Mar 24 2011
10:39 pm

It was pretty easy to miss the news coverage of Tennessee’s biggest piece of “education reform” legislation in nearly 20 years.

Tennessee’s Race to the Top application was due on Tuesday, January 19, 2010.

On Monday, January 11—just eight days before the application deadline—Governor Bredesen called a special session of the legislature to introduce, explain, and seek passage of his First to the Top Act of 2010, which he said would pave the way to a successful grant application.

However, legislators were never permitted to review the Race to the Top application to which the First to the Top Act of 2010 referred.

On-lookers were even more in the dark. During the five day period in which legislators were considering the Act (in a vacuum), the News-Sentinel ran only three news stories on two days—and one of those, just two paragraphs by Tom Humphrey, carried an inoperable link to the remainder of the news story.

Neither did the News-Sentinel provide any link to the text of the Act itself.

Here’s what we got:


Monday, January 11, 2010: “Special session legislation questions not instantly answered.”

Two paragraphs and an inoperable link?

Monday, January 11, 2010: “Bills for schools draw scrutiny.”


"I think everything we hear raises another set of questions," Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, said at one point in a briefing for representatives. Multiple questions were also raised at a similar hearing for senators.

"It kind of puts us in a precarious situation of wondering what we're building and buying here," he said.

Another provision gives the state authority to contract for consultants to operate a failing school system, which one lawmaker said "sounds to me a little like corporate takeover of schools."

Specifics will be included in the state's application, which is still being drafted, (Education Commissioner Tim Webb) said. Officials said the administration is reluctant to give too many specifics, concerned that other states will use the information to advance their own applications.

In the Senate hearing, Knoxville Republican Sens. Tim Burchett and Jamie Woodson both said they would like elaboration. Webb said he would offer more explanation later in the week.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010: “TEA drops opposition to Race to the Top.”

At times the debate was notably intense.

For example, Rep. Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, complained at one point that the bill raised the possibility of "selling out to the federal government."

He and others also said the administration needs to provide legislators with a copy of the application to be filed with the federal government giving plans for use of money received. Officials contend that releasing the application details could hurt the state's chances by revealing plans to other states competing for the money.

"There just a real fear out there that the data is going to be used against teachers," (TEA President Earl H. Wiman) told the Senate committee, adding that he hopes the Legislature will subsequently consider legislation to address "student accountability and parental responsibility."

The bill would allow the state to contract with private entities or nonprofits for operation of failing schools.

Then, after the fact:

Saturday, January 16, 2010: “Education measure passes with ease.”

This is how the state’s website (innocuously) characterized the Act.

But here is the actual text of the Act.

"Extraordinary session," indeed.

Tamara Shepherd's picture

Final vote

I neglected to reference the final vote on the Act, reported in that last story, here:

The Senate approved the "Tennessee First to the Top Act" (SB7005) by a vote of 29-3 Friday afternoon. The House followed Friday evening with a vote of 83-10.

Only two Republicans - Sen. Mae Beavers and Rep. Susan Lynn, both of Mount Juliet - voted against Democrat Bredesen's proposal. The other no votes came from members of his own party.

R. Neal's picture

Thanks for the recap. I admit

Thanks for the recap. I admit to not paying much attention to this at all while it was going on. At the time, I suspected the rush was to cash in on the $billions in free federal funding, and I think everyone had their eye on that prize and not the unintended (or intended) consequences. The moral of the story is we need to always look the gift horse in the mouth.

Tamara Shepherd's picture

I missed a single news story

In reviewing those 14 month-old news stories at KNS, I found my own comment on just the first Monday, January 11 story (with the inoperable link), in which I reported to KNS that I couldn't read the story.

Since I don't see that I made any comment on the second news story having run that Monday, I guess I looked at the newspaper just once that day, earlier.

I don't see that I commented on the Wednesday, January 13 story at all, which probably means I missed it.

And by the time that Saturday, January 16 story ran it was a done deal, of course.

I missed a single news story that Wednesday, reporting the most important "education reform" measure Tennessee was considering in nearly 20 years--so, like everyone else, I was left in the dark until its provisions began to take effect.

Tamara Shepherd's picture

Susan Bodary

I note in that second story that Tom Humphrey doesn't appear to realize this Susan Bodary was the paid consultant who drafted Tennessee's RttT application. All he wrote was:

Susan Bodary, an education consultant who joined Webb in speaking to legislators, said Louisiana, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana and Massachusetts are regarded as Tennessee's primary competitors for a share of the total $4.35 billion available in "Race to the Top" money.

However, Bodary's employer, Bill Gates grantee Education First Consulting, acknowledges her paid consultant status at their website, as follows:

Most recently, Susan led the Education First team providing strategic, research, facilitation and writing support for Tennessee’s successful Race to the Top proposal that will bring more than $500 million to the state for education reform over the next four years.

And as to Gates' own role in drafting our app, I'll again link Joanne Barken's Winter 2011 article in Dissent magazine, "Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools," in which Barken outlines Gates' fervid interest in picking some "education reform" winners, thusly:

States were desperate for funds (in the end, thirty-four applied in the two rounds of the contest). When necessary, some rewrote their laws to qualify: they loosened or repealed limits on the number of charter schools allowed; they permitted teacher and principal evaluations based on test scores. But they still faced the immense tasks of designing a proposal that touched on all aspects of K–12 education and then writing an application, which the DOE requested (but did not require) be limited to 350 pages. What state has resources to gamble on such a venture? Enter the Gates Foundation. It reviewed the prospects for reform in every state, picked fifteen favorites, and, in July 2009, offered each up to $250,000 to hire consultants to write the application. Gates even prepared a list of recommended consulting firms. Understandably, the other states cried foul; so did the National Conference of State Legislatures: Gates was giving some states an unfair advantage; it was, in effect, picking winners and losers for a government program.

I'm still just "buffoned" that we, Humphrey, KNS, legislators even, seemed to understand scarce little about the implications of the Act--until now.

Mello's picture


Jan 11, 2010 the plan is still being drafted.
Those letters of support are dated from Nov 20, 2009 to Jan 16. Pretty damn amazing all the astroturf support letters Bredesen was able to churn out when no one saw the plan.
When did TEA sign? Was it after the bill was passed? I am not seeing it in either the application or appendix.

Tamara Shepherd's picture

TEA letter dated after vote on Act

When did TEA sign? Was it after the bill was passed? I am not seeing it in either the application or appendix.

I looked it up last night: The Act was passed Friday, January 15 and the TEA letter of support is dated Saturday, January 16--just in time for the grant application deadline of Tuesday, January 19.

The TEA letter is the very first one in the appendix containing letters of support.

See pdf page 27 of 185, here.

Mello's picture

TEA's letter

TEA signed on to the four bullet points. Ok. And they did note the following-

While we have reservations about the use of student performance data in teacher and principal evaluations, we have agreed to partner with the state to develop a new evaluation system that uses such data effectively and fairly


Tamara Shepherd's picture

Student acheivement to carry 50 percent or 35 percent weight?

I was confused by an October 2010 news story on the Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee's draft plan being piloted at four schools locally this year.

In it, KNS reported that "at least 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation would be based on student achievement."

Elsewhere, though, I've read only that Bredesen originally wanted student achievement to count for "at least 50 percent," but that TEA backed him down to its counting for just 35 percent before they'd offer their letter of support with the January 2010 RttT app.

So are we now talking 50 percent again because TEA subsequently agreed to this weighting, or was TEA screwed in this regard, too?

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