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Business, Free Enterprise and Constitutional Issues; Pro-Life and Pro Second Amendment. Susan Lynn is a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. She serves as Chairman of the Consumer and Human Resources subcommittee and on the Finance Ways and Means Committee. She holds a BS in economics and a minor in history.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Vouching for real reform

Last year the General Assembly broadened the charter schools law in Tennessee giving hope to many more students in struggling schools. This year, what was working out to be a pretty disappointing piece of legislation on education reform has ended up providing genuine promise for the children of our state.

The first few sections of the Race to the Top bill may read well, but by comparison to current law, they do not vest the Commissioner of Education with any revolutionary new powers or responsibility for failing schools. The major item is that a name is coined for state governance over failing schools; “Achievement School District.”

The next part has an appearance of conflict of interest; a full 80% of the committee charged with creating new guidelines and criteria for which teachers and principals will be evaluated is made up of teachers and principals, and a few other education policy makers…no sweeping change here either. Quickly abandoned was the idea of a large group of assorted citizens such as parents and business people playing a role in education by developing an objective and effective standard outside the status quo.

Further, the new standard doesn’t have to lead to the dismissal of a poor teacher…it could, but only if a local school will actually act to dismiss him or her for a poor evaluation - that hasn’t been happening in low achieving areas and this bill won’t ensure that it does…or maybe it will…more on that later.

So where is the revolutionary change that will not just win $485,000,000 in grant money but much more importantly, will actually help students in low performing schools; raising Tennessee from the bottom of national education rankings to nearer the top?

The state has had the ability to take over a failing school for a very long time. But the threat of that actually happening was virtually zero because of funding - if the state did actually take over a school, the state’s taxpayers would have to foot the entire cost of running the school because there was no mechanism in the law to make the locals pay their portion of the cost for educating their students from a failed school that was taken over by the state.

Saving the day was a discrete amendment added to the bill that will allow for the Achievement School District to use state BEP funds and local funds to operate a school placed in alternative governance. Not only does this make it much more probable that the state will take over a failing school but the threat of takeover will more than likely force administrators whose teachers do not achieve annual yearly progress to make key changes about who should be teaching their students in order to avoid takeover.

Further, an “Achievement School District” breaks out of the status quo by not only allowing schools to be run by another governmental entity, but also by non-profits (opening the door to the Gates Foundation and others) and, strikingly, the DOE can even contract with individuals.

Including individuals was a curious provision which never really seemed to receive an answer that revealed a logical purpose in committee. Not until the funding amendment created the possibility that a school could really be placed in alternative governance and that the governance could be provided by an individual was it realized late last night that this seems to be assembling the parts for a voucher system for these long suffering students. If individuals can contract with the state to educate a student, that may mean that parents could be the contractor and use those funds to seek their choice of desired education for their child.

Although provided few clear answers, probably so as to leave the legislation sufficiently vague and aiding passage, this bill could be one of the most sweeping reforms that Tennessee has ever undertaken.

The hope of federal money is no reason to vote for a bill but it is no reason to vote against it either. In fact, until I realized what the assembling of these parts could do, I voted against the bill because I didn't like several parts of the bill. As I stated on the radio last week, the only reason to vote for a bill is if it is good policy for the people of our state which in the end HB5 turns out to be.

State governments are the great laboratories of reform, and many states will vouch that charter schools and vouchers give children trapped in low performing schools, or with special needs or learning disabilities real options for their education and their future. Why not break out of politics and status quo? Why not use education dollars as efficiently as possible by matching the needs of the child to the school that can best meet those needs?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am confused...I heard you voted against this bill. Now I am reading that you voted for it. Could you give me some clarification.

Representative Susan Lynn said...

Please re-read my post. I really like to write, but when I write, I sometimes leave out details that I know, but I forget I've got to add them because other's don't know, so I've added those details.

Anyway, I did vote against the bill. This is how the voting went (which is typical for legislation by the way).

