From the Statehouse

Q&A with Speaker Beth Harwell: Tennessee will probably develop own standards

PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is a Republican from Nashville.
PHOTO: Capitol.tn.gov
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is a Republican from Nashville.

Speaker Beth Harwell, historically a supporter of the Common Core State Standards, said she recognizes they might be on the way out — and as long Tennessee retains high standards, she’s not worried.

“I really think Tennessee is going to get to the point where they’ll just develop their own standards and try to make them some of the best standards in the nation,” she said Thursday in an interview with Chalkbeat Tennessee.

When asked if Harwell supported the Common Core State Standards, spokesperson Kara Owen didn’t answer directly, but said that Harwell believed that “Tennessee — and not the federal government —  knows what is best for Tennesseans.”

Harwell’s comments mirror Gov. Bill Haslam’s shift in tone about the standards, which are often criticized by parents and policymakers for limiting local control of schools and being confusing. Haslam, a staunch supporter of Common Core, insists that his devotion to the standards hasn’t softened in face of heightened political opposition to them. Still, these days he talks publicly less about the need for Common Core standards specifically, and more the need for  “higher standards” in general.

Last month, the standards were one focus of an education summit he co-hosted with Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Harwell’s prediction that the standards might be on their way out was supported at that summit, where at least two legislators called for Tennessee-designed standards.

Last legislative session, Harwell helped defend the standards as some of her Republican colleagues became increasingly wary of them, although she did sign the bill that delayed the implementation of a Common Core-aligned assessment [read more Common Core coverage here].

The Republican from Nashville became the Speaker of the House in Tennessee’s General Assembly in 2011, and has been in the General Assembly since 1988. She has supported Gov. Bill Haslam’s educational agenda, which included rolling out the Common Core standards for math and English as part of a larger push to increase the number of Tennesseans qualified for higher education and the workforce.

Harwell spoke with Chalkbeat about her educational priorities, and the priorities of her constituents on Thursday.

 What educational bills were most important to you last session?

A: Most important was maybe not a bill, but the outcome that we came to the conclusion that we have made great strides; that we don’t want to go backwards; that we want to maintain high standards in our state even though that’s challenging;and we want to keep accountability. We are one of the first states and the few states that have true accountability in our school system and it’s paying off because were were the fastest growing state on national exams.

We passed some other legislation, for example, in the area of charters. We tried to make it easier for public charter schools to come to our state. We have some great charter schools in our state, and we want to keep that momentum going. They are some of our best performing. We only want the very best charters to locate here, so we’re very picky. [For more about Tennessee’s charter sector, read here.]

What issues do you most from your constituents?

A: I think a lot of it revolves around the whole Common Core issue. I don’t hear people say we shouldn’t have high standards. I think there is concern that Common Core — some people think they’re not high enough standards; some people think they’re confusing; some people think it has something to do with President Obama so they’re scared of it. I really think Tennessee is going to get to the point where they’ll just develop their own standards and try to make them some of the best standards in the nation. We’ve proven we can do that, and we just need to keep going.

I do occasionally get questions about funding. We’re not the highest funded state in the nation, but I think we do a fairly good job of holding harmless education, we haven’t cut the education budget. And in times of fiscal rough waters, that in itself is remarkable.

Since I’ve been speaker, those have been the highest profile (issues). We’ve talked a little bit about vouchers. We do not have a voucher program in Tennessee, and I don’t know whether that will come up again this year or not. There were a lot of concerns about if that would take funding away from our public schools, and an issue about whether or not state dollars should be going to religious institutions was very much in the mix, in the discussion. I would imagine that will be discussed again in years coming. [For more on how vouchers might shape Tennessee, read here.]

What are you most hopeful for this upcoming legislative session?

We cannot go backwards. We are making great strides. If you looked at the state budget and saw how much money went to education, the taxpayers should demand nothing but the best education. More importantly than that, our children deserve nothing but the best education system. And we’re not only competing with neighboring states around us, we’re competing with the whole world for jobs. It’s really important to keep our standards high and it’s really important to keep in place accountable. Teachers should be held accountable and school systems should be held accountable.

power players

Who’s who in Indiana education: Sen. Dennis Kruse

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos and Sarah Glen

Find more entries on education power players as they publish here.

Vitals: Republican representing District 14 and parts of Allen and Dekalb counties. So far, has served 13 years in the Senate (current) and 15 years in the House. Kruse began his career as a teacher in 1970, spending five years in the classroom. Once he left education, he became an auctioneer and got involved in real estate.

What he’s known for: Kruse has served as Senate Education Committee chairman for eight years. While he is a less vocal advocate for choice-based education reform measures than his House counterpart, Kruse is a staunch conservative who has pushed — with varying levels of success — for incorporating more religion in public schools.

Career highlights: In 2011, Kruse was the author of Senate Bill 1, a massive bill that established the state’s formal teacher evaluation system. He has also consistently supported bills seeking to improve school discipline, before- and after-school programs and teacher preparation. This year, Kruse has authored bills dealing with school start dates, contracts for district superintendents, school employee background checks and testing.

On religion in schools: Kruse and fellow Sen. Jeff Raatz introduced a resolution this year that, according to the National Center for Science Education, has the “teaching of evolution” as “the specific target of the bill.” Previously, Kruse has put forward other legislation that would encourage the teaching of creationism and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the school day, but none of the bills passed. In 2015, Kruse was also a co-author of the controversial religious freedom bill.

On toeing the party line: Despite his conservative politics, Kruse doesn’t always line up with the will of his party. Republican leaders this year are calling for making the state superintendent an appointed, rather than elected, position, but Kruse won’t back the switch. Instead, Kruse has said he believes in elections and that people should get to make choices about their representation.

For that reason, some have speculated that’s why the senate’s version of the bill bypassed his education committee and instead was heard through the elections committee.

Who supports him: Kruse has received campaign contributions from Hoosiers for Quality Education, an advocacy group that supports school choice, charter schools and vouchers; K12, one of the largest online school providers in the country; and Education Networks of America, a private education technology company.

Legislative highlights via Chalkbeat:

Bills in past years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

Also check out our list of bills to watch this year.

RIP

Senate plan to expand parents’ access to state education dollars dies in committee

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee heard SB 534 on Wednesday.

A Senate plan that would’ve given parents of students with special needs direct access to their state education funding was killed yesterday — for now.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill that there would be no vote on Senate Bill 534, which would’ve established “education savings accounts” for Indiana students with physical and learning disabilities. The plan would’ve been a major step forward for Indiana school choice advocates who have already backed the state’s charter school and voucher programs.

Kruse said there were still many questions about the bill.

“I don’t want a bill to leave our committee that still has a lot of work to be done on it,” Kruse said.

The Senate bill was one of two such plans winding its way through the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.

House Bill 1591 would create a similar program, but it would not be limited just to students needing special education. Authored by Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, the “radical” proposal is meant to give parents total control over their child’s education.

“The intent of 1591 is to give parents the choice and let the market work,” Lucas said. “…I want to get this conversation started.”

A hearing for the House bill has not been scheduled in the House Education Committee, led by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis.

Education savings accounts are slowly gaining attention across the U.S.

Similar programs have passed state legislatures or are already operating in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada. Advocates have called education savings account programs the purest form of school choice.

But critics of the savings accounts say they could divert even more money away from public schools and come with few regulations to protect against fraud and ensure families are spending the money according to the law.