Capitol Hill Week: Teacher evaluation system, state’s meth law and Tennessee’s health status headlines week

(NASHVILLE, TN), January 19, 2012 — It was a busy week on Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepared and finalized their legislation in anticipation of the General Assembly’s January 26 bill deadline.  In addition, Senate committees heard testimony on a number of important state matters and debated several bills as the second week of the 2012 legislative session has concluded. 

Teacher Evaluation System debated in Senate Education Committee

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony regarding legislation that would give the State Board of Education the option to allow principals and teachers producing superior student growth to use those scores to comprise 50 percent or more of their evaluations.  Senate Bill 2165 would change the present system where students’ value added growth is 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, with another 15 percent tied to some other measure agreed upon by the teacher and his/her supervisor to evaluate student achievement.  A vote on the bill was deferred as discussion on the plan continues.  

“This bill gives the State Board of Education another tool in the toolbox as the state continues the ongoing comprehensive review of this evaluation system,” said Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), sponsor of the bill.  “It is based on the simple proposition of  emulate rather than evaluate.  If the Board finds it is both reasonable and beneficial for achieving student growth, principals and teachers could then choose to use it as their whole score.  In doing so, it would free teachers with superior student growth from the evaluation system.”

Reforming the state’s teacher evaluation process was an important part of Tennessee’s receiving $500 million in federal Race to the Top funds, which was based on four pillars:  enhancing standards and assessments, improving the collection and use of data, increasing teacher effectiveness, and turning around struggling schools.  The changes to the evaluation system were made during the administration of former Governor Phil Bredesen and approved by the Legislature in January 2010.  The new evaluation process was designed by teachers and other education practitioners, who were integral in designing the evaluative tools. 

Last fall, the Department of Education provided flexibility in the plan and agreed to conduct a review of the program.  In December, Governor Haslam announced there will be both an external and internal review of the new teacher evaluation system.  He has charged the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) with conducting an independent, third-party evaluation and has asked the state Department of Education to formalize a review process, which the department has already begun.  The Department of Education anticipates making modifications to the evaluation system after the reviews are complete.

In addition, a resolution sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) has been proposed urging the department to “follow through and fulfill its publicly stated plan to provide multiple opportunities for feedback and future revision” of the evaluations.

“I know that the classroom teacher is the most important factor in boosting student achievement,” said Senator Tracy.  “Therefore, the teacher evaluation process must be the best system possible in order to ensure it is both fair and productive to increasing teacher effectiveness.”

Expect discussions on the new evaluation system to continue in the Education Committee during the 2012 legislative session.

Meth bill tightens loophole in the state’s Registry

The Senate Judiciary Committee debated legislation this week that tightens a loophole in the state’s Meth Registry.  Senate Bill 2190 adds those convicted of promoting the manufacture of methamphetamine and those who initiated a process intended to result in the manufacture of meth to the state’s Registry.  In addition, the legislation requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to collect an identification number from those listed on the Registry so innocent citizens with similar names and birthdates do not run into a roadblock when they purchase pseudoephedrine.

Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive and illegal stimulant commonly known on the street as “Meth,” “Speed,” or “Crank.”  The highly addictive drug can cause serious irreversible damage to the body of the user.  It can also cause severe damage to the environment due to the toxic chemicals used in “cooking” meth.  Tennessee reported 2,082 meth lab incidents in 2010, which is up 41 percent from the previous year. 

The state’s Meth Registry was created by the General Assembly in 2005. Currently, 2,800 people are listed on the registry with 100 newly convicted persons added each month.  That number, however, is expected to rise rapidly as a result of the “I Hate Meth Law” passed by the legislature last year.  The law went into effect on January 1.

“One of the strongest aspects of the new law was that meth offenders would be banned from purchasing pseudoephedrine products for the entire seven years that they are listed on the Meth Offender Registry,” said Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), sponsor of the measure.  “However, we have discovered that Tennessee law does not require some meth offenders to be on the Registry.  This bill addresses this problem so all persons convicted of meth crimes will be on the Registry and banned from purchasing the precursors used in the manufacture of this drug.”

A vote on the bill was deferred until next week as lawmakers continue to look for the best identification method to ensure that innocent citizens who share the same name or birth date as an offender will not be denied purchases under the NPLEX system. 

Tennessee’s finances are sound says State Comptroller Justin Wilson

Tennessee is in “good sound fiscal condition” according to State Comptroller Justin Wilson, who appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week to deliver his “State of Fiscal Affairs” report.  Wilson cited a balanced budget, low debt, a sound retirement plan, manageable retiree benefits, and a solvent unemployment trust fund as reasons that the state’s finances are in good shape.

“Not many states can say that,” Wilson said.  “This is a good place to be.”  He attributed the “willingness of the General Assembly to enact budgets that have forgone, reduced or eliminated expenses and services,” as another reason for Tennessee’s good financial standing.

Tennessee’s budget is nearly $32 billion, of which $11 billion is derived from state taxes and approximately $13 billion from federal revenue.   Wilson said the uncertainty in Washington regarding federal budget cuts leaves effects to state budgets largely unknown.  Governor Bill Haslam has made contingency plans to ensure that the state can operate efficiently if drastic federal cuts are made.  Local governments have also been advised to plan for reduced funding scenarios if they depend heavily on state and federal funds.

Wilson said the General Assembly must continue to reduce expenses, and the administration should increase the efficiency of state government operations in anticipation of the tough financial challenges Tennessee is likely to face in the future.

