Legislators begin their leg of 'Race to the Top' today

Monday, January 11, 2010 at 11:45pm

The Tennessee General Assembly will gavel in for a whirlwind special session today, designed to secure the state’s place in a pipeline for federal education grants.

Gov. Phil Bredesen called the extraordinary session in order to tweak the state’s K-12 and higher education laws in order to qualify for “Race To The Top” funds from the U.S. Department of Education.

Applications for the $4.35 billion education stimulus package – of which Bredesen hopes to secure $400 to $500 million - are due Jan. 19 and Bredesen hopes the changes move Tennessee to the head of the class in the competition.

The federal application is 102 pages long and winning states will be chosen based on a comprehensive formula taking into account a state’s ability to meet four broad goals:

  • Adopt measures to better prepare students for college, work and compete in the global economy
  •  Build databanks that measure students’ success; use that information to fuel instruction
  • Attract, develop, reward and keep effective teachers and principals, particularly in tough-to-teach classrooms
  • Turn around low-achieving schools.

The largest portion of the formula is based on a state’s ability to identify and retain the best teachers and it’s the prong which Bredesen has had the most trouble selling.

The governor has said student performance should be a “significant” factor in granting tenure and later retaining teachers. He’s been vague on what that means – deferring ultimately to the state Board of Education on a definition of “significant” – but has hinted that, at a minimum, it should be 50 percent. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, proposed 35 percent as significant enough.

In higher education, Bredesen wants a new partnership between the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee and a streamlined system for transferring credits between the state’s community colleges and four-year institutions. Another significant reform in the higher ed package include proposals tying state funding of schools more to graduation rates rather than enrollment.

The wide-ranging education reforms are not the only thing on the legislature’s plate.

The first item on the Senate’s agenda is a delay in the implementation of the Voter Confidence Act, which would require paper and voter-verifiable ballots in Tennessee elections.

Another bill will delay the implementation of a controversial worker’s compensation law which went into effect Dec. 31 and requires certain small construction companies to carry worker’s comp insurance, even if employing just themselves.