Gov. Phil Bredesen opened a one-week special session on education Tuesday by calling on lawmakers to enact an ambitious reform agenda and "seize the moment" in the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition.
"I've called this special session because sometimes the planets just line up and there is an opportunity that you didn't expect," the governor told a joint assembly of the state House and Senate. "These are the times to seize the moment."
In the Race to the Top competition, state governments across America are scrambling to make reforms to qualify for shares of the $4 billion available. The deadline for entries from the states is Jan. 19, the last day of the special session.
Bredesen said he would seek $485 million for Tennessee. He acknowledged that's more than the federal guidelines recommend for this state, but he said he would ask for that amount anyway because "I believe that Tennessee has more to offer in potential for true education innovation" than some other states.
"As I know you understand, there are no guarantees here," Bredesen said. "If we don't win in the first round, we'll try again in the second this summer. If we don't win there, I'll be disappointed but we won't skip a beat and the actions we will have taken will only strengthen us."
Bredesen said his recommendations "could be transformational" for Tennessee schools. The two bills that comprise his agenda were introduced Tuesday as the special session convened. Among his proposed reforms:
* Granting the state commissioner of education the authority to create a special school district — an Achievement School District — for the purposes of interceding in consistently failing schools, and getting them back on track.
* Placing a statewide emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math. "Tennessee already is emerging as a national leader in this critical area," Bredesen said, "and I believe it provides the opportunity for our proposal to shine.
* Vastly expanding professional development for teachers and principals.
* Allowing the use of student achievement test scores to help determine whether to grant teachers tenure or fire them after their first three years.
That last proposal is the only real controversial one, and Bredesen said it's necessary to shore up "one significant weakness" in the state's entry in the Race to the Top competition. The Tennessee Education Association, the statewide teachers' union, has agreed to the use of test scores, but disagrees with Bredesen that tests should be the largest factor in evaluations.
"I know this represents change, but this is not rocket science," the governor said. "It is a common sense notion; we pay teachers to teach children, a part of their evaluation ought to be how much the children they teach learn."
Extending an olive branch to the teachers' union, Bredesen said, "To my very good friends at TEA and to all the wonderful teachers who are members of their local chapters across our state: We share a common goal — to ensure that every child in Tennessee receives a year’s worth of growth from a year’s worth of instruction. Teachers matter: You bring something to this effort that no one else can. I invite you to join us."
The governor also outlined higher education reforms. He wants to elevate the role of two-year community colleges and reward institutions that retain and graduate students. He also wants to establish "a new world-class" graduate energy sciences and engineering program at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab.