Education headlines Capitol Hill Week with announcement
that Tennessee will receive Race to the Top funds

Education headlined action on Capitol Hill this week with the announcement that Tennessee was the big winner in the federal “Race to the Top” competition. Tennessee will receive approximately $500 million and Delaware $100 million over the next four years to implement a bold plan that will improve public education. The two states beat out 14 other finalists who qualified to win the first round in the competition, after applications were initially received from 40 states and the District of Columbia.

“We received many strong proposals from states all across America, but two applications stood out above all others: Delaware and Tennessee,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Anne Duncan in announcing the winners. “Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

“I am very grateful for the collaborative and cooperative efforts of legislators, Governor Phil Bredesen and other education stakeholders to help us win this competition for Race to the Top Funds,” said Chairman Gresham. “I especially appreciate the efforts of our Senate Education Committee and the support of Lt. Governor Ramsey for giving us the latitude to work on this legislation. The funds will help us implement bold new action that will improve education for all Tennessee students.”

“This is great news for Tennessee,” said Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) who was part of the state’s five-member presentation team. The team travelled to Washington to make the case that Tennessee had adopted significant education reforms and deserved to be one of the winning states. “It recognizes the bold steps that we have taken over the past several years and during our Special Session on Education to improve student achievement in Tennessee. These reforms will ensure Tennessee students are prepared for success in an increasingly global marketplace.”

Woodson and Gresham are members of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), an education reform panel headed by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, whose work served as a compass to initiate many of the reform measures approved during the Special Session on Education held this year in January.

The premise of the Race to the Top Competition is to reward states that show the greatest willingness to push innovative ideas to improve student achievement through greater testing standards, improved data collection and better teacher training. Tennessee met all of the criteria, especially in the area of data collection as the state has the oldest and most robust student achievement data system in the nation.

Tennessee submitted an application with bi-partisan and statewide political support, including pledges by all candidates for governor to implement the plan. It was also supported by 100 percent of the school districts and 93 percent of unions. In addition, the plan has received strong multi-sector leadership from other key stakeholders, such as business and philanthropies.

Some of the factors important to winning the competition included Tennessee’s annual full funding of the Basic Education Program, the state’s longstanding investment in data collection, passage of public charter school reform legislation, implementation of the Tennessee Diploma Project and approval of the “First to the Top Act” passed during the Special Session.

The First to the Top law enacted a comprehensive roadmap for transformation reform in Tennessee for educators, schools, and postsecondary education. This includes setting up a framework for teacher and principal evaluation with 50 percent being based upon student achievement data and creating an Achievement School District to clarify and provide authority for state takeover of the lowest-performing schools. It also set in place a college completion agenda that includes performance-based funding, among other key initiatives.

According to Assistant Commissioner of Education Bruce Opie, who appeared before the Senate Education Committee, Race to the Top money could be available to schools as soon as July. Opie said the state Department of Education will soon be providing school systems with guidance and samples of the “scope of work” that can be performed under the guidelines of the program. He said that school systems will also benefit from professional development programs being put into place on a statewide basis.

The U.S. Department of Education will have about $3.4 billion available for the second phase of the Race to the Top competition.

Bill helps students and parents save for college

In other action this week, the Senate State and Local Government Committee approved legislation to increase the number of college graduates by providing essential education to parents and students about how to save for college. The bill, Senate Bill 3234 sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would create an 11-member Tennessee Financial Literacy Commission to establish a state clearinghouse of information, resources, and assistance for improving financial literacy in the area of college savings.

“This legislation follows on the heels of the “Complete College Act” passed during the Special Session on Education in January,” said Chairman Gresham. “If we are going to increase the number of college graduates in Tennessee, we must also concentrate on helping prepare parents and students for the financial challenges they will face upon entering post-secondary education. This bill would work to accomplish that purpose.”

The “Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010” revised the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s master planning responsibility to increase college completion, address economic development needs and differentiate institutional missions to increase collaboration and efficiency between Tennessee’s post-secondary schools. Lawmakers believe the new law and other reform measures for K-12 education passed during the Special Session will boost the number of college-bound students.

Provisions in the financial literacy bill include:

  • Creating and implementing education programs to improve financial literacy with a focus on elementary school parents and students
  • Establishing a website for financial literacy and college-saving resources
  • Making grants and award to programs for financial literacy education
  • Initiating education programs and campaigns to promote financial literacy education.

“I am very pleased this bill is progressing through our committee system,” added Gresham. “This will help students and their families make a huge investment in their future by helping them find the best resources available to save for college.”

Worker’s Comp bill aims to address gaps in coverage without harming small business owners

The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation to create a procedure for sole proprietors, partners, officers of corporations, and members of limited liability companies engaged in the construction industry to file for an exemption from obtaining workers’ compensation insurance to cover themselves. The bill comes after the General Assembly voted earlier this year to approve legislation sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) to suspend a new law to require sole proprietors and partners engaged in the construction industry carry workers’ compensation coverage on themselves. The new law was suspended due to unintended effects of the measure.

The proposal, Senate Bill 3591, also sponsored by Senator Ketron, aims to address gaps in coverage for workers in the various construction fields, without harming small business owners. The bill reinstates the requirement that sole proprietors and partners engaged in the construction industry carry workers’ compensation insurance on themselves, but provides a mechanism for exemption.

