Branch District); Putnam (Cookeville District); Maury (Lawrenceburg District); and Benton County (Jackson District).
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AP story on recycling of 2013 education reform bills for 2014

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE – Proponents of revamping education laws in Tennessee cite a recent report that ranked the state’s students tops in the nation in academic improvement as proof that recent reforms are working and more should be considered.

The report released in November by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed Tennessee’s fourth and eighth graders had the largest growth in reading and math of any state from 2011-2013, with a 22-point growth across all subject areas.

State education officials said the results were partially due to reforms put in place over the years. Reform advocates say that’s all the more reason lawmakers should take up three contentious education initiatives that failed last year.

On their agenda during the session that starts in January will be a so-called “parent trigger” measure that would let parents decide the fate of a struggling school; a proposal that would allow the state to authorize charter schools in counties where there are failing schools; and a renewed tussle between Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who wants to create a modestly sized school voucher program, and supporters of a much broader voucher plan.
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Underdog DesJarlais strives to overcome ‘Anthony Weiner problem’

Chas Sisk has a profile piece on Scott DesJarlais and his reelection campaign, which he says is simply aimed at being the voice of 4th Congressional District voters, whether that involved attacking the Obama administration or pushing for veterans benefits. And his wife is helping deflect criticism over allegations of abortion and inappropriate relationships with patients in old DesJarlais divorce files.

An excerpt:

The one-time outsider now presents himself as a legislator who wants to work across party lines and solve his constituents’ problems.

“I look at it this way,” DesJarlais told about a dozen people in the basement of a Farm Bureau Insurance office in Murfreesboro earlier this month. “It’s pretty simple: There’s 700,000 people in a congressional district, they pick someone to represent them, and my job basically is to come to listen and get a feel for what goes on in my district.

“And then I go back to Washington and when it comes time to vote, I hopefully vote for the majority. But it takes outreach.”

The approach requires finesse for a candidate who has entertained the notion that the Affordable Care Act may have been a plot to destabilize the health care industry and bring about “socialized medicine.” It has meant putting some distance between himself and the tea party activists who have been his strongest supporters.

But asking voters to focus on his record also changes the subject from the topic that hangs over his campaign: his divorce file.

…“There are questions that go to his character, his judgment,” said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of a national political handicapping newsletter. “This is kind of the Anthony Weiner problem. There comes a time when you’ve so violated the public’s trust.”

…But it’s unlikely such piecemeal vote-gathering will add up to a winning campaign strategy, said Rothenberg. He cited DesJarlais’ fundraising difficulties and noted that the Citizens United Political Victory Fund, a political action committee associated with the conservative organization, last week endorsed Tracy.

“DesJarlais is going to lose, and he’s going to lose badly,” predicted Rothenberg.
There’s little evidence to suggest Rothenberg is wrong. Then again, there was little to suggest DesJarlais ever would have been a congressman in the first place.

On Elvis, Priscilla Presley and TN walking horses

Priscilla Presley is backing legislation in Congress to put new restrictions on the walking horse and asking that the nation’s premier walking horse competition stop awarding a Graceland trophy, reports The Tennessean.

Presley said she didn’t know the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration still awarded the trophy, given in memory of her ex-husband, Elvis Presley. She attended the Shelbyville, Tenn., event in 1983 and donated it as part of an exhibition featuring Ebony’s Double, the last walking horse Elvis Presley ever bought. She thought it was a one-time award, but it’s been given every year since and is listed in the latest Celebration program under prizes for the Four-Year-Old Walking Horse World Grand Championship.

Today, she owns two Tennessee Walking Horses, stabled on the grounds of the Presley family’s Graceland estate in Memphis, and is a vocal supporter of a federal bill seeking to end abuse of the breed.

“Graceland isn’t going to support this, knowing what we know now,” Presley said Tuesday. “We want that trophy back.

“I can’t support the trophy when inhumane methods are used on these horses. I can’t support it.”

…The Celebration hasn’t yet received the request, said CEO Mike Inman, but that could be because the offices are closed for the holidays. He said he would like a chance to speak to Presley before she makes a final decision.

“I believe she’d come to a different conclusion,” Inman said.

Legislation proposed on rape test kits

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, wants to require that law enforcement officials use rape testing kits in investigating rape charges and put a time limit on how long the evidence can sit on a shelf, reports WMC-TV.

The proposal comes after reports that more than 12,000 rape kits went untested for decades in Memphis.

Parkinson says there is a dire need to bring closure to the women and men whose rape kits are backlogged.

“People may be running around who might be rapists on our streets and in our communities,” Parkinson said.

He says there is also a flip side.

“You have those that were accused and they haven’t been vindicated as to whether or not they raped someone,” he explained.

…There are three components to Parkinson’s bill:

– The rape kits must be submitted to the TBI or a TBI-authorized lab for testing within ten days.

– The lab has six months to analyze the kits.

– The TBI would be required to come up with a plan to manage the backlog.

“There is a need to solve this problem and so we’re going to give it our best effort to make sure these individuals who are victims on both sides of this are not victimized again,” Parkinson explained.

The State Legislature resumes January 14th.

It’s unclear how long the bill will take to make it through the General Assembly.