Some major changes in Tennessee's educational system have long been bottled up in a House committee. But will the stopper to be removed during this session of the Legislature?
With the Democrats in control of the House for decades, the education committee has long been dominated by urban members, like the Memphis delegation, concerned with patronage and retaining the status quo. Now the House education committee, like the House in general, is likely to be controlled by conservative House Republicans.
Here are some potential big issues that may surface:
• An explosion in charter schools. President Obama's Race to the Top package in previous sessions forced the Democrats to yield on the expansion of charter schools, but you can expect establishing them to be easier and you can expect many more of them. Gov. Bill Haslam is also a supporter of the charter schools concept, so his administration will likely be advocating for them.
• There may be an effort to post value-added test scores on the Internet. This would consist of posting three to five years of test results for individual teachers. When the testing program began there was a debate about releasing a teacher's test scores to parents. But it was argued that it was unfair to post one year's results—any teacher can draw a bad class on occasion. The argument prevailed that you would need several years of test scores for a valid examination of a teacher's effectiveness. That argument occurred during the McWherter administration and efforts to release the scores, up until now, have been rebuffed.
Again, one of the reforms in President Obama's education package allowed test scores to be used as part of a teacher's evaluation. For almost 20 years we've done testing of every child, but the scores have not been used to evaluate teachers, and the scores have been hidden from parents. Makes you wonder what they were for?
• There will likely be a major push to allow county commissions to call referendums on whether to return to elected school superintendents. In rural counties across the state, educators are discovering that the lack of an elected superintendent leaves them without a countywide elected political leader to fight for education. School board members, elected by districts, are routinely ignored by county commissions unwilling to raise taxes or increase school funding. Some members of the Tennessee Education Association are beginning to warm up to the idea.
Also, in some rural counties the turnover in superintendents is almost yearly. A simple majority on the school board is all that's required to remove a superintendent. A few members upset about relatives not being hired or upset about an unwilling transfer can fire a superintendent. The bill would require a two-thirds vote of a county commission to call a referendum and a majority vote by the people to return it to an elected post. And any school system that wants to keep appointing superintendents can do so.
It is unlikely that the Haslam administration will support posting scores or an elected superintendent, but how much sway the new governor has over the House is yet to be determined. It is also likely that these two proposals will have a hard time in the state Senate. But the debate will reach the public agenda.
Meanwhile, the Haslam administration will be faced with a new wrinkle in a problem that has long plagued the state's education system. Test scores show the Memphis city school system is a mess. The prospect of a Republican Legislature caused the Memphis school board to vote to surrender its charter—an action Knoxville took back in the 1980s that forced the merger of the school systems.
A vast improvement in Memphis schools scores would go a long way to improving Tennessee's education standards rankings nationally. Without Memphis' scores, the state average jumps. A governor has the authority to take over a school system with scores like Memphis has, but no governor has wanted to take on the challenge. Will Haslam?