(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 27, 2014 — The State Senate approved a wide range of legislation this week, including several key bills aimed at improving education in Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Education and Commerce and Labor Committees have completed their business, joining three other standing Senate Committees which had already closed for the 2014 legislative session. This means that action will shift from committees to the Senate floor during the remaining weeks of the 108th General Assembly, as only the Senate Finance, Government Operations, Judiciary and State and Local Government Committees remain open.
Choice and Opportunity Scholarships — Among key education bills passed this week was the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” This legislation, proposed by Governor Bill Haslam and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), provides opportunity scholarships for up to 5,000 students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent in academic achievement.
In 2012, a Task Force recommended the scholarships, which are similar to vouchers, be offered to low income students who are assigned to low-performing public schools. These scholarships can be used in private or religious schools which meet academic requirements set by the state’s Department of Education. The bill stalled last year regarding whether the scholarships should be limited to the lowest five percent of the state’s schools or there should be broader distribution.
As amended, Senate Bill 196 gives priority to students deemed eligible under the original bill proposed last year, with the same accountability measures in place. The schools are required to administer a nationally-normed, end-of-year test to scholarship students. If caps are not met by the priority groups, students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent would be eligible for a scholarship to fill the remaining slots. The number of slots would be expanded to 7,500 in the second year and 10,000 in the third, until it reaches a maximum of 20,000 in year four and thereafter.
“This legislation gives students in low performing schools an equal opportunity to receive a quality education,” said Leader Norris. “It will boost academic performance and help us reach our goal of graduating more students from Tennessee’s K-12 schools who are prepared to meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive workplace.”
Waivers / Traditional Public Schools — State Senators gave final approval to legislation on Monday that would provide traditional public schools with the same flexibility as charter schools with regard to requesting waivers from the commissioner of the state’s Department of Education. Senate Bill 2392, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), provides the commissioner can grant a waiver as long as it does not interfere with teachers’ due process rights, salaries, benefits or licensure.
“In 2002, with the enactment of Tennessee’s Public Charter Schools Act, one of the talking points was that the legislation would create laboratories of learning whereby best practices or new techniques could be replicated throughout the state,” said Sen. Overbey. “However, under current law traditional schools are limited in duplicating these best practices. This bill will give our traditional public schools the same opportunities to ask for waivers and employ some of the practices that have been proven to work in charters and those schools which have waivers or less restrictive environments.”
Currently, local education agencies (LEA) may apply for a waiver from the State Board of Education’s rules and regulations; however, the commissioner cannot waive certain regulatory or statutory requirements. Senate Bill 2392 authorizes the commissioner to waive any state statute that inhibits the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission to improve student outcomes. The legislation follows passage of the Performing School Districts Flexibility Act in 2013, which gives leeway to school districts who qualify as “high performing school districts.” To qualify, however, districts must meet a majority of requirements that include a 90 percent or above graduation rate, 21 or higher average ACT score, and high or seriously improved TCAP performance. This bill applies the same flexibility to schools across the board as long as the commissioner agrees.
Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act — The Senate gave final approval and sent to the Governor the “Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act” to help ensure students have the right to voluntarily express a religious viewpoint while attending a K-12 public school. Senate Bill 1793, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), provides much needed guidance for school officials who have sometimes felt compelled to squash a student’s voluntary religious expression for fear of lawsuits on subjects that are otherwise deemed permissible by the school.
Earlier this year, Tennessee made national news when a 10-year-old student was asked to write about whom she idolized and she chose to write about God. The teacher rejected the student’s chosen subject matter and asked her to redo the assignment. The girl then chose to write about pop singer Michael Jackson, which was then approved by the teacher.
“This bill puts a student’s faith-based expressions on a level playing field with secular or other viewpoints in accordance with the First Amendment, which is protected by U.S. Supreme Court rulings,” said Senator Haile. “The legislation helps to guarantee that students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”
School officials would be prohibited from discriminating against the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints at “limited public forum” functions in which students are given an opportunity to speak, as long as they can maintain order and it is not disrupting scheduled instructional time. In addition, students may participate in prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after the school day “to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular activities.” This includes the annual “meet you at the pole” prayer event which is popular in many Tennessee schools.
School Buses — Two bills which extend the use of school buses, as long as they meet additional inspection requirements, have been approved by the Senate Finance Committee. Currently, school buses in Tennessee are allowed to operate up to 15 years with a 200,000 mile limit, whichever comes first, if they pass additional inspections.
