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Meet the lawmakers who will serve as gatekeepers of state education policy

Justin Silverstein / file photo
The inauguration of Gov. Bill Haslam on Jan. 17 coincided with the release of legislative committee assignments for the Tennessee General Assembly.

Expecting a bevy of education bills and responding to an intense interest in legislation that could affect Tennessee public schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell has almost doubled the number of state representatives who will consider education proposals that soon will begin to wind through the Tennessee General Assembly.

Harwell has divided the House Education Committee into two bodies and increased the total number of members from 15 to 26 due to the complex and high-profile nature of education policy, as well as the sheer number of education bills expected to be filed. Education also is a highly desired committee assignment this year, the speaker said Tuesday.

“I had a lot of members seek to serve on the House Education Committee, which is a good thing,” Harwell told Chalkbeat. “This allowed more members to serve.”

Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey announced assignments to the House and Senate education committees on Saturday at the end of the first week of the 109th legislative session. The Senate panel will retain its same structure and number of members as in previous years.

The education committees are the gatekeepers for bills that could change education policy across Tennessee, and education is expected to be a central issue during this year’s session. Bills on the table include proposals that would repeal the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee schools use for math and English, and increase the number of school choice options, such as vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

Harwell said she is finalizing which bills will go to which House committee. Under the new structure, one education panel will focus on instruction and programs and will consider bills related to standards and accountability. The other committee will review administration and planning matters, such as bills that deal with administration, finances and school structure.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), who chaired the House Education Committee last year, will serve on both panels “for the sake of continuity,” Harwell said.

Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The committee appointments offer some insights into which bills may reach the floor of their respective legislative chamber.

Much of the leadership are dissatisfied with Common Core, the state-approved standards that students must learn by the end of every school year. Senate Education Chairwoman Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) has introduced a bill calling for standards to replace the Common Core. Rep. John Fogerty (R-Athens), who chairs the House Instruction and Programs Committee, has introduced a similar bill to review and recommend new academic standards. That bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), a member of the Senate Education Committee, as well as three other House education panel members, Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett), David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), and Roger Kane (R-Knoxville).

Other legislative leaders have been more supportive of Common Core. Brooks, who chairs the House Administration and Planning Committee, and Mark White (R-Memphis), who heads the subcommittee on administration and planning, openly supported the standards as recently as last fall.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who chaired the House Education Committee last year, will serve on both House panels on education this year.
Rep. Harry Brooks, who chaired the House Education Committee last year, will serve on both House panels on education this year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a member of the Senate Education Committee, is an outspoken advocate for vouchers and has filed a bill to implement them. Likewise, Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is a charter advocate and last year sponsored a for-profit charter bill that passed the House education panel last year by one vote.

You can find the list of lawmakers appointed the Senate Education Committee here, the House Education Administration and Planning Committee here, and the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee here.

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