State-level control of schools drives much of Dunn’s agenda

Friday, March 25, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 13


Knoxville Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn says he believes in putting up “guardrails” to keep Tennesseans from getting off track.

When he ran for a state House seat more than 20 years ago, he didn’t like the way the world was going and decided to leave a job as 4-H agent with the UT Extension Service for work with a tree company, which enabled him to speak out.

“It seemed like taxes were going up and morals were going down. And the longer I’m down here the more I realize there’s a very strong correlation,” says Dunn, who represents House District 16 in Knox County.

“When people don’t behave themselves, it’s very expensive for the taxpayers.”

With that in mind, he helped start a drug task force in Knox County and worked on reducing opiate prescriptions to save taxpayers money and reduce “human suffering.”

This session, he is sponsoring legislation for a pilot Knox County program allowing judges to suspend court costs for indigent defendants in favor of public service, and to let Knox County continue a pre-arrest diversion program to put people in rehabilitative programs rather than in jail.

When Dunn ran for state office two decades ago, a Knoxville newspaper described him as “the skinny guy nobody’s ever heard of,” he says. So his campaign worked hard, and he captured primary and general election victories.

“For many years after that I would come out of the tree on Monday and drive down here and put on a suit to represent the people. And I always said America’s a great country where you can do that,” explains Dunn, 54, who now works for QualPro, a company that uses statistics for business improvement.

He and wife Stacy have five children and four grandchildren.

Education battles

As a veteran of the House, Dunn has been a key cog in Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda over the past few years, carrying his bill toughening teacher tenure requirements, as well as the TEAM Act, which sets up two categories of state employees and overhauls the state’s evaluation system to set up performance standards.

He also filed legislation to change teacher evaluations years before the Legislature adopted a measure to judge teachers based in part on standardized test scores and classroom evaluations.

Many of those efforts met resistance from teachers, who felt they were being targeted unfairly for struggling schools. Proponents point toward test results showing Tennessee students are leading the nation in improvement.

Dunn continues to push for change and has gained notoriety for sponsoring the governor’s voucher bill, a measure designed to allow a limited number of low-income students from the state’s lowest-performing schools to use state dollars to attend private schools.

The Senate version of the bill passed in the Upper Chamber in 2015, but after it finally cleared House committee hurdles early this session, Dunn couldn’t find enough support to bring it to a floor vote, despite having a 73-26 Republican advantage.

In the aftermath, he accused opponents of lying about the bill, including those who said the money would benefit wealthy students and others who argued it could undermine public education by funneling tax dollars to private schools.

“It frustrates me when people have to resort to those tactics. If I had to lie to get my way, then I’d say what I’m doing is not good or right,” Dunn explains.

“So I say sometimes that’s my weakness because I try to be accurate and get an understanding and actually craft something, while those with political skills and willingness to be loose with the facts, they can kind of slam you down while you’re sitting there trying to play by what you think are the correct rules and the best way to get the best results.”

Tennessee Education Association spokesman Jim Wrye calls some of Dunn’s comments “unfortunate.”

But he points out the Knoxville legislator simply didn’t have enough votes to bring the bill to a vote.

The bill also ran into trouble because a 15-page amendment was planned for the House floor, Wrye says.

TEA challenged Dunn on several elements in the bill but never disagreed, in its first stage, it had limits for low-income children, Wrye adds.

Even though Dunn’s voucher proposal would be a limited in scope, many legislators, including Republicans, felt it would open the floodgates to an expansion of vouchers statewide for all students, something they couldn’t support.

Wrye also says he believes TEA is not “out of bounds” when it says the measure didn’t hold voucher students accountable by requiring them to take the same performance tests as charter and public school students.

“That’s the only accountability that’s valid,” Wrye adds.

Rep. Bill Dunn

(R) Knoxville, House District 16

Age: 54

Education: Bachelor’s degree in animal science and master’s in extension education from University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Career: University of Tennessee Extension Service, tree industry, QualPro

Family: Wife, Stacy; five children, four grandchildren

Religion: Catholic

Politics: State House of Representatives 1996 to present

Committees: House Calendar and Rules chairman, House Education Instruction & Programs, House Finance Ways & Means

Befuddled by the opposition, Dunn says he wants to give students an opportunity to transfer from schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to private schools with a better environment so they’ll develop a more hopeful mind-set.

From a philosophical standpoint, he contends his voucher bill is similar to Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship, which allows qualifying students to use the money to attend large universities, community colleges or even private colleges.

“While we’re trying to turn these schools around and improve them all, my hope would be we get to the point where nobody would want to leave their school,” he says.

“But we’re not there now, and these kids have one shot at life, one shot to learn the things they need to, and we’re not doing them any favor locking them in and saying this is where you’ve got to go and we don’t care if you fail.”

Dunn further contends the state has a “very perverse incentive,” sending more money to the state’s worst schools. Vouchers, he says, would put schools on notice if they perform, then students will attend.

In fact, he says he told Knox County if it doesn’t want vouchers, then it should make sure none of its schools fall into the bottom 5 percent for performance. “It’s the incentive to say if you improve you get what you want,” he adds.

Amending the Constitution

Dunn is drawing more fire this session for his resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to affirm the General Assembly’s “sole discretion” in establishing a public schools system.

Former Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron, now a lobbyist for small schools across the state, says the measure may seem obscure but would strip Tennessee’s children of “any meaningful right to a free public education.”

He says such a move would allow the Legislature total authority to limit each child to one book a year, for example, limiting the ability of courts to require the body to do more under the Constitution.

“This has the potential to do more to devastate Tennessee’s schools and school children than anything I’ve seen in 30 years of working around the Legislature,” Herron says.

Such a constitutional amendment, which would have to be placed on a ballot and approved by Tennessee voters, would have circumvented a small schools lawsuit in the 1990s that led to more equitable funding of schools across the state, says Herron, also a former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party.

Larger systems are now suing the state for more education funding, including Shelby County, Hamilton County and several in the Chattanooga area, who say the state’s K-12 funding formula needs work.

Dunn, however, argues the amendment would give the Legislature full authority only over policy, though he acknowledges “policy drives funding.”

For instance, if the state were to allow only five students per classroom, it would have to provide the money for more teachers and supplies, he explains.

The resolution is driven by courts across the nation driving policy in public schools, Dunn says.

But he contends it does not affect the Constitution in regard to equal protection under the law.

“So people can still sue and say you’re not treating us equally,” Dunn says.

Yet in the next breath, when asked if his resolution would stop a small schools lawsuit, Dunn says he has asked for an attorney general’s opinion on the matter. He expects to be proven correct.

In regard to the large schools lawsuit, though, Dunn says if those school systems try to force the state to adopt new policies, his proposed amendment would stop such a move.

Though his two major initiatives are meeting heavy opposition this session, Dunn says he recently came to the realization some people see legislators as “law passers,” elected officials who try to legislate for the sake of legislating.

On the contrary, he believes they are called “lawmakers” for a reason.

When crafting bills, state legislators can aggravate people, destroy people’s lives, even bankrupt them with the laws they pass, he points out.

“And so the burden … we must always remember the power that we have, and we have to do it right and we have to get it right,” he says.

“And so I always have this fear one day I’m sitting there realizing I did something that really harmed people. And I don’t want to do that, for sure.

“So I really try to look at my bills, read them, try to say, what is the best way to try to move Tennessee forward without bankrupting the state.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at