Murfreesboro, Tenn., February 17, 2016 – We are one month into the 2016 session and a lot has occurred. Education issues have been on the minds of many constituents including students, parents, and teachers. From vouchers to repealing Common Core to over-testing of students to transparency, I have spoken with a multitude of constituents with concerns. This past week, I met with Governor Haslam and we spoke for about an hour on various topics, but mostly over education. I wanted to take the time to give my district some insight into the effort that has been put forth in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Perhaps, the most controversial piece of legislation was the Opportunity Scholarship bill which was otherwise known as vouchers. The bill was supported by Governor Haslam who explained to me his view on the issue was that while vouchers may not be the answer to education, they can be a piece of the puzzle to improve our education outcomes. Ultimately, the sponsor of the bill “laid the bill on the table” on Thursday when he said that he didn’t feel comfortable that he had enough votes to pass the bill. In all likelihood, the bill is dead for this session.
For me, the two week experience leading up to and including the day of the vote was nothing like I had ever experienced. I will say that throughout the process, I have been very disappointed in the actions of some, yet very encouraged by the actions of others. These actions intensified during the final two weeks and hit a crescendo on the day of the vote. When the bill was first introduced last year, I began a process of gathering information to have the most informed vote I could have. I feel confident in saying that those on both sides of the issue that understood my efforts know that I did my best to address the concerns sent to me and I gave my best effort for the district, but in the end, I never had to vote on the issue.
The statewide computer system to administer the student assessment, TNReady, crashed on the day initial testing was to take place. Teachers had voiced their frustrations to me prior to the testing and in fact, reiterated their concerns when I met with the REA in late January. I have been 100% on the side of students, parents, and teachers with their concerns about TNReady and the online platform. In my discussion with Governor Haslam, I reiterated those concerns. Our students, parents, and teachers need to know that their concerns are being delivered to the Capitol. Not only have I been delivering the message verbally, I have filed, as well as co-sponsored, legislation to hopefully address or, at least, voice the concerns.
Last year, the hottest education topic revolved around Common Core. Essentially, three bills were filed in 2015. When I speak of my principles, process, and passion, part of the process involves determining the most feasible option. When one identifies the best option, one must work to improve that option to best meet one’s goal. Only HB1035 by Rep. Billy Spivey was a feasible option to address concerns about Common Core. The other two bills never got out of committee. HB 1035 was an imperfect solution, but it was the best and only viable option to enact change.
Knowing that the bill was imperfect, I developed some amendments to the bill. During my work, I found some like-minded allies in Representatives Matthew Hill, Timothy Hill, and Micah Van Huss. We worked as a coalition in conjunction with Rep. Spivey and presented our concerns to Leadership, the Governor and his staff, as well as Commissioner McQueen. Not all of our concerns were met at the time, but we were able to amend the bill to add legislative confirmation of the ten member committee, as well as get language in the bill that rescinds the Common Core standards when the new standards are complete.
Having a voice from the district in the form of legislative confirmation was an absolute that I needed to address. The ten members have been appointed by Governor Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ramsey, and Speaker Harwell. I have had people reviewing the members, as well as the new standards. We are in the process of developing questions for the confirmation hearings.
During our meetings, we discussed addressing the concerns over Islam in our public schools, as many concerns have cropped up in the state. While we were unable to find a solution last year, we continued to work on the issue. Rep. Matthew Hill has filed HB 1905 that focuses on four areas: transparency, local input, no indoctrination, and constitutionality. I am a prime co-sponsor of the bill. Rep. Sheila Butt filed a bill, that focuses on this issue, as well. I have been in contact with her during the process. We are all working together and plan to coordinate our efforts to address these concerns.
Last year, I co-sponsored HB 1089 by Rep. Kevin Dunlap to address transparency in our standardized testing. The bill would have allowed parents and teachers to see what and how our students were being tested. Parents should have the right to know what is being asked of their children, and teachers should have the right to know specifics on their evaluations. The bill ultimately received a 17 million dollar fiscal note due to copyright issues, thus it failed.
Following the 2015 end of year testing, I received several complaints from concerned citizens over what many believe to be biased questioning towards Islam, as well as concerns from teachers over a lack of transparency. I knew that parents and teachers were unable to view the test, so I made an effort to see if I, as a State Representative, could view the test, and I was denied. It is very concerning, that if I am elected to speak on behalf of constituents including teachers, that I am unable to obtain necessary information to best find solutions. I am talking with Rep. Dunlap and Rep. Byrd, and we hope to be able to find a method of addressing this issue.
Knowledge is part of the foundation for the future of our students, and our parents and teachers deserve to be in the best position for the nurturing and growth of students. I will continue to work hard on these issues as representative for District 48.