State Senate changes state law to reflect Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind waiver

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 22, 2012 –  State Senators continued to work through busy schedules this week on Capitol Hill, approving several important education proposals including a bill that amends current law to reflect Tennessee’s waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and legislation to give teachers more authority over discipline in the classroom. 

Senate Bill 3122, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), acknowledges Tennessee’s own ambitious but achievable goals.  The legislation is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative priorities and comes after Tennessee received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to waive certain provisions of the federal NCLB law.

“This bill matches Tennessee law with Tennessee goals, moving away from the barriers created by the federal NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards,” said Senator Gresham.   “No Child Left Behind created a culture of compliance. We want to create a culture of achievement.  It removes the over-identification of failing schools under the NCLB provisions to a system where schools are recognized for achieving individual student progress benchmarks set though our successful Race to the Top application.”

The AYP standard applied under No Child Left Behind would have designated hundreds of Tennessee schools as failing to meet the federal law’s definitions and timelines, making them subject to state takeover even though many are making progress.  In place of the annual AYP designation for Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and schools, the bill establishes a state accountability system requiring significant growth in student achievement in core subjects.  It also contains provisions designed to cut the achievement gap between the poorest students and racial minorities with their counterparts, whose scores are higher.

The bill gives greater autonomy and flexibility for schools and LEAs with proven success in turning student scores around, rather than applying a state takeover for all schools eligible for state intervention under NCLB provisions.  By doing so, it narrowly tailors the most significant state sanctions to focus on the bottom five percent of schools.  This allows local school districts to apply their own concentrated measures to improve student scores, as the state focuses on those schools which need help the most, particularly those who are under state intervention in the Achievement School District (ASD).

The Achievement School District was created by Tennessee’s First to the Top law.  Gresham’s legislation clarifies the authority, obligations and operations of the ASD to ensure meaningful intervention in the state’s lowest-performing schools as required by federal waiver provisions.  It clarifies funding, property rights and procurement processes to ensure the ASD’s ability to manage schools effectively and create dramatic change and improvement.  In addition, it clarifies the transition of a school from the ASD back to the local school district, removing references put into place under the No Child Left Behind law and implanting parental decision-making opportunities.
 
Under the waiver, Tennessee proposes to raise overall achievement by 3 to 5 percent each year and to cut achievement gaps in half over an 8-year period. 

Teachers / Discipline in the Classroom —  Teachers in grades 5 – 12 would have more authority to remove disruptive students from the classroom under legislation, sponsored by Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), which was approved by the State Senate this week.   The bill authorizes each teacher, consistent with the local education agency’s (LEA) policy, to manage their classroom, discipline students and refer a student to the principal. It also requires principals to fully support the authority of the teacher to remove a persistently disruptive student as long as he/she was removed within the guidelines developed by the school and the LEA.

“Teachers cannot teach when they have persistently disruptive students in their classroom,” said Senator Gresham.  “It is also unfair to hold teachers responsible for the progress of disruptive students who are out of their control, not to speak of the impact it has on other students in the classroom.”

“Children do not learn in a vacuum. The classroom environment we provide our kids directly affects the amount of instruction they are able to absorb,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey praising the bill. “Teachers must have the ability to remove uncontrollable children who persistently contaminate the learning environment. I commend Chairman Gresham for bringing forth this measure.”

Senate Bill 3122 requires LEAs, or school boards, to adopt a complete policy regarding a teacher’s ability to remove a disruptive student from the classroom.   Under the bill, teachers must file a brief report with the principal detailing the behavior of the removed student.  The principal must respond when a teacher refers a student by employing appropriate discipline management techniques that are consistent with the LEA policy and their student code of conduct.  Following three documented removals, the principal cannot return a student back to that classroom unless the teacher consents.  Similarly, principals would be prohibited from returning a student to the classroom on the day of the removal without the teacher’s consent.

If the principal or the principal’s designee recommends returning a student to the classroom following the three removals and the teacher does not consent, the LEA’s Director of Schools must review the record and determine the appropriate action.  Finally, the legislation calls for the discipline policy to be disseminated to the students,
faculty, staff, and parents or guardians of students.

SCORE Report Card — The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) released their 2011-12 State of Education in Tennessee report, assessing K-12 public education in Tennessee.  SCORE is a non-profit and non-partisan advocacy and research organization that was founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) in 2009. 

The report showed Tennessee has made a lot of progress, but there is significant work left to achieve our goals of providing Tennessee students with a world class education.  The report includes a 2011 Year-In-Review in education, highlights four “Promising Practices” of innovative reform efforts across the state, provides a progress update on  Tennessee’s First to the Top work, and provides extensive state and district education data from the past year.

The report identifies four clear priorities for how to continue reform in the year ahead. The priorities highlight the actions that SCORE believes must be taken to ensure that the state can build upon its early gains in student achievement and become the fastest improving state in the country. SCORE’s priorities include:  continued commitment to successful implementation of educator evaluations and high academic standards; robust professional learning for educators to improve instruction; strengthening teacher preparation programs to ensure educators will be effective upon entering the classroom; and bolstering the principal and administrator pipeline to broaden the pool of candidates to lead schools in Tennessee.

