The battle to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam has consumed the spotlight for Tennessee’s education-minded voters, but more than a hundred legislative races will decide who the new governor will work with on school policy for the next few years.
In addition to either Democrat Karl Dean or Republican Bill Lee as the state’s new chief executive, at least a fourth of the General Assembly’s members will be new to Capitol Hill in January. That’s because of an unusually high number of legislative departures, due mostly to retirements or the pursuit of other government jobs.
Incumbents aren’t running to fill 25 out of 99 seats in the House of Representatives and six out of 33 seats in the Senate — setting the stage for the biggest turnover since at least 1995, according to legislative librarian Eddie Weeks.
Among those opting against re-election bids are the leaders of three of four House education panels — Harry Brooks, John Forgety, and Roger Kane — all East Tennessee Republicans who have wielded considerable power in controlling the flow of bills in their committees or subcommittee. The fourth chairman, Rep. Mark White of Memphis, has been in office since 2010 and faces Democrat Danielle Schonbaum on Election Day on Nov. 6.
“It’s like getting Jupiter, Mars, the Earth, and the sun all lined up at the same time. It’s a ton of change,” said Kane of getting a new governor, a new education commissioner, and a critical mass of freshman legislators, in addition to administrative staff turnover.
At stake is whether Tennessee will stay the course on a massive school improvement plan launched in 2010 under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and continued since 2011 by the current Republican governor. The overhaul, spurred by Tennessee’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, is grounded in higher academic standards; a new test to measure student growth and proficiency based on those new standards; and policies that hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for results.
The years since the overhaul have coincided with student gains on national tests, but also major headaches in administering the state test known as TNReady, now entering its fourth year. Technical glitches disrupted two years of giving the new computerized assessment, while scoring and score delivery problems marred another year.
“I hope we don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” said Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat and education committee member who is running unopposed in his Memphis district. “We’ve laid a very good foundation that’s been proven by a lot of measurable factors.”
Kane, who serves on the other side of the aisle, agrees.
“I worry that you could see a total change in philosophy and literally everything we have done the last 10 years could become unwound,” he said. “When you have people coming in who are totally against any kind of testing but the ACT, as well as people who want to test everything, that’s a wide disparity.”
Both gubernatorial candidates want to take a closer look at testing, but the next General Assembly will have a lot to say about steps moving forward.
“We’re the ones who pass the laws,” said DeBerry. “The governor has tremendous influence, but he doesn’t cast votes either in committee or on the floor.”
Still, uncertainty about legislative turnover, especially in the House, was on the minds of members of the State Board of Education on Thursday as they discussed how to make TNReady work better this school year, as opposed to just gutting the test and starting over.
“That’s the big unknown at this point that quite honestly nobody has control over,” said Wayne Miller, the former state superintendents chief whom Haslam recruited to facilitate his recent statewide listening tour on testing.
“If we start to slide off track, it will be important for this group and others to speak loudly that this is not where we want to go,” Miller told the board.
A lot will depend on new legislative leadership, especially in the House which, like the Senate, has a lopsided majority of Republicans that likely won’t change significantly.
The speaker of the House decides committee appointments, both for membership and leadership, but that job is up for grabs too due to the exit of Nashville Republican Beth Harwell after her unsuccessful bid for governor. The Republican caucus is scheduled to elect a new speaker on Nov. 20, and candidates thus far are Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, David Hawk of Greeneville, and Curtis Johnson of Clarksville.
The next speaker is expected to maintain Harwell’s two-committee system for education legislation because of the large number of bills on K-12 and higher education. Kane said the system has worked well.
“Last year there were 400 education bills alone,” Kane said. “That number would be grueling for one committee in the House. We have more members than the Senate committee and therefore more discussion.”
The Senate is less likely to see any kind of fruit basket turnover, and Dolores Gresham is expected to continue chairing her chamber’s education committee. The Somerville Republican has served in the legislature since 2002 and is not up for reelection this year.
But the huge turnover in the House will mean a significant loss of institutional knowledge on education policy. At the same time, the handoff presents an opportunity to gain fresh and innovative ideas, according to Brooks, the powerful committee chairman who is retiring after 16 years in office.
“I’m not worried,” Brooks said. “This legislature has been around for over a hundred years, and it’s managed to pick up and go after huge shifts in the past. There’s a lot of quality people returning, and there will be a lot of good folks who are going to be elected.”