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Tennessee House unanimously approves Common Core compromise

House Speaker Beth Harwell leads the penultimate floor session Monday of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
House Speaker Beth Harwell leads the penultimate floor session Monday of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Legislation designed to address Tennessee’s emotional debate over whether to keep or scrap the Common Core academic standards passed unanimously Monday to a round of applause in the House of Representatives.

The bill goes Tuesday before the full Senate, where approval is also expected. Passage there would send the measure to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, who has signed off on the bill sponsored by Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) and Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville).

The compromise legislation is meant to appease Tennesseans who virulently oppose the Common Core State Standards for math and English — for reasons ranging from vagueness to federal overreach — as well as those who think the academic benchmarks are crucial to the state’s effort to improve the quality of Tennessee schools.

The bill would add an additional step — vetting by a panel appointed and approved by the legislature — to the current year-long standards review initiated last fall by the governor.

Spivey, who spearheaded the compromise, has said his bill ensures that Tennesseans have adequate input and oversight over the standards review. At the same time, he said, the compromise prevents mass confusion that a hasty jettison of the current standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010, might cause. Numerous educators — from school superintendents to college presidents — have urged lawmakers to allow the current review process to work.

At least some supporters of Haslam’s education agenda were briefly concerned about a last-minute amendment by Rep. Matthew Hill (R-Jonesborough) that would have permitted parents to opt their children out of annual standardized testing.

However, Hill later withdrew the amendment and said he planned to take up the issue with the state Department of Education during the coming months.

In other states, opting out of testing has been one of the most high-profile forms of protest to assessments associated with Common Core, which participants say have contributed to a culture of over-testing. Tennessee currently has no policy on opting out, which means students who do not take standardized assessments may receive failing grades for them.

An email from the advocacy group Tennesseans for Student Success urged recipients to contact their representatives to express concern about Hill’s amendment. “This amendment,” the email read, “would deprive teachers, schools, and our state with the only way to know whether our students are improving each year. In addition, this amendment would remove accountability to Tennessee’s taxpayers, since assessments are the way to know whether our tax dollars are being used effectively.”

Hill, who has been a vocal critic of Common Core, said on the House floor that the email was inflammatory. “It is not my intent to take children backwards,” he said. “It is my intent always to empower parents.”

In other business Monday, the House passed two bills aimed at the Achievement School District (ASD), the state’s school turnaround program. Both measures were developed in consultation with state and ASD leaders.

One bill would require the state Department of Education to notify schools of their status if they fall in the bottom 10 percent of the state’s schools — one year before the state releases its priority list of worst-performing schools. Schools on the priority list are eligible for takeover by the ASD, which generally turns them over to charter school operators.

The other bill would prohibit the ASD from taking over schools that are meeting or exceeding expectations in student growth.

Both bills have been approved by the Senate and now go to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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