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VOL. 35 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 14, 2011




GOP leaders plan changes to education this year

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Republican leaders say they plan to reform the state's education system, including possibly lifting the cap on charter schools and re-evaluating when high school teachers should get tenure.

Republicans control the House, Senate and governorship, which means they can do just about whatever they want. Every committee in both chambers is headed by a GOP member, including education, which has a number of new Republican faces in the House.

"I think you'll see a reform of the education system in Tennessee with the new members of the education committee in particular," said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga.

He said one issue that is almost certain to come back up is charter schools.

Under a proposal that passed the Legislature in 2009, children in school systems with at least 14,000 students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches would be eligible to enroll. Preference would be given to students with failing grades or those from failing schools.

The measure also would cap the number of charter schools in the state at 90. There are currently 16 operating.

McCormick said he'd like to see the cap lifted.

"I hope we open it up where it's not just disadvantaged children going to charter schools," he said.

Newly elected House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville sponsored the charter school measure two years ago and was able to eventually get it passed after reaching an agreement with the Democratic Caucus. But not much opposition is expected this year, and Harwell said she too is considering change to charter schools.

"I'm a firm believer that there are right alternatives for a lot of children in the traditional public school system, they're not right for every child, but I think we should expand that availability for a lot of our children," she said.

In the case of teacher tenure, Republicans don't seem to be as united.

During his campaign, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said it was almost automatic for teachers to earn lifetime tenure after just three years of service, and that he would work to set either a tougher standard or institute periodic review of tenured teachers.

McCormick believes the issue just needs to be evaluated for now.

"I think tenure will be reviewed, but I don't think we're going to make any quick changes to it," he said. "I think we need to study it and make sure we do it in a reasonable, logical way, and keep in mind really what's good for the kids, rather than what's good for adults in education."

A measure passed during a special session on education last year bases teacher evaluations on student achievement data, including 35 percent on "value-added" scores that measure a student's progress on standardized tests over time.

Harwell said she doesn't agree with granting tenure in the third year, when "we really don't have the value-added test scores back till the fourth year."

"So we're not granting tenure really based on teacher effectiveness," she said. "I'd like to see one of those things give. Either we get those test scores back sooner, or we grant tenure a little later."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said there may be a bill advancing in the upper chamber that would consider a "rolling tenure that you get for a certain period of time."

Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said lawmakers should stay away from teacher tenure and charter schools, and instead focus on "student accountability, school safety, discipline and parental involvement."

"Those are tough issues," he said.

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