Education changes should boost state chances for ‘Race’ funds

Here are highlights from the past week of the Special Session of the Tennessee State Senate. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns about matters being considered by the General Assembly. You can also get information about the General Assembly, including the text of bills and floor and committee calendars, by accessing the legislative web site at www.capitol.tn.gov. Please bear in mind this update is principally related to actions of the State Senate.

Education Reform -- The Tennessee General Assembly returned to Capitol Hill this week in Special Session to consider bold initiatives designed to transform education and place the state in position to be a top competitor to receive up to $485 million in federal funds. The legislation, entitled the Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010, is the result of the collaborative efforts of lawmakers, governor, and numerous education stakeholders, including an education reform panel headed by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist.

The governor called the Special Session after recognizing Tennessee has an opportunity to receive a large portion of the $4.3 billion federal "Race to the Top" dollars if the General Assembly acted promptly with certain education reforms. Although legislators are concerned about utilization of stimulus funds, most see the Race to the Top competition as a catalyst for passage of education reform proposals that have been discussed for several years.

Race to the Top is authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and is a competitive grant program to encourage and reward states which are implementing significant reforms in four education areas: enhancing standards and assessments; improving the collection and use of data; increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution; and, turning around struggling schools.

These goals are also in line with recommendations from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), headed by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. First and a group of key public officials and education and business leaders from across the state held numerous public meetings last year seeking real, meaningful improvements in Tennessee's education system. Their work has served as a compass for the General Assembly to understand the substantive changes needed to boost student achievement. Seven of the panel's key recommendations were included in the innovative legislation passed by Tennessee lawmakers, making up a large portion of the bill.

The state had to adopt legislation to conform to the Race to the Top requirements by January 19, 2010, to qualify for priority status for receiving funds. Priority is given in the first round of awards to states that have already adopted an innovative and cohesive plan to improve education. If Tennessee is successful, the funds would be split with half used for statewide efforts and half going to local education agencies which agree to participate.

Teachers -- The legislation focuses on the belief that great teachers and school leaders make the biggest difference in student performance, thus gaining the support of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teacher organization. It capitalizes on Tennessee's two decades of experience with the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) in evaluating student achievement on a year-to-year basis.

Currently, state law bans utilizing the value-added data for making decisions regarding teachers, including the granting of tenure. The ability to use student achievement and teacher effect data is one of the linchpin issues for receiving Race to the Top funds.

Some of the details of the teacher and principal evaluation process included in the bill are:

• Creates a Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee composed of 15 members, including five K-12 teachers, two principals and one director of schools for a total of eight professional educators to recommend evaluation guidelines.

• Requires annual evaluations using teacher effect data in teacher and principal evaluations.

• Establishes a Teacher Professional Development Fund to help teachers develop their skills.

• Allows student achievement data to be a component of all teacher evaluations.

• Thirty-five percent of a teacher's evaluation would be based on the TVAAS teacher-effect data with another 15 percent based on other measurements agreed upon by the teacher and the evaluator, such as the end of year TCAP tests, ACT or Advanced Placement scores.

• Requires tenure decisions to be based in part on teacher evaluations.

• Grants tenured teachers the right to a hearing before an impartial hearing officer selected by the local board of education prior to any termination.

• Gives school districts the option of using impartial hearing officers to settle tenured teacher dismissal proceedings.

• Provides that local school systems can create a local salary schedule for teachers and principals to allow local education agencies to reward professional excellence.

• Gives teacher training programs access to non-identifying TVAAS data on their graduates to help identify the strengths and weaknesses of their programs.

Under-performing schools -- On the issue of providing help for under-performing schools, the legislation focuses on early intervention so the state can take action sooner to get them back on track. The bill allows the Commissioner of Education to move any public school or local education agency into a newly created "Achievement School District" if the school is in the fifth year of improvement status or at any time a Title I school meets the federal definition of "persistently lowest achieving schools."

The school would then remain in that District until it achieves adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years at which time it would transition back. In the meantime, the bill allows for the Commissioner to contract with outside entities to manage the day-to-day operation of any or all schools or local education agencies within the Achievement School District. Those who contract would report to the local education agency how the money is spent to increase accountability.

STEM -- In addition to the legislation, the state plans to enhance its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program, which will be included in the Race to the Top application. The state is partnering with Battelle, which manages the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to provide an extensive network of STEM programs across the state.

This includes building new science labs, adding new technology, and creating new curricula to inspire and create new interest in science and math. Tennessee students must be proficient in these subject areas to compete in a changing global economy.

Tennessee has compelling criteria to place it at the top of the list for Race to the Top funds. Finalists in the competition will be invited to Washington to present their plans to the U.S. Department of Education in March. The winners will be announced in April. If successful, Tennessee can expect to begin receiving funds in September 2010 which will continue in equal increments over four years.

Worker's Compensation -- The General Assembly approved legislation calling for immediate suspension of a new law to require sole proprietors and partners engaged in the construction industry to carry workers' compensation coverage on themselves due to unintended effects of the act.

The law will be suspended until March 28, 2010. In the meantime, the legislature will discuss alternative ways to address gaps in coverage for workers in companies of all sizes in the various construction fields in order to address the problem without harming small business owners.

Voting machines -- The Tennessee Senate approved legislation to delay a law that would have required cash-strapped Tennessee counties to spend $30 million to replace their voting machines. The legislation was easily approved by a vote of 70 to 23 in the House of Representatives last year with bi-partisan sponsors and support.

The vote in the Senate came after both Democrat and Republican county mayors from across the state expressed strong support in delaying the law due to the costs to taxpayers, absence of availability for up-to-date federally certified machines, and the fact that the machines will have to be replaced again in the immediate future to comply with new standards from Washington.

Those standards include over 100 new requirements, with many of these focused on allowing physically impaired voters to vote independent of assistance.

State revenues continue negative trend - The state's Department of Finance and Administration released Tennessee's latest revenue collections this week.

The report showed a continued trend of negative tax revenue growth with tax collections falling below budgeted estimates again in December. It was the 19th consecutive month of negative sales tax growth with the general fund under collected by $50.8 million and the four other funds under collected by $3.4 million.

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