The Senate voted on the bill first, and then it was sent to the House so that we could vote. The House then voted on the Senate version of the bill but with the House's amendments considered. After we voted, the bill went back to the Senate for them to consider the changes from the House. They considered our changes and made some more changes to the bill. The House sponsors brought the bill back to the House, distributed copies to the members. We quickly leafed through the many pages while the sponsor quickly reviewed what the Senate did - then we voted. I didn't hear him say anything significant as I leafed through the pages so I voted against it. However, over these few minutes I started reading from page one - when I got to the top of page 5 or 6 I saw something very interesting. I handed it to the Rep that sits in front of me, Vance Dennis, and asked him what he thought of it - said that sounds like vouchers will be possible. I said "that's what I think too. I'm gonna change my vote!" Because no action had transpired between the vote and my request the Speaker followed the House rules and asked the members if they would object to me changing my vote. There was no objection. After that, a few Democrat members called me over to ask me why I did that. I told them what I thought - and they could see what I meant. Then I returned to my members, and we excitedly looked over the section - considering it with the other sections and agreed that it all looks like a very good thing. Some of the Democrats came over to ask again what we were thinking but by that time the business was closed and we all got to go home for the night.

It is not uncommon for members to request to change their vote and it is perfectly permissible within the House and Senate Rules to do so before other business transpires. Of course, you cannot change a vote after new business has taken place so if you decide to do so you must act quickly.

One could decide to change a vote for a number of reasons; because of something like I have described above, or because a member absentmindedly pushed the wrong button, or because a member had to go across the room to speak to another member or an attorney or even to use the restroom and he or she asked their seatmate to cast their vote in the event the vote is taken while they are away from their seat but the seatmate voted opposite of what the member asked. There are rules pertaining to all of this. For instance, there are times when no one is permitted to vote for another member, even if asked. Also, there is a formal procedure that must be followed by the Speaker when a member asks to change a vote, and the request is subject to a vote of the Assembly. Usually, no one objects because it can happen to anyone and it is not worth a partisan fight.

We've been trying for school vouchers for a very long time - we'd like then for the kids in failing school but also for the learning disabled and for special needs kids too. I have a bill right now for vouchers with Sen. Brian Kelsey.

Ron Jones said...

Thank you for voting against the bill. While it seems a complex issue, and I have come to trust your representation, my one hang-up with the whole affair is the issue of federal funds.

We have a difference of opinion on whether "the hope of federal money is no reason...to vote against it either."

Pardon my cynical nature, but nothing is free. Insofar as I trust the honorable Jim Cooper, Lamar Alexander, and Bob Corker...like Greeks bearing gifts of 'other people's money.' The cost will, no doubt, be more than I am willing to bear.

Representative Susan Lynn said...

I understand your point about...no reason...to vote against it either." What I mean is that if a bill is making good changes to the law then vote for it - if a bill is not making good changes to the law then don't vote for it - forget about the federal money - that can't be a consideration either way. I don't believe that TN will get any federal money. We didn't support the President - we more than likely won't in his re-election. He may lose at least two congressional seats to R's in TN. And someone at the leg told me Rom Emanuel will decide who gets the grants but I'm not sure I believe that.

joe4gov said...

Susan:

I agree with Ron relative to issues relative to federal funding. I just read the link-up on Post Politics before coming here, but here are my observations. I'd be most interested in your comments.

If the premise is true that vouchers become possible through the bill (which I was against on principle), that is a great development.
However, since the funding in question is federal money, federal law applies.

I understand that vouchers were upheld by SCOTUS in 2002. Yet, they were struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 halting related reform measures.

So, it begs some important questions:

1. Would the alleged loophole be challenged by the NEA/TEA in the Tennessee Supreme Court? And how great would their chances be of overturning the voucher option given the present composition of the court.

2. Can’t congress change the language of the law under which the funds are administered without consulting state government?