Those eligible for the exemption, include:

  • · Up to five officers of a corporation
  • · Certain members of a limited liability company, if they own at least 30 percent of the company
  • · Partners in a limited partnership if they own at least 30 percent
  • · Sole proprietors
  • · Up to five members of a family-owned business

The bill requires any construction services provider requesting exemption to first obtain from the board for licensing contractors either a valid license or a construction services provider registration. The construction services provider must then request an exemption from the Secretary of State’s in person, by mail, or online. The cost, under the bill, would be $200 every two years for both registrations, which is less cost to the contractor than the charge being based on their payroll. The proposal also establishes a task force that will study the effects of employee misclassification on workers’ compensation.

“This legislation represents a consensus of all parties after several months of negotiations between those impacted by this matter,” said Senator Ketron. “The legislation works to address concerns over gaps in coverage, but provides exemptions so that small businesses will not be harmed. It also addresses provability, verifiability and accountability in our worker’s compensation law. I am very pleased that we were able to come to an agreement with all parties concerned.”

Senate Republicans vote to let people ban income tax through Constitutional Amendment

The State Senate approved 25 to 7, a major resolution this week that would allow Tennesseans to vote on a constitutional amendment to clarify the state’s prohibition of an income tax and a payroll tax in Tennessee, with all 18 Republicans present voting in favor of the measure. The amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 763, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), specifies that the legislature as well as Tennessee counties and cities shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or a payroll tax, which is a tax on employers that is measured by the wages they pay their workers.

“If you want less of something, tax it,” said Kelsey paraphrasing President Ronald Reagan. “If you want more of something, don’t tax it. We all want more income in Tennessee, so let’s make sure we never tax it.”

A payroll tax has been proposed in recent years by elected officials in Shelby County and elsewhere as a way around an income tax. A state income tax proposal has repeatedly come before state lawmakers over the last several decades, including failure by only five votes in the House of Representatives in 2002. In January, eight state lawmakers, seven of whom represent Shelby County, filed legislation, House Bill 3597, to implement a state income tax.

There have been three cases before the Tennessee Supreme Court throughout the state’s history that have upheld that the income tax is unconstitutional. The most recent case was decided in 1964, and this case has never been overturned. However, an attorney general opinion in 1999 opined that the tax is legal. The opinion has prompted elected officials in Tennessee to continue to propose both an income tax and a payroll tax in recent years.

In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, it must first be approved by a simple majority in both the House and the Senate this year. Then, it must be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber during the next General Assembly in 2011-2012. After that the amendment would be placed on the next gubernatorial ballot for ratification by the people in November 2014.

“If this amendment passes, the people will be able to vote on the issue, and we will never have to face another income tax battle again,” said Senator Kelsey. “In these difficult economic times, the last thing Tennesseans need to be worrying about is having to pay a state income tax or a payroll tax. This measure would put that issue to rest.”

In Brief

Additional revenue shortfalls – The State Funding Board met this week to update their revenue estimates for both the current and next fiscal year’s general fund. The Board estimates revenues will be at a -1.78 to -2.31 percent loss for the current budget year, and are projected to grow at 2.05 to 2.3 percent in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. The new estimates mean Tennessee will need to make up at least $75 million more to cover the estimated revenue shortfalls to the proposed 2010-2011 budget. Finance officials anticipate an additional $28 million shortfall will occur as a result of losses in the cigarette tax, bringing the total shortfall to over $100 million.

Abortion / Coercion – Legislation to educate women that coercion to have an abortion is a crime in Tennessee passed the full Senate by a vote of 29-2-1. The bill, Senate Bill 3812, sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), would require a physician’s office, ambulatory surgical treatment center, or other clinics in which abortions other than to save the life of the mother are performed to post signs to provide women with this information about the state law and their option to receive help if they are being threatened. According to a survey published in the Medical Science Monitor, over 64 percent of women who received abortions said they felt pressured or coerced into having an abortion. The sign would be posted in the waiting areas and patient consultation rooms, and would not apply to clinics where an abortion is performed to prevent the death of a pregnant female.

Defibrillators in school gyms – State Senators voted this week to pass legislation to help ensure that school gyms are equipped with automatic external defibrillators (AED). The legislation, Senate Bill 2505, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) is named in memory of Tanner Lee Jameson, recognizing his life and the efforts his parents have made to save others by placing defibrillators in schools across the region. Jameson died on June 26, 2009 when he collapsed during his middle school basketball game. According the American Heart Association “when CPR is performed correctly and an AED is used, survival chances almost triple compared to those who do not receive CPR or an AED.” The bill requires that gyms are the first place a school would place an automated external defibrillator (AED) device, since they are the most common gathering place for events, particularly involving athletics.

Tennessee Health Freedom Act – The Tennessee Health Freedom Act, Senate Bill 3498, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), overcame a major hurdle this week with approval by the House Industrial Impact Committee. The Senate Republican Caucus held a press conference last week urging the state’s House of Representatives to pass the bill, which was approved by a vote of 26-1-5 in the Senate in February. The bill