Senate Bill 1966, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), authorizes the use of conventional and Class D school buses until they have reached their 18th year of service. The Commissioner of Safety, through the inspection process, may approve the use of buses for additional years of service beyond the 18th year, if the bus has less than 200,000 recorded miles. The legislation requires school buses which are 16 to 18 years old to be inspected twice annually. It also allows a bus that reaches the 200,000 mile mark during the academic year to be kept in service until the end of the academic year.
“This gives local communities more flexibility to extend the use of a school bus which is deemed mechanically safe for transporting children,” said Senator Bell. “We have put into place additional inspections to ensure that they are in good operating order before the life of that bus can be extended.”
The legislation prohibits a bus that is more than 15 years old and purchased from an out-of-state entity from being used, unless it has been in service in Tennessee for at least two years. All buses that have been in service for 15 years or less shall be inspected once annually under the proposal. The bill funds four additional Department of Safety positions this year and two next year to inspect the buses to ensure student safety.
In addition, the Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 1605, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), to allow school buses to be kept in service with unlimited mileage until they reach their 20th year of service. This legislation requires buses between the age of 15 and 20 years to be inspected twice annually with annual inspections for those 14 years and under. The bill requires all school bus owners to maintain a record of safety and bus maintenance and adds new positions to help ensure inspections are conducted properly by the Department of Safety. It encourages local education agencies to perform oil and coolant analysis and make full use of federal funding to retrofit buses to improve in-cabin air quality and lower emissions.
“This is a safety-predicated bill in order to allow local responsibility, local accountability, and the maintenance and inspection of school buses, with a view for the safety of our children which is paramount,” said Senator Bowling. “In addition it will save the taxpayers of Tennessee over $62 million annually and is supported by the State School Board Association.”
Other key education bills advancing this week include:
- Senate Bill 2338, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), allows a majority of parents in a school performing in lowest five percent to trigger one of three school restructuring models. The models include transformational, which forces the school district to hire a new principal; turnaround, which requires a new principal and replacement of at least 50 percent of the staff; and, public charter school conversion, which calls for parents to identify the sponsor of a proposed charter school. These three options are already available for use by the Commissioner of Education to restructure schools in the lowest five percent under the Race to the Top law. The bill received approval by the Senate Education Committee.
- Senate Bill 417, sponsored by Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), prohibits a director of schools from suspending a teacher who is under investigation for more than 90 days, except in criminal investigation cases, a Department of Children’s Services investigation or an internal investigation by a local education agency which might warrant his or her dismissal. State Senators approved the bill on final consideration.
- Senate Bill 2246, sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), encourages schools to schedule any building maintenance involving harmful substances at a time when students and teachers will not be at school to limit students’ exposure.
- Senate Bill 2115, sponsored by Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), permitting students who are U.S. Citizens and residents of Tennessee to receive in-state tuition regardless of their parent’s citizenship status. The legislation permits students to receive in-state tuition as long as they are U.S. citizens, have resided in Tennessee for at least one year and graduated from a Category 1, 2 or 3 public or private secondary school in the state. The bill follows the policy set by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that “all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the U.S. and the state wherein they reside.” The bill was approved by the full Senate.
- Senate Bill 2006, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), allows a school system to track specific needs of students of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and children, particularly when their parents deploy. It allows the school system to add a special identifier in the current database that the student is the dependent of a military person in the effort to help meet the student’s education needs. The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee.
Erin’s Law focuses on preventing child sex abuse
“Erin’s Law” which focuses on preventing child sexual abuse met final Senate approval this week. Senate Bill 2421, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), encourages schools across the state to provide age-appropriate instruction to students on personal body safety and how to report sexual abuse, including occurrences that could potentially happen in the home. The bill is named after Erin Merryn, an Illinois native who was sexually abused as a child. Merryn now fully dedicates her time to getting the law passed in all fifty states.
“The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that in 2012 there were 3,508 child sexual abuse cases reported across the state,” said Overbey. “However, the U.S. Department of Justice indicates child sexual abuse is underreported in about 60% of cases, meaning the actual number of abuse cases in Tennessee is most likely much higher than reported.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their perpetrator, with 34% of the offenders being family members. The Bureau reports that 59% of offenders were acquainted with the victim and only 7% were strangers.
Currently, 10 states have passed Erin’s law, and 17 additional states are introducing it this year. The bill is pending final consideration in the House of Representatives on March 27.
Legislation would help ensure citizens’ privacy when using electronic devices
Legislation advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to prohibit state and local police agencies from accessing or retrieving the location data of residents by surveillance of an electronic device without a court warrant. Senate Bill 2087, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), would help ensure government does not take advantage of technological advances in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices to spy without appropriate judicial oversight.
