From the Statehouse

House education panel takes first step to amend state constitution over school funding

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn is the sponsor of a joint resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution's provisions over school funding.

It’s a long process to amend the state constitution, but lawmakers in Nashville took the first step Tuesday by approving a resolution that would give the legislature more control — and the courts less say — over the state’s level of education funding.

A House education subcommittee voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution that the sponsor says is designed to protect educational policy from “activist judges” ruling against state governments on issues ranging from charter schools to the adequacy of school funding.

“What I’m trying to get to is to emphasize and clarify that the General Assembly is the body that makes educational policy in the state of Tennessee,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican.

Local school boards have often gone to court over the state’s formula for funding public education in Tennessee, which historically has ranked near the bottom in the nation for per-pupil funding. Since 1993, the courts have ordered the legislature three times to provide more funding to rural school districts.

Questions about state education funding came to a head again last year as eight school boards, including Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed lawsuits against the state. At issue are the adequacy and equity of the state’s funding levels given its constitutional duty to provide “a system of free public schools” for children in Tennessee,

Dunn said that the courts potentially could order the state to increase its education spending by $500 million. He wants the constitution amended to curb the courts’ authority and ensure that the legislature controls Tennessee education policies.

Specifically, the resolution would amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding the phrases in italics to a sentence in Article XI, Section 12 so that it reads: “The General Assembly as the elected representatives of the people shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools in such manner as the General Assembly may determine.”

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Democrat from Rock Island, argued that such a bill could infringe on students’ rights to an equitable education. As a former public school student in Warren County, he reflected on how the Tennessee Supreme Court’s 1993 ruling impacted him by ordering the General Assembly to increase funding for its rural schools.

“I’m sitting in this august body — I am sitting in the Tennessee Capitol as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives — because that small schools lawsuit helped Warren County’s schools,” he said.

Dunn said that he is fairly sure that the proposed constitutional amendment wouldn’t impact the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which was key in the lawsuits of the 1990s that led to large-scale public education funding changes. He read aloud a text message to that effect from a staff member of the state attorney general.

Asked about seeking a formal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery III, Dunn said he did not want to wait for the formal opinion because the process to amend the constitution is lengthy. Both houses would have to approve the resolution this session, and then approve the amendment by a two-thirds majority next year in order for the amendment to go before Tennessee voters in the next gubernatorial election.

Dunlap suggested that it would be prudent to seek a formal opinion first.

“I respect that you’ve read from your cell phone a text message,” Dunlap said, “but I would not feel comfortable voting on a constitutional amendment from a text message.”

The bill now goes before the full House Education Administration & Planning Committee.

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.


Tennessee required more recess, but teachers now say it’s too much

PHOTO: Jon Zlock, LEAD Public Schools
Nashville students play during recess at a charter school operated by LEAD Public Schools.

For years, Jamie Petty’s sixth-grade students didn’t have recess — a problem, he thought, since research shows that recess keeps children healthy and focused.

Then Tennessee’s legislature passed a requirement last year that students through the sixth grade get a minimum of two 20-minute periods of non-structured physical activity at least four days a week.

Now play time is overtaking valuable class time, says Petty, a world history teacher at Normal Park Magnet Middle School in Chattanooga. He said one daily period of recess should suffice.

“Physical activity is so important for the kids, and we definitely want that,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to protect instructional time, too.”

Lawmakers have heard similar concerns from educators across Tennessee since the school year started.

“We passed a bill, and it was a fiasco,” said Rep. Bill Dunn.

The Knoxville Republican wants to rein in recess in Tennessee schools. On Wednesday, his bill to do so was approved by a House education subcommittee. Instead of daily mandates of three 15-minute periods for kindergarten and two 20-minute periods for grades 2-6, the bill would institute weekly requirements of 130 minutes of physical activity for elementary schools and 90 minutes for middle and high schools.

Lawmakers hope the change will give schools more flexibility to fit recess into their schedules.

Dunn’s bill also would allow recess to include “structured play.” Last year’s legislation said students must have “non-structured” play, meaning teachers can’t organize sports or games.

Teachers argue that both kinds of play have value.

Kennisha Cann, a literacy coach with Hamilton County Schools, occasionally leads students in games to get the wiggles out. “Kids need to learn how to follow directions, take turns, how to socialize with other children,” she said.

Either way, many educators are happy that the legislature is recognizing the importance of recess.

“Standards are so much harder now,” said Pat Goldsmith, a school psychologist at Chattanooga’s Red Bank Elementary Schools. “Students really need that break.”