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.
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