“Government and law enforcement agencies should not be able to tap into your cell phone location or gain access to electronically stored data without a warrant approved by a judge,” said Senator Beavers. “We cannot let technological advances sidestep the Fourth Amendment. This protection is a very important part of the checks and balances put into place by our forefathers to keep government from overstepping its boundaries.”
Law enforcement made 1.1 million requests to wireless carriers for cellphone data information in 2012 according to a report delivered to Congress in December. The three largest wireless companies, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon reported they have received 56,400 “emergency” requests from police departments which did not have a warrant or court order. One company reported their requests from police have doubled in the past five years.
In addition, public records obtained by USA Today and Gannett reveal that about one in four law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have used “tower dumps.” This is a surveillance tactic which covers multiple towers and wireless providers to give police a multitude of electronic data about a targeted cell phone user. The digital dragnets also capture information on other persons using wireless devices in the area who are not suspected of wrongdoing.
The electronic privacy bill is modeled after one passed in Montana which allows exceptions only in order to respond to a possible life-threatening situation, an emergency call by the user or when a device is reported as stolen, unless there is informed consent by the owner. The legislation prescribes a Class C misdemeanor for violation.
In addition, the committee passed Senate Bill 1757 sponsored by Beavers, which would classify cellular telephones as sealed containers and prohibit the search and seizure during a routine traffic stop. The officer could not retrieve data contained in the mobile devices unless there is a search warrant, the owner gives informed consent, it is abandoned, or exigent circumstances exists to suspect criminal activity at the time of the seizure.
“Citizens must be protected from unreasonable government intrusion,” added Beavers. “This legislation is a big step forward in securing our Constitutional freedoms.”
Legislation aids Senior Citizens Participating in the Property Tax Freeze Program
The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to help senior citizens who participate in Tennessee’s property tax freeze program. Senate Bill 1128, sponsored by State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), requires the base tax for property tax freeze programs to be recalculated in any year in which the actual tax due is less than the previously established base tax for the property.
“Simply put, this legislation will re-freeze their tax bill when the tax amount due becomes lower,” said Senator Yager. “It provides a helpful correction for our needy senior citizens who are on the property tax freeze program.”
Yager said, under the current law, it is very difficult for seniors to re-freeze their base tax amount. This legislation makes the calculation automatic.
In November 2006, Tennessee voters approved an amendment to Article II, Section 28 of the Tennessee Constitution giving the General Assembly the authority by general law to authorize counties and/or municipalities to implement a local option property tax freeze for taxpayers 65 years of age or older. The Property Tax Freeze Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), was passed in 2007 putting the program into place. Twenty-seven cities and 23 counties participate in the program.
Lawmakers form Nutrition Caucus to help find solutions to malnutrition in Tennessee
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), and Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) joined a bi-partisan group of legislators at a press conference this week to announce the formation of the Tennessee Nutrition Caucus. Members of the Caucus were joined by several community organizations engaged in the fight against hunger and malnutrition: the Tennessee Farm Bureau, YMCA, Beverage Association of Tennessee, Tennessee Wildlife Federation, Feeding America, Tennessee Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and University of Tennessee Center for Health Science Center.
“This is a bi-partisan team of state legislators who understand that one’s quality of life depends on the necessities of life,” said Norris. According to Feeding America, 25.1% of Tennessee’s children and 17.6% of Tennessee’s general population do not know where their next meal will come from.
“As one of the three practicing physicians in the Senate, I have a unique opportunity to see the ravaging effect of poor nutrition on a daily basis, and I am excited to work toward implementing good public policy based on my experience,” added Senator Dickerson. “There’s much to be done.”
“Our long-term goal is to provide an appropriate forum to find solutions to malnutrition – legislative, public, private and volunteer – and put them to work like reducing unemployment through healthier lifestyles, eliminating food deserts, encouraging urban gardening, harvests for the hungry and community education events. These are just a few examples of what we can do together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of all Tennesseans,” Norris said.
Annexation – The full Senate voted 27 to 1 on Thursday in favor of major legislation which repeals annexation in Tennessee by municipal ordinance. Tennessee is one of only three states which allow annexation by ordinance. Senate Bill 2464, sponsored by Senators Bo Watson (R-Hixson), Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Mark Norris (R-Collierville), eliminates a city’s right to annex by ordinance and leaves the only method of annexation to be consent by the land owner or referendum. The bill also prohibits annexations of land used primarily for agricultural purposes without the consent of the owner. In addition, the bill continues the current annexation moratorium until May 15, 2015 and specifically directs the Tennessee Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) to study the collateral effects of the repeal. This includes the rights of businesses and property owners not residing in the area who would not be qualified to vote in a referendum and how to deal with situations where utilities have already been extended in anticipation of annexation.
