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Five education issues to watch as state legislature hits its stride

As the 109th Tennessee General Assembly wraps up committee work this week, vouchers are hot, Common Core is not, and discussion about the ever-present issue of school funding looks like it will punted for further study – again.

While debate now shifts to the full House and Senate, Chalkbeat examines the status of five major K-12 education issues and what Tennesseans may expect before the legislature adjourns.

1) Vouchers have momentum. Just as it has three times in the last five years, the Senate again passed a program that would allow low-income students zoned to public schools with low test scores to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The bigger question is what will happen with voucher legislation in the House, where the measure has never reached the floor for debate. The answer will come soon. After passage last week by a House education panel, the voucher bill is scheduled for consideration next in the House Finance Committee, where it died last year.

Legislative leaders say the prospects for passage in the House are better than ever. “We are one of the few Southern states that have not put an ‘opportunity scholarship’ voucher program in place,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said last week. “I think we have been very careful and cautious to draft a legislation that will address the children that need the assistance the most.”

If the bill passes, another question looms about the timing of implementation. Before advancing the voucher bill last week, the House education panel added an amendment that would delay the program’s start until next January, which House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) says is akin to delaying launch until the 2016-17 school year. Committee Chairman Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) supports the amendment because he said it would give public schools more time to mitigate the loss of funds expected to accompany vouchers. McCormick, though, thinks the delay is unnecessary, because public schools have known vouchers were a possibility for years. “Certainly, I would hope we take [the amendment] off in Finance Committee,” he said.

Another piece of voucher legislation is aimed at special education students. While, in many ways more sweeping than its companion bill for low-income students, the Individualized Education Act seems poised to continue flying under the radar and straight into the state’s law books.

2) Common Core debate is mostly done . . . for now. When the legislature began its business in January, Common Core was the hot topic, with many predicting the death knell in Tennessee for the much-debated academic standards for math and language arts. But the Haslam administration and professional educator groups repeatedly urged lawmakers to stay the course and let the administration’s existing review of the standards play out. In the end, a compromise bill co-sponsored by Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) and Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) garnered support from Common Core opponents and advocates alike by adding another review layer to Haslam’s existing review process. Essentially, the compromise would give legislative leaders more input in the existing review. Detractors say the Spivey-Bell bill doesn’t go far enough, but broader bills — including some that would scrap Common Core altogether – never gained traction. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), who predicted early in the session that Common Core would die this year, said he is not surprised by the compromise. “I think [the Spivey-Bell] bill, in the end, will be what we’re looking for exactly,” he said Monday.

3) Funding discussions will be left for the summer. While the governor has proposed a state-funded salary increase and additional month of health insurance for Tennessee teachers, he’s not been able to hold back the tide of dissatisfaction from school district leaders over the state’s funding level for K-12 education. In March, seven school districts sued the state over chronic underfunding, and other school systems are exploring taking the state to court as well. In the meantime, education funding has not captured the attention of lawmakers. An attempt by Democrats to have the state fully fund education based on the state’s existing funding formula was skirted by a House subcommittee, which promised to study the matter further this summer. In the meantime, Haslam has said he will continue negotiating the issue with district administrators.

4) The charter sector will go untouched. This sector will neither grow – nor its growth be impeded – as a result of legislation this session. A proposal to allow school districts to charge charter organizations an authorizer fee was quickly rolled to next year’s session. The delay came after charter school leaders from Memphis and Nashville testified before the Senate Education Committee that such a fee would discourage charter organizations from entering the Tennessee market. Another proposal to allow parents to turn a school into a charter made it to the Senate Finance Committee but was taken off notice in the House, meaning it likely will come back next year. In addition, the nearly all-charter Achievement School District (ASD) escaped unscathed after an initial barrage of hostile legislation aimed at the state’s school turnaround program. An enrollment-related bill that would allow out-of-zone students to attend ASD schools is making its way through both chambers.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

5) Teacher evaluations will not be dramatically overhauled. Last December, Haslam proposed changes to teacher evaluations that teachers hoped would reduce the weight of student test scores when it comes to their jobs. Ultimately, that didn’t happen. However, one proposal would provide teachers with some breathing room until the state’s new Common Core-aligned test is unveiled next school year. Under Haslam’s legislation that has passed the House and is expected to pass in the Senate as well, the weight of test scores would be lessened during the next two school years as the state transitions to its new assessment, called TNReady. However, it would return to previous levels by the 2017-18 school year.

Did we miss anything? Are you happy with the session’s work so far? Let us know in the comments below.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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