US Ed. Sec. speaks at Tenn. education conference – Education Week

Published Online: October 28, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lauded Tennessee's educators for their efforts in trying to help students be successful.

Duncan spoke Tuesday at the Tennessee Educational Leadership Conference in Nashville.

He said over the course of several years the hard work of principals and teachers has resulted in Tennessee students leading the nation in academic improvement.

Gov. Bill Haslam also spoke Tuesday. He too praised educators and told reporters following his speech that he's committed to seeing they get more pay.

The Republican governor had planned to give teachers a pay increase this year, but said he wasn't able to because of budget constraints. However, if state revenues allow for it, he says increased pay for teachers will be a priority next year.

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School’s social media policy causes concern – Education Week

Published Online: October 28, 2014

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — The social media policy for students at Williamson County Schools has drawn some concern for being too strict.

The Tennessean ( reports the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation have asked the district to suspend its policy because they say it compromises the First and Fourth Amendment rights of students.

The policy, which is part of the "Bring Your Own Technology" to school program, requires students to get permission from a teacher or administrator before posting photographs of other students or any school employees. It also allows teachers and administrators to inspect any device at any time.

Director of Schools Mike Looney said district attorneys are reviewing the request. He said the district is committed to finding the right balance between students' rights and safety.


Information from: The Tennessean,

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Two-thirds of seniors apply for Tenn. Promise – Education Week

Published Online: October 27, 2014

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — With a Nov. 1 deadline approaching, nearly two-thirds of Tennessee's high school seniors have applied for a new scholarship program that guarantees to cover the costs of a two-year college degree.

Among them is 17-year-old Christian Woodfin, a senior at Red Bank High School. He told The Chattanooga Times Free Press ( ) that without the Tennessee Promise program, it would have been difficult for him to attend college.

He plans to use the program to get a two-year degree in fire science and engineering so he can be a firefighter.

Gov. Bill Haslam has visited high schools around the state to promote Tennessee Promise. He hopes the program will help boost the number of Tennesseans with two- or four-year degrees to 55 percent, up from 33 percent now.

Some 42,000 of Tennessee's roughly 62,000 high school seniors have applied.

Most students who apply probably won't enroll, according to state officials. Based on the experience with Tennessee Achieves, a smaller, similar program upon which Tennessee Promise was modeled, about 16 percent of applicants actually enroll, said Dave Smith, Haslam's press secretary.

Applying online to Tennessee Promise is quick and easy, officials say, and students may sign up as a fall-back in case other plans don't work out. Or because their school counselors suggested it — as is likely the case, Smith said, in some counties where every graduating senior applied.

Tennessee Promise also seeks adult mentors to spend one hour a month to "help students navigate the college admissions process and ensure they complete Tennessee Promise program requirements," the program's website says. Mentors are expected to do such things as remind students of deadlines and reach out to parents and guardians.

Once they get to college, enrollees also have to complete eight hours of community service per term and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average.

State officials expect to spend $15 million on Tennessee Promise in its first year. The cost will rise to an estimated $34 million in three or four years, when the program is fully underway, officials say.

Funding comes from interest on $312.5 million that was taken from the Tennessee Lottery's surplus fund that's been put into an irrevocable trust. State Treasury employees invest the trust's money, and the interest will be used to fund Tennessee Promise.


Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press,

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Haslam: Common Core review doesn’t signal retreat – Education Week

Published Online: October 24, 2014

PULASKI, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday insisted that his decision this week to hold a public review of Common Core doesn't signal a retreat from the education standards in view of heavy criticism from teachers and tea party groups.

Haslam, in a luncheon Rotary Club meeting at a Pulaski bank, said he wants to clear up what he called misconceptions about Common Core, but stressed that he's not backing off more rigorous math and language requirements.

"My commitment is to say we're not moving on standards," Haslam said.

Common Core is a set of English and math standards that spell out what students should know and when, and they are intended to provide students with the critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills needed for college and the workforce.

The governor a day earlier announced the formation of panels to review the math and English components of the Common Core standards, and to report their recommendations at the end of next year. That's months after state Legislature, where some lawmakers are calling for a full repeal, concludes its annual session.

The move comes amid mounting political pressure about the standards. Tea party groups have derided Common Core as government overreach, while some teachers groups have complained that the standards rely too heavily on student test scores. The scores are, in turn, used to evaluate teacher performance.