“Projected increases in state programs are growing faster than optimistic revenue increases that we project,” Wilson said. “The cost of items like the state insurance plan, TennCare, and required pension costs are rising faster than optimistic revenue expectations.”  This is in addition to any future legislative initiatives in which the General Assembly may want to enact that requires new spending, according to Wilson.

Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) consumes about $3.8 billion, or 37 percent
of state tax revenue, according to the report.  Wilson recommended a review of the formula to make it more transparent, verifiable and understandable.  “In its current state, the BEP is none of these,” added Wilson.

“As we continue to implement and evaluate education reform programs, we should focus on the integrity of the funding process,” said Wilson. 

Future financial challenges cited in the Comptroller’s report to the Committee include:
• Continuing to reduce expenses and create efficiencies;
• Funding increases already projected and planning for federal mandates, such as President Obama’s healthcare plan;
• Making capital improvements and rebuilding the state’s reserves;
• Maintaining strong credit ratings and a manageable state debt; and,
• Improving financial reporting.

Several of the state’s financial reporting software and computer operating systems that were put into place under previous administrations have been plagued with implementation issues, delays and other problems, including the Edison and TRUST systems. The TRUST system is used by the Department of Revenue, while Edison is the state’s computerized payroll and accounting system. 

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris took note of the irony regarding the state’s flawed software system named TRUST.   Norris is sponsoring legislation creating a new gift certificate program authorizing the sale of $35 gift vouchers for cultural and specialty earmarked license plates.  He postponed action on Senate Bill 353 last year due to the flawed system.

“It should be easy for folks to write checks to the state for plates that more than pay for themselves and add revenue to the coffers,” said Leader Norris.  “But we can’t trust TRUST.”

The specialty license plate program generates in excess of $4.5 million annually for the Tennessee Arts Commission which is the lead agency championing Tennessee’s cultural heritage and presentation of performing, visual and literary arts. Seventy six percent of its budget is funded by the specialty plate program.

Tennessee sees substantial gains in improved health status

Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, spoke to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee regarding recent gains made in the state’s overall health ranking.  Tennessee, which was once 49th in the nation, has improved ten points and is now ranked 39th in its overall health status.  The state was ranked 42nd last year.

“This is great news,” said Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe.  “Moving up ten places from a national perspective is quite an accomplishment; however, we do still have much work before us to move into the top ratings nationally.”

The report, conducted by the nonprofit United Health Foundation, cited improvements in the state’s rates regarding smoking and infant mortality, as well as a drop in violent crime for the consistent progress made by the state.  

“What we have seen since 2006 is consistent improvement in Tennessee,” said Wykoff.  “Thirty-ninth is still not acceptable.  We have important opportunities for us to improve.”

Wykoff said Tennessee must reach out to the general public to educate them about public health, starting with teaching children about good habits.  He also recommended educating the business community about how healthier habits among their employees impact their bottom line through productivity.  He said education in the faith-based community also increases opportunities to improve health outcomes in the state.

One of the greatest challenges facing Tennessee is a high prevalence of obesity and diabetes. Over the past 10 years, obesity increased from 22.9 percent to 31.7 percent of adults.  In addition, Tennessee ranks 44th in its rate of cardiovascular death and 46th in cancer.  Wykoff said the state needs to explore ways to increase health screenings to address these health problems.

Wykoff urged lawmakers to continue economic development efforts, as there is a “huge life expectancy (gap) based on income.” 

“If we want to improve health we must focus on economic development,” he said.

Senate Energy and Environment Committee hears State Park Update

The Senate Energy and Environment Committee received an update on Tennessee’s state parks system from Department of Environment Commissioner Bob Martineau and Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill.  The state has 53 state parks with more than 30 million visits annually.  The annual economic impact of the state park system is estimated at $725,000 million and includes support for 12,000 jobs across Tennessee.  The state park system also has 6 inns, 4 marinas, 8 restaurants, 9 golf courses, 366 cabins, 3,000 campsites and 1,200 miles of trails.  

“Our state park system has a large economic impact on Tennessee, particularly the rural communities where they are located,” said Senate Energy and Environment Committee Chairman Steve Southerland.   “They are also of great value to the many citizens who visit these parks every year.”

The Department is focusing on increasing opportunities for economic growth by taking advantage of Tennessee’s unique natural, cultural and historical resources.  This includes investing in high volume margin assets like campsites.  They also plan to increase management accountability and improve their online presence in marketing, social media, reservations and transactions.

Committee members also enjoyed watching the Harrison Bay State Park “eagle cam” which was recently installed along the shores of Chickamauga Lake.   Wildlife enthusiasts watched a pair of bald eagles build a nest and raise a family on the park’s Bear Trace Golf Course last winter. The eagles have returned to the nest again this year where the Internet camera has been installed. Citizens can view the eagles at:   http://www.harrisonbayeaglecam.org/

Issues in Brief

CPR / Education – The Senate Education Committee has approved legislation calling for schools to include hands-on practice in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) programs.  The current wellness curriculum in schools require CPR training.  Senate Bill 1680, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), ensures that this training includes hands-on practice as well.  The training for CPR is often provided by local emergency personnel who give demonstrations for the students and the opportunity to practice the life-saving skill.  

Economic Development — The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development announced that Commissioner Bill Hagerty will lead ECD’s trade mission to China and South Korea April 15-21, 2012, that will focus on Tennessee’s medical device manufacturers and other health care companies.  Applications are available at http://www.tn.gov/ecd/tntrade/trademission, along with a video explaining the trade mission.  The deadline for companies to apply is Feb. 1. The trade mission is part of the recently announced TNTrade, a new initiative designed to help boost exports by Tennessee’s small- and medium-sized businesses. 

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