Several contentious education issues may highlight the legislative session of the Tennessee General Assembly that convened on Tuesday. And if a recent Tennessee Star Poll of likely GOP Primary voters is any indication, Republican legislators need to be sure they are on the right side of the issues if they want to return to the Legislature next year.
IN-STATE TUITION FOR ILLEGALS. Another effort by State Senator Todd Gardenhire (R- Chattanooga) to resurrect a plan to allow illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at Tennessee colleges and universities is under consideration.
A Tennessee Star Poll conducted in December 2017 that focused on GOP Primary voters underlines how support for using taxpayer funds to subsidize tuition for illegal aliens may be for Republican candidates facing primary opposition. Those polled were asked: In 2018, the Tennessee state legislature is expected to reconsider a bill to make tax-payer subsidized in-state college tuition available to illegal immigrant students. Do you support or oppose providing taxpayer subsidized in-state college tuition to illegal immigrant students? The question resulted in an astronomically high level of opposition, with 88.3% opposing in-state tuition for illegals while 6.4% were supportive and only 5.3% were undecided. The poll results are almost identical to the numbers in the June, 2017 poll conducted by the Tennessee Star when 84% of likely Republican Primary voters were opposed to subsidizing tuition for illegals.
Because of the extremely high level of opposition, and past supporters for the plan having seen the toxicity of the issue at the ballot box and reversed course — including Senators Mark Green and Brian Kelsey, it is unlikely that any significant effort will be made this Session.
VOUCHERS. State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Memphis), who has championed a voucher plan for Tennessee students in recent years, will apparently NOT pursue an-other effort during this Session. Representative Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) has also promoted vouchers in the past and will also not advocate for the plan in 2018. Brooks has announced he is not running for reelection, so voucher supporters will start with a clean slate and a lot of new faces in the Legislature after the 2018 election cycle.
TESTING. Teachers, parents, students and virtually everybody else with even a casual connection to the education system seem to be in full agreement that too much time, money and focus is spent on several standardized texts throughout the school year. The December, 2017 Tennessee Star poll delved into this issue to get some insight. The poll asked: With respect to the amount of time, money and focus that Tennessee places on state and national tests in our schools, do you think our education system spends too much time and focus on these tests, too little time and focus on these tests, or the right amount of time and focus on these tests? 58.3% of likely GOP Primary voters thought that too MUCH time and focus was spent on the tests; 12.5 % said too LITTLE; 16.6% thought the time and focus was right; and 12.6% didn’t know or weren’t sure.
There may be some legislative efforts to reduce the number and impact of some of the standardized testing; and the continued frustration over the failure of the testing com-panies to produce accurate results in a timely manner will almost certainly result in some pointed discussions with the Commissioner of Education this Session. Gubernatorial candidate Mae Beavers may also make it an issue in this campaign cycle as well.
TEACHERS’ UNION. Faced with declining membership and revenue, as well as increasing loss of political clout in a Legislature that has supermajorities of Republicans in the House and Senate, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) must gain allies among Republicans in order to remain a relevant player in the legislative process. Based on the negative impact that support from the TEA will have in Republican primary races, that may be extremely difficult for the teachers’ union to accomplish. House Education Chair Harry Brooks has helped TEA stave off Republican efforts to limit their influence in recent years. However, with Brooks and long-time TEA ally and Chairman of Finance Ways and Means Committee Charles Sargent retiring, TEA’s reliable blockade against GOP efforts to undercut them will end. A new Speaker will also not be helpful to the TEA, regardless of who it is, nor will the fact that they unsuccessfully targeted Senate Education Chair Dolores Gresham in her last race. Gresham is still there, and she remembers.
One more potential problem for the TEA is the fact they collect their dues money using Tennessee taxpayers’ resources. The Tennessee Star poll asked specifically about that: Should labor unions in Tennessee be allowed to collect their membership dues using taxpayer funds when they support political candidates with that dues money and endorse political candidates? 80.7% oppose using tax dollars to help unions collect their dues; while 6.5% support the practice. Those numbers will likely inspire Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and Senator Gresham, who carried legislation last session to prohibit it, to return to the fight with renewed vigor and with a greater likelihood of success.
ETHICS. Whether it is keeping those with criminal records, including pedophiles, out of the classroom, or simply increasing the level of professional training and expectations for classroom teachers, look for increased efforts to impose higher standards in this Session. Last year the Teacher Bill of Rights sailed through the legislative process and was signed into law by Governor Haslam. This year the focus will turn to insuring that students themselves have a right to expect qualified and capable teachers and safe, secure classrooms.