During this year's legislative session, Haslam faced an insurrection among lawmakers from his own party over Common Core and related testing requirements. Tea party-leaning Republicans in the House led the effort to delay implementation by two years, though Haslam managed to turn most of those changes back after a concerted public relations campaign.

"Unfortunately there's a lot of misconception that's grown up around it," Haslam said in his Rotary speech, adding that more rigorous standards in Tennessee have been followed by improved scores on national tests. "We're seeing real progress in Tennessee and shouldn't back up."

Last year, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed Tennessee students leading the nation in academic improvement.

Haslam, who faces little serious opposition in next month's election, said he's open to specific changes to the standards — as long as they're based on academic needs.

"Quite frankly, I can't tell you exactly at what age a child should be able to multiply fractions, but let's bring out those professionals who can," Haslam said.

Governors in several other states that originally embraced Common Core have since taken steps back away from the standards as they have come into the political crosshairs. One popular option has been to rebrand them as state-specific standards.

Haslam said after the event that he sees little utility in renaming Tennessee's standards.

"We wouldn't go through all this exercise just to give it a new name," Haslam said. "We could have done that before."

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Process outlined for review of academic standards – Education Week

Published Online: October 22, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam is laying out a process for a public review of the state's K-12 academic standards in English and math.

Academic standards are typically reviewed in Tennessee every six years. But with discussion in Tennessee and across the country about Common Core state standards, Haslam says he believes it's time to take a fresh look.

In the coming weeks, a website will be available for Tennesseans to go online, review each current state standard and comment on what they like, don't like, or make suggestions.

The Southern Regional Education Board, as a third party, will collect the data in the spring and then turn that information over to professional Tennessee educators to be reviewed and analyzed.

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Tenn. seeks $70M for pre-K in Nashville, Memphis – Education Week

Published Online: October 17, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is asking for $70 million in federal money to expand pre-kindergarten programs in Davidson and Shelby counties, but not for other communities around the state.

The Tennessean reports ( for Friday's editions that the state Education Department would act as a pass-through agency for the money to go toward adding 1,600 pre-K seats in Nashville by 2018, and 3,580 slots for the Shelby County Consortium, which includes schools in Memphis and suburban districts.

Education department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier told the paper that the request doesn't mean Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's administration has changed its mind about pre-K funding. Haslam has said he is awaiting the results of a multi-year Vanderbilt study on the effectiveness of the program before making up his mind about an expansion.

Should Haslam ultimately decide to pursue more money for the program for 4-year-olds, he will have to persuade pre-K skeptics in the Legislature such as Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who last month called it "a liberal, feel-good program that's not working."

Ramsey acknowledged that the federal program would not involve state money, but questioned any expansion beyond children from low-income households.

"Any dime that we spend on that is a dime that comes away from K-12," he said.

Tennessee currently spends about $86.5 million per year on the state program, funding 935 pre-K classrooms around the state with an enrollment of more than 18,000 children.

Early results from the Vanderbilt study tracking pre-K students' performance over time found greater academic gains than their peers who didn't attend. But critics have said that the 2011 report also revealed that many of those advantages were erased by the time students reached grades three through five.

The authors of the early report acknowledged that one shortcoming of their data was that they did not know whether students in the "non-pre-K" group might have actually attended private pre-kindergarten programs.

The U.S. Department of Education will announce who receives the federal funding by the end of the year.

More than half of Nashville's more than 9,300 4-year-olds are not in pre-K programs, while Shelby County would need 10,000 more spaces to offer pre-K to all 4-year-olds.

The state's pre-K program was begun in 1998 as a $10 million pilot project for about 150 classrooms under then-Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican. Under his Democratic successor, Phil Bredesen, the program was expanded by nearly 800 classrooms.

Bredesen had called for making pre-K available to any family that chooses to enroll their child, but those plans were put on hold because of the Great Recession, and Haslam hasn't made significant changes in his first term despite its widespread popularity.


Information from: The Tennessean,

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Tenn. seeks $70M for early childhood education – Education Week

Published Online: October 17, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is asking the federal government for $70 million to help the communities of Nashville and Shelby County expand pre-kindergarten education.

Officials said the money would not go toward expanding the state's program.

Metro Nashville wants to use the funding to increase the number of pre-K students to 1,600 by 2018 while the Shelby County Consortium wants to add 3,580.