Ag Day on the Hill – Members of the General Assembly joined with farmers and agriculture groups from across the state this week to celebrate Tennessee’s annual “Ag Day on the Hill” event at the Legislative Plaza. Governor Bill Haslam has also proclaimed the date “Agriculture Day” as part of the annual national observance to recognize the important contributions of farmers and forestland owners to the state and nation. Ag Day on the Hill activities included the popular milking contest between Senate and House members, a cattle-weighing contest, farm animals, crops and equipment, and new this year, a silent auction to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and Tennessee’s Ag in the Classroom educational program.
Main Street Communities – The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development announced that 646 jobs have been created from 23 Tennessee Main Street communities for activities occurring between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2013. In addition, 182 net new businesses were started. Main Street communities generated more than $59 million of public/private investment in 2013, and continue to be a vital part of the state’s economic and cultural identity. Tennessee Main Street provides technical assistance and training for communities in developing real-world solutions to make downtowns safe, appealing, vibrant places where folks want to shop, work, live, invest and make memories.
MLK Document 200473 — The full Senate approved a resolution this week asking the Speaker and Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives to return a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report known as “MLK Document 200473” to the Tennessee Secretary of State. Senate Resolution 61, sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), is in response to the mysterious disappearance of a report on James Earl Ray who was convicted in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. The TBI report was ordered by Governor Buford Ellington after Tennessee Corrections Commissioner Harry S. Avery conducted his own investigation into the assassination, which included interviews with Ray. Tennessee turned the report over to the U.S. House of Representatives’ House Select Committee on Assassinations, where it was placed under seal until 2029. The resolution simply asks Congress to restore the State of Tennessee’s property to its rightful position in the State Library and Archives as part of Governor Ellington’s papers.
Murfreesboro to Nashville Monorail Study – The Senate has approved legislation this week calling for a study to determine the feasibility of a monorail public transportation system along the I-24 Nashville Southeast Corridor that connects downtown Murfreesboro to Nashville. Senate Bill 2515 directs the Department of Transportation to look at the costs of construction, operation and financing of the monorail system, including identifying all public and private funding sources. TDOT will report its findings and recommendations to the Senate and House Transportation Committees by February 1, 2015. The 32-mile strip of interstate is the most congested corridor in the state, with the population of Rutherford County expected to grow from 290,000 to 600,000 by 2025. The bill is sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro).
Crowdfunding – State Senators voted on Thursday to make changes to the Tennessee Securities Act by creating the “Invest Tennesee Exemption” to allow crowdfunding investment. Crowdfunding is the collection of finance to sustain an initiative from a large pool of backers—the “crowd”—usually made on the Internet. The initiative is most commonly used in a financing campaign for a start-up company. Senate Bill 1481 is sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
911 Funding Reform – Legislation advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week updating the existing statutory model for funding Tennessee’s 911 emergency communications network to account for changes in telecommunications technology and consumer choices. Senate Bill 2407, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), is the product of yearlong discussions and collaboration among state legislative leaders, local emergency communications districts, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, public safety officials and telecommunications carriers. The compromise bill establishes a stable, reliable future-proof funding source for maintaining and improving the state’s emergency communications network services.
Animal Fighting — The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Wednesday which strengthens penalties against spectators at animal fights in Tennessee. Under current law, it is illegal to own, possess, keep, use or train an animal for the purpose of fighting them in Tennessee. Presently, it is a Class B misdemeanor to be a spectator at a dog fight with a maximum fine of $500 and a Class C misdemeanor to attend a cockfight with a maximum fine of $50. Senate Bill 2014, sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), makes it a Class A misdemeanor offense to be a spectator at any animal fight with a minimum fine of $500. According to law enforcement officials, cockfighting events are also a magnet for other criminal activities, including, including illegal gambling and drug trafficking. This includes illegal Mexican drug cartel operations.
Merry Christmas – Legislation that would allow school officials and students to say Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or Happy Holidays to one another without fear of a lawsuit is now on its way to the governor after the Senate concurred with a House amendment. Senate Bill 1425 is sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville).
Stop Obamacare Act – The Senate adopted House action on an amendment and sent to the governor legislation which requires the governor to receive approval from the General Assembly through joint resolution before expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. Senate Bill 804, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), is limited to the expansion of optional enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, which is also known as Obamacare. In June 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that states have the right to opt out of Medicaid expansion without losing pre-existing federal Medicaid funding.