“By maintaining our commitment to implementing an ambitious reform agenda and promoting stronger, better prepared and supported educators and school leaders, Tennessee can continue to lead the nation as a state committed to a better future for its students and graduates,” Frist said.

Teacher Evaluation / Public Records – Legislation that would keep teacher evaluations from being subject to publication was approved by the Senate State and Local Government Committee this week.  Senate Bill 1447, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), would keep access to the data limited to school officials and the teacher.  The action comes after it was reported that education officials could be obliged to release evaluations in response to a request under the state’s open records act.

Science / Teachers — The State Senate approved Senate Bill 893, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), that would make it clear that teachers can help their students develop critical thinking skills regarding scientific evidence, allowing discussion on the strengths and weakness of various scientific theories.  The discussion, however, must be within the framework of the curriculum.  The bill now goes back to the House of Representatives for final approval as amended by the Senate.

Charter School / Student Promotion — State Senators gave final approval to Senate Bill 2156 that clarifies charter schools can promote students based on test scores or grades.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).

Parental Involvement / Parent Contracts — Legislation that would encourage school districts to develop and implement voluntary parental involvement contracts with parents of students passed the State Senate this week.  It has been found that when parents collaborate with teachers, educators hold higher expectations of students and higher opinions of the parents.  Findings also show that children from diverse cultural backgrounds tend to do better because parents and professionals are bridging the gap between the culture at home and the learning institution. Senate Bill 3588, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), is designed to encourage and facilitate a parent’s involvement in his or her child’s education.  

Teachers First Amendment Right Protected – The State Senate passed Senate Bill 3060, sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), aimed at protecting the First Amendment rights of school personnel, including teachers and administrators.  The bill seeks to ensure educators can participate in programs that take place either before or after school hours and do not interfere with their school duties, including those of a religious nature as long as they are initiated by students.  The action comes after reported incidents where teachers and coaches were admonished for participating in such activities as the “Meet Me at the Pole” prayer event and prayer before sporting events, both of which are outside of school hours.  

Bill to ease transfers between community colleges, private colleges and universities heads to Governor after final Senate approval

The State Senate approved and sent to Governor Bill Haslam legislation on Monday night that would make it easier for students to transfer credits between community colleges, private colleges and state universities.  Senate Bill 2431, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), authorizes community colleges within the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) to enter into reverse articulation or reverse transfer agreements with four year institutions within the TBR system and institutions within the University of Tennessee, as well as private colleges accredited by the Southern Association of College and Schools (SACS).

Articulation agreements are arrangements between higher education institutions that facilitate the transfer of course credits from one school to another. Agreements outline specific courses and letter grades completed at the community college that will transfer to a university or private college.  They help students begin more defined curriculums so that students understand exactly which courses will and will not transfer as they move between colleges.   

According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), articulation agreements between public higher education institutions are currently in development as part of the state’s Complete College Act of 2010.  The articulation agreements between public institutions and private SACS-accredited institutions will be completed if the private institutions approve the agreements.

Gresham said the agreements could also work to give students attending a four-year college who do not complete their degree the opportunity to transfer their credits to a community college if they choose to earn an Associate’s Degree instead.

“We have ambitious goals to increase the number of college graduates in Tennessee,” added Gresham.  “The articulation agreement makes sure a student has a clear understanding of what courses to complete at a community college to transfer to a university or private college successfully.  This saves them from taking repetitive courses on the university level that might lengthen their time to degree completion.”

Issues in Brief

Drug Test / Welfare Recipients – The Senate Health and General Welfare Committee voted 7-1-1 in favor of legislation which calls for drug tests for applicants for Welfare benefits when that person has been arrested on a drug charge within five years.  Senate Bill 2580, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), applies to adult recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.  Under the federal Welfare Reform Act passed in 1996, states were authorized to conduct drug testing for TANF recipients.  The bill does not affect aid provided to children under the program. 

Illegal Aliens / Risk of Flight — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 to approve Senate Bill 2604 that allows the court clerk to set bail for traffic violations at a higher amount than normally permitted for a defendant who is unlawfully present in the U.S. and is deemed a risk of flight.  The bill, which now goes to the Finance Committee, is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet). 

Similarly, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-1-2 for a bill requiring an officer to arrest a driver involved in an accident that results in serious bodily injury or death when the driver lacks a valid driver’s license and evidence of financial responsibility.  Senate Bill 2350, sponsored by Senator Beavers, prohibits the issuance of a citation in lieu of an arrest in such circumstances due to the risk of flight.   The bill is named the “Ricky Otts Act.”  Mr. Otts was killed by an unlicensed driver who was suspected of being in the country illegally.

Felons with Firearms — Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) led passage of legislation through the State Senate this week that would enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions.  Currently, illegal possession of a firearm for convicted violent felons is punishable as a Class E felony, which carries a one to six-year sentence and up to $3,000 in fines.  Senate Bill 2250 would increase the offense to a Class C felony, which is punishable by a 3 to 15-year sentence and up to $10,000 in fines for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence or a deadly weapon.  The punishment would be a Class D felony for felons whose conviction involved a drug offense.  The bill will be heard on final consideration in the House of Representatives on Monday.  