3. Since President Obama ended school vouchers to outstanding students in DC schools via executive order under pressure from the NEA, what makes anyone think that the feds wouldn’t take whatever action is necessary to prevent any such use from occurring?

Just asking… DC-Free Tennessee Schools is the certain answer to creating permanent viability for unlimited voucher-based and charter programs.

I've been meaning to get back to you on that. Now, that you are seemingly under less pressure in the primary... maybe we can spend some time on calculating the effects of nullification on education and other programs where the state waives its authority in exchange for federal funding.

joe4gov said...

Susan:

I agree with Ron relative to issues relative to federal funding. I just read the link-up on Post Politics before coming here, but here are my observations. I'd be most interested in your comments.

If the premise is true that vouchers become possible through the bill (which I was against on principle), that is a great development.
However, since the funding in question is federal money, federal law applies.

I understand that vouchers were upheld by SCOTUS in 2002. Yet, they were struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 halting related reform measures.

So, it begs some important questions:

1. Would the alleged loophole be challenged by the NEA/TEA in the Tennessee Supreme Court? And how great would their chances be of overturning the voucher option given the present composition of the court.

2. Can’t congress change the language of the law under which the funds are administered without consulting state government?

3. Since President Obama ended school vouchers to outstanding students in DC schools via executive order under pressure from the NEA, what makes anyone think that the feds wouldn’t take whatever action is necessary to prevent any such use from occurring?

Just asking… DC-Free Tennessee Schools is the certain answer to creating permanent viability for unlimited voucher-based and charter programs.

I've been meaning to get back to you on that. Now, that you are seemingly under less pressure in the primary... maybe we can spend some time on calculating the effects of nullification on education and other programs where the state waives its authority in exchange for federal funding.

Representative Susan Lynn said...

Hey Joe,

Good to hear from you.

To your first comment; you’ve got to get away from thinking that this law change is only for federal funds. It is not. It is Tennessee law for use with Tennessee funds or federal funds should they give the state a grant. This law makes it possible to fund a takeover of the poorly performing schools with or without federal money. This is Tennessee law (when the Gov signs it) and the feds cannot change that.

To question 1. (a challenge in court): They would have to have a basis on which to challenge our law - what is there to challenge?

2. Congress can change anything they want. But remember, the grant requires the states to create the terms of the plan - not the other way around.

3. The President cannot execute an executive order on the state of Tennessee. He can on DC because it is under the authority of the Congress and President. As for what he did in DC, don't forget, the President is very political. Even if he likes vouchers he will help his friends before anything else.

The administratio was very vague about their submission - but even so, the language in the bill, when combined with current law and the other features of the bill seem to make vouchers possilbe. At the very least, there is now a funding mechanism so that the low performing schools can actually be taken over by the state using state funds. We don't need the federal funds to do that at all now.

The Second Chance Sheepdog said...

Susan,

Just to clarify your response to "Anonymous" - are you saying that you voted "no" but were in the process of changing your vote to "yes" but time ran out ??

joe4gov said...

Thank you for the clarifications!

joe4gov said...

Thank you for the clarifications!

Crosis said...

I'm not currently living in TN because I'm attending school in MN. However, I grew up there and most of my family still lives there, so I like to keep up with what is going on in the state. I've started reading your blog after your work with the 10th ammendment resolution that you helped pass. I must say that I was very proud to have been born a Tennessean when that happened. In regard to this current post in your blog I am a little concerned with you comment that "The hope of federal money is no reason to vote for a bill but it is no reason to vote against it either." I would feel a lot better if all legislation coming out of TN specifically stated that the state would refuse all money from unconstitutional federal programs. The U.S. constitution does not give the federal government any authority over education and I would like to see TN follow through with the state sovereignty resolution ideals. Please continue to stand up for the sovereignty of the great state of TN and urge other states to do the same. Taking money from the federal government for a popular unconstitutional program is just as dangerous as taking it for an unpopular one. Anyway, I'm rambling at this point. Thanks for taking the time to read my concerns.