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VOL. 128 | NO. 251 | Friday, December 27, 2013

Failed Education Bills to Return in New Session

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – Proponents of revamping education laws in Tennessee cite a recent report that ranked the state's students tops in the nation in academic improvement as proof that recent reforms are working and more should be considered.

The report released in November by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed Tennessee's fourth and eighth graders had the largest growth in reading and math of any state from 2011-2013, with a 22-point growth across all subject areas.

State education officials said the results were partially due to reforms put in place over the years. Reform advocates say that's all the more reason lawmakers should take up three contentious education initiatives that failed last year.

On their agenda during the session that starts in January will be a so-called "parent trigger" measure that would let parents decide the fate of a struggling school; a proposal that would allow the state to authorize charter schools in counties where there are failing schools; and a renewed tussle between Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who wants to create a modestly sized school voucher program, and supporters of a much broader voucher plan.

Overall, education officials say the reforms – like toughening curriculum – have improved Tennessee's national ranking. For instance, in the case of fourth-grade students, Tennessee went from 46th to 37th in math and from 41st to 31st in reading, according to the NAEP report.

Still, Rep. John DeBerry said the legislative proposals and other education reform send a message the state is not complacent and there's always room for improvement.

"It's allowed everybody to know that status quo is not acceptable," said the Memphis Democrat, sponsor of the parent trigger legislation. "Everybody has to up their game so to speak, do better."

Of the three measures, the voucher proposal has probably been the most controversial.

The legislation seeks to limit vouchers – or opportunity scholarships – to 5,000 students in failing schools for one term, then grow to 20,000 students by 2016.

However, there were attempts to broaden the proposal, as special interest groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads promoting an expansion. Frustrated, the governor pulled the bill.

But Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who carried the proposal, said he expects it to come back this session in the same form.

"The governor remains interested in opportunity scholarships," said Norris, R-Collierville. "Our caucus is interested in opportunity scholarships."

Under the charter school proposal, the state Board of Education would be able to overrule local school board decisions on charter applications in five counties where there are failing schools. Those counties include more than 330,000 students in the state's four largest cities: Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby. Hardeman County also would be affected.

Currently, local school boards decide whether to authorize a charter application. There are currently 48 charters operating in Tennessee.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh believes giving that authority to the state is a bad idea.

"It's always been a situation of local control, with local elected school boards," said the Ripley Democrat. "To take that authority ... makes no sense to me."

In the case of the parent trigger proposal, the measure mainly stalled over the percentage of parents needed to decide a school's fate.

Under the measure, if 51 percent of parents at a school in the bottom 20 percent of failing schools believe a drastic change is needed, they can then select from several "turnaround models." For instance, they may want to convert it to a charter school, change the administrators or close the school.

Lawmakers failed to agree on whether the parental percentage should be 51 percent or 55 percent.

DeBerry said he plans to get that kinked worked out because the legislation is needed.

"As we talk about education reform, I think it's an essential piece of the puzzle," he said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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