Gangs / Crime — Norris also won passage of Senate Bill 2252, which enhances penalties for certain gang-related crimes committed by groups of three or more people one classification higher than if they had acted alone.  A person robbed or assaulted by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death.  The legislation cracking down on gangs and the “Felons with Firearms” bill are part of a package of public safety bills included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda.  The bills were recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group that developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee. 

Corrections — Senate Bill 2248, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), is now on its way to the Governor after State Senators gave approval to an amendment placed on the bill by the House of Representatives.  The legislation gives the State Department of Corrections the authority to supervise probation and parole services to provide a seamless one person contact for offenders throughout the entire criminal justice system and is also included in Governor Bill Haslam’s Public Safety legislative package.  Forty states operate under a consolidated system, which is widely recognized as the best practice in corrections. The existing organizational structure that actually performs under the Board of Pardons and Paroles will remain intact upon transfer to the Department of Corrections.     

Transitioning Youth Empowerment Act — The State Senate unanimously approved and sent to the Governor the Tennessee Transitioning Youth Empowerment Act, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) that would help foster children who are in state custody transition into adulthood.  The bill continues a successful initiative which began in 2010 and was due to expire in June.  Senate Bill 2199, which is endorsed by Governor Bill Haslam, continues a critical program that provides assistance to foster children between the ages of 18-21 once they age out of the foster care system.  According to the Midwest Evaluation of Former Foster Youth, when compared to those youth who were discharged from foster care at 18, young adults who remained in care until 21 were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in a school or training program; three times as likely to be enrolled in college; less likely to be current recipients of other forms of government assistance, to have substance abuse problems and alcohol dependence, to be homeless, report being arrested or incarcerated; and are less likely to have experienced a pregnancy

Kelsey Smith Act — State Senators approved legislation this week that would help law enforcement in locating a missing person believed to be the victim of a crime.  Senate Bill 2413, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), requires wireless providers to “ping” the victim’s cell phone at the request of law enforcement authorities to help locate the missing person when there is sufficient information to believe there is a risk or threat of death or serious physical harm.  The “Kelsey Smith Act” is named after an 18-year old Kansas woman who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in 2007.  The tragedy resulted in a nationwide movement by her parents, Greg and Missey Smith, and other advocates to ensure that law enforcement authorities can receive assistance from a cell phone provider to help find the missing person.  All members of the State Senate were added as sponsors of the bill.

Medal of Honor — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder posthumously awarded Sergeant First Class Dennis Murray the first Tennessee Fallen Heroes Medal.  Murray was killed when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device (IED) on November 21, 2011 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.  Murray is survived by his mother, Wanda Maxey, wife, Shelee Murray, and his two children, Sebastian and Savannah.  The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 541, sponsored by Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), to honor and recognize service members killed in the line of duty in 2011. 

Historic Documents / Ten Commandments — Legislation authorizing local governments to display replicas of historic documents such as the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Ten Commandments has passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee.  Senate Bill 2641, sponsored by Senator Mike Bell (R-Riceville), would apply to county or municipal public buildings or grounds and would allow replicas to be displayed in the form of statues, monuments, or any other display that respects the dignity of the documents.

Prescription Drug Abuse — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee has approved a proposal to curb prescription drug abuse by requiring doctors or their designees to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database for patients’ prescription history before prescribing an opioid or benzodiazepine substance.   Senate Bill 2253 which is included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, requires pharmacies to collect a patient’s prescription information and report that information to the database within seven days.  Currently it must be reported within 40 days.  The bill also enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor offense to a Class E Felony when it involves 250 or more pills.  The stiffer penalties allow law enforcement officials to go after dealers who distribute the drugs illegally.  The bill now goes to the Senate Government Operations Committee before moving to the Finance Committee and then to the floor for final consideration.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman). 

Wounded Soldier Honored — The State Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 711, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), in recognition United States Marine Corp Corporal Christian Brown of Munford.  Corporal Brown suffered severe internal and external injuries in December in Afghanistan from an improvised explosive device (IED).   The resolution applauds Brown’s “dedication and bravery in the face of grave danger” and extends the General Assembly’s best wishes for a speedy recovery.  Brown is now receiving care at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.  Norris will be among participants in the Honor Benefit Ride from Collierville to Brown’s home town of Munford to raise funds for the wounded soldier this weekend.

Photo ID/ Driver’s License — Members of the Senate Finance Committee moved passage of legislation that deletes authorization for persons 60 years of age or older to obtain a non-photo driver license.  Senate Bill 2287, sponsored by Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), would only apply to current license holders upon renewal. 

Constitutionality / Firearms Legislation — Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper released an opinion to Senate Judiciary Committee members this week regarding the constitutionality of legislation that would allow gun owners to keep firearms locked out of sight in their vehicle while at their place of employment.  The Attorney General opined that Senate Bill 3002 would be constitutionally defensible as two courts have upheld similar bills against such challenges.  The bill is sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill). 

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Posted in Weekly Review

Leadership