Tenn. lawmakers given look at education changes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Lawmakers got their first detailed look Monday at Gov. Phil Bredesen's education proposals for a special legislative session.

The Democratic governor is urging lawmakers to approve a series of changes that he says are needed the strengthen the state's application for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal "Race to the Top" money. The special session begins Tuesday afternoon and the federal application deadline is Jan. 19.

A key change would include using student testing data in evaluating teachers and for making decisions about tenure.

Susan Bodary, of Seattle-based Education First Consulting, told a joint meeting of the Senate education and finance committees that federal guidelines consider the use of testing data "as one of the lynchpin issues of this competition."

The Tennessee Education Association, which represents 55,000 teaches and other educators, has announced that it could support no more than 35 percent of evaluations being based on testing data. Bredesen, who has called for at least half of evaluations to be based on data, wants to leave the specific amount up to a special advisory panel of the State Board of Education.

Tennessee's application is based on "the belief that great teachers and great leaders make the greatest difference in student learning, unequivocally," Bodary said.

The state's main competitors for the federal money are Louisiana, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana and Massachusetts, she said.

Other K-12 changes would include requiring annual evaluations of teachers and principals and creating a special school district for failing schools.

Some lawmakers raised concerns about the federal government meddling in the state's responsibility for education.

"I think the whole scheme is patently unconstitutional, but there too much money not to go with it," said Democratic Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville.

Others said they worried about what will happen after the federal money runs out. Education Commissioner Tim Webb said the administration would design a program that would seek to avoid creating "a vacuum where the districts get sucked into a funding problem."

Republican Sen. Jamie Woodson of Knoxville said she's also concerned about "federal impositions on what is very much a state obligation," but added that the changes could have a positive effect on Tennessee's education system.

"What I see this as is an opportunity not just to chase federal dollars ... this is an opportunity for us to rethink education policy, to rebuild the box," she said. "It's potentially transformational."

Bredesen is also proposing as series of changes in higher education, including changing the funding mechanism to focus on graduation rates instead of on enrollment and placing more emphasis on community colleges.
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