The Tennessee Department of Education asked for the money since only state departments could make the request. It will act as a pass-through agency.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier told The Tennessean ( that the request doesn't mean Gov. Bill Haslam's administration has changed its mind about pre-K funding. Haslam has said he is awaiting the results of a multi-year Vanderbilt study on the effectiveness of the program before making up his mind about an expansion.


Information from: The Tennessean,

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Eyeing Possible Successors for Head of Senate Ed. Panel – Education Week

Published Online: October 14, 2014

Published in Print: October 15, 2014, as Likely Leadership Options for Senate Education Panel

No matter which party comes out ahead in the Nov. 4 congressional elections, the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will have a new leader. Should Republicans take control of the chamber, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., currently the ranking member on the education panel, will take the reins and has openly discussed his priorities for the committee. Should Democrats maintain their majority, political observers, education policy experts, and Senate aides widely expect Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to succeed retiring Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa—though Sen. Murray, who now chairs the Budget Committee, has been adamant about not projecting her future moves.

Here's a look at the education credentials and priorities of the two most likely candidates to head up the Senate education committee in the 114th Congress:

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Sen. Lamar Alexander has been a fixture of conservative politics and education policy for nearly four decades, consistently leading his party on education issues since his election to the Senate in 2002 and most recently using his bully pulpit to slam the Obama administration for what he considers federal overreach.

When he was elected to the first of two terms as Tennessee governor in 1979—gaining national attention after traversing the state on foot in his now trademark red-and-black-plaid shirt—the Republican set out to overhaul the Volunteer State's teacher profession.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been critical of what he considers the Obama administration’s policy overreach on education, but he is also seen as a pragmatic legislator as ranking member of the Senate education committee.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has been critical of what he considers the Obama administration’s policy overreach on education, but he is also seen as a pragmatic legislator as ranking member of the Senate education committee.

—Carolyn Kaster/AP-File

The measure, which finally passed in 1984, fundamentally altered the teaching profession in the state's public schools. It instituted teacher-evaluation and differentiated-pay systems and created "career ladders" for teachers—policies some states are just now beginning to implement and others have yet to tackle.

The legislative push established Sen. Alexander as a foe of teachers' unions. But in 2013, his Senate office teamed up with the unions during a committee markup to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act: They worked to defeat language that would have required states to adopt new teacher evaluations and lobbied to include language that would alter acceptable school turnaround models.

Defining the Federal Role

It was also during his governorship that Sen. Alexander developed his , a proposal that calls for the federal government to assume all financial responsibility for states' Medicaid health-care programs in exchange for states financing all education programs. He recently dusted off the proposal when Congress reset federal student-loan interest rates in summer 2013, arguing that skyrocketing college costs are a direct result of states siphoning funds from higher education programs because of increased Medicaid costs.

After his eight-year tenure as governor, Sen. Alexander headed up Tennessee's state university system before joining former President George H.W. Bush's Cabinet as education secretary in 1991. During that time, he focused largely on school choice issues—he proposed a controversial program that would have given parents federal funds to help pay tuition at private schools—workforce-training programs, and adult education. He also backed a policy that declared most scholarships based on race to be illegal.

It wasn't until after pursuing two failed presidential bids, in 1996 and 2000, that Sen. Alexander was elected to the Senate and set out to put his broad education experience to use in the legislative arena.

Senate Stature

He rose quickly in the ranks of his party, assuming the No. 3 leadership position as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference by 2008. But as the political arena became increasingly partisan, Sen. Alexander, widely known for being a pragmatic legislator, resigned from the GOP steering team.

"Stepping down will liberate me to work for results on the issues I care the most about," he said at the time. "I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues."

In that vein, Sen. Alexander worked with retiring Senate education committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to clear several bipartisan bills through the committee, including the mammoth overhaul of the NCLB law, which he didn't fully support but said deserved to be brought to the Senate floor for a full debate.

Earlier this summer, he worked with Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, to craft a higher education proposal that would simplify the federal student-aid application, restore the year-round Pell Grant tuition-assistance program, and overhaul student-loan offerings.

Most recently, he helped push through a workforce-training bill that was a decade in the making, as well as a child-care development grant and an education research bill.

An Alexander-led education committee likely would prioritize the reauthorizations of the NCLB law and the Higher Education Act, while also focusing on limiting the impact of the federal government on education, something he considers, above all else, a local and state responsibility.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Although Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., spends most of her time on fiscal issues as chairwoman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, education jump-started her entire political career.

"Education is what got me into politics in the first place," she said in September at the Committee for Education Funding's annual gala in Washington. "And it's an issue that has driven me ever since."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the powerful Senate Budget Committee, was spurred to politics on the issue of education.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the powerful Senate Budget Committee, was spurred to politics on the issue of education.

—J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File

As she tells her now famous "mom in tennis shoes" story: When her children were little, she drove 100 miles to the state capital in Olympia, where she demanded lawmakers reinstate budget cuts slated to close their preschool.

"One state legislator said, 'You know that's really nice, but you can't make a difference, you're just a mom in tennis shoes,' " Sen. Murray recalled.

Sen. Murray organized a grassroots effort, and eventually the legislature reinstated the funding. That experience led her to become a preschool teacher and later propelled her to serve six years on the Shoreline school board before running and winning a seat in the Washington state Senate in 1988.

Rising Through the Ranks

When she ran for U.S. Senate four years later, she was widely expected to lose, dwarfed by candidates with more political experience, better name recognition, and heaps of cash. Instead, she bested her closest opponent by 10 points and has since risen through the ranks over the course of four terms.

She twice chaired the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a role for which she's largely credited with ushering in a new wave of Democrats to the chamber. Sen. Murray now holds the powerful No. 4 leadership position of conference secretary and is often called on by her caucus to represent Democrats in high-profile fiscal negotiations.

Indeed, in 2011, Sen. Murray co-chaired the "supercommittee," the panel charged with reducing the deficit by $1 trillion over a decade, alongside Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. The deficit-reduction effort ultimately failed and set in motion across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

She later steered a fiscal 2014 budget through the chamber, marking the first time the Senate had passed a budget in four years. The final budget, brokered with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., set funding through fiscal 2015 and, among other things, replaced nearly two-thirds of the sequestration cuts to education.

Education Priorities

Those not familiar with Sen. Murray's personal history may find it difficult to understand why she would consider relinquishing control of one prestigious committee in exchange for jurisdiction over a variety of social issues. But her entire upbringing, she often points out, showcases the importance of safety-net programs and other federal benefits.

Her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 15. While veterans' health benefits paid some of the medical bills, her family relied on food stamps for a period of time while her mother, who had been a homemaker her entire life, used federal aid to go back to school in order to get a decent-paying job.

Later in life, Sen. Murray and her six brothers and sisters used Pell Grants and other federal tuition-assistance programs to go to college.

Those experiences guided her unique steering of the Budget Committee, in which she frequently invited "ordinary people"—teachers, students, nurses—to testify as witnesses rather than the typical inside-the-Beltway number crunchers.

"I made it a priority to have witnesses at our hearings who could put a face to the issue," Ms. Murray said at the CEF gala.

If Sen. Murray takes the reins of the Senate education committee, expect her to continue the efforts of retiring Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, and to reauthorize the Higher Education Act—though a push to pass early-childhood education legislation could trump both of those.

Vol. 34, Issue 08, Pages 16-17

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Robertson reveals redistricting plan for schools – Education Week

Published Online: October 9, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Tenn. (AP) — A month after federal investigators determined that Robertson County Schools have not desegregated, officials have released a proposed redistricting plan.

Robertson County Director of Schools Mike Davis told The Tennessean ( on Monday that the new attendance zones were developed by the federal government, not the local school board.

The district in Middle Tennessee was notified in early September that federal investigators had finished their review of its schools and found them to be in non-compliance. A letter posted on the school system's website says it is required to enter into a settlement agreement or it could lose all federal funding.

Public forums over the changes proposed by the Department of Justice will be held at schools in the district throughout October.


Information from: The Tennessean,

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ACLU urges school board not to add prayers – Education Week

Published Online: October 8, 2014

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee is urging school board members in Williamson County not to add prayers to meetings.

A statement from ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinbert says the proposal "not only undermines the students' own religious freedom, it's unconstitutional."

School board members on Monday discussed the option of adding prayer instead of holding a moment of silence at the beginning of meetings.

Board member Candace Emerson said prayer has "an incredible power" and should be added to meetings.

Board attorney Bill Squires said federal courts have ruled prayer during school board meetings unconstitutional.

Superintendent Mike Looney told board members that adding prayer to meetings would likely involve a costly legal battle and asked board member to consider that before making a decision.

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