Different Agendas at Work in Shake-Up Of State's Education System

Gov. Bill Haslam is trying to reassure teachers that the Republicans are not at war with them, just determined to reward good teachers and encourage the not-good teachers to find another line of work. But the flurry of Republican education bills this session has prompted teachers across the state to protest, most notably in a rally in downtown Nashville last Saturday.

Various theories are offered on why the Republicans are shaking up the education establishment, one being payback to the Tennessee Education Association for campaign contributions to Democrats, far outpacing money given to Republicans. There is some of that, of course. I suspect the bill to remove TEA appointments to the state pension system board and give the appointments to the House and Senate speakers is one of those. The appointees would still be teachers, just not TEA-appointed teachers.

But there are a couple of other factors at work.

During the Democrats' long tenure in control of the General Assembly, the Republicans were relegated to the back bench and much of their legislation was either bottled up in committee and quietly killed; or, if it was a popular bill, a similar piece of legislation would be passed, sponsored by a Democrat. Thus, there has been a pent-up agenda of Republican conservatives largely ignored and suppressed. Former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's absolute control ensured that any bill on guns or education reform would die a lingering death, session after session.

Last year, the General Assembly session was labeled the "Year of the Gun." It seemed that the only bills passed were gun bills, allowing carry permit holders to go pretty much anywhere armed. The flurry of gun bills resulted when Republicans, along with rural conservative Democrats, were finally numerous enough to pass a package of previously doomed legislation.

There was some education reform last year. Though the Republicans won't admit it, these reforms they have long favored were pushed through by President Barack Obama. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan dangled millions of dollars in education money in a tight budget year that forced House Democrats to join Republicans and Gov. Phil Bredesen to expand the number of charter schools, and, for the first time, use student test scores as part of a teacher's evaluation. The Race to the Top initiative started the ball rolling.

This year, the House Republicans are dusting off and trotting out a plethora of education bills, long bottled up in committee, because they now have overwhelming control. It isn't so much a sudden assault on the state education system as it is a dam breaking. All the bills are surfacing at once.

Alongside House Republican education bills you also have Haslam pushing for education reforms. I'm sure Haslam is not pleased that his education agenda is caught up in the more draconian agenda of conservative Republicans. His bill to extend the time before a teacher gets tenure and to use test scores as a measure is coming alongside a bill to outlaw teachers' collective bargaining. His support for more charter schools is on the agenda, but so is a bill to allow counties to elect school superintendents—a measure he opposes.

The Republicans have the votes to pass pretty much whatever they want. The attitude of many of the incoming freshman Tea Party members is to deliver on the promises they made during their campaigns. But the TEA is organized statewide and has the ability to raise money. Some of the freshmen won in Democratic districts or swing districts. There could be major blowback come the next legislative election.

It would likely behoove conservative freshman legislators and TEA members to work out some compromises to lessen the impact of some of the education bills and to defuse some of the anger on display in downtown Nashville on Saturday.

But this session, which was supposed to be about balancing the budget and jobs, will likely be labeled the "Year of Education Reform." What kind of reform? Haslam reforms? Tea Party reforms? Or TEA-moderated reforms?

Let's hope they all keep in mind the sometimes cynical slogan of so many politicians over the years: "Remember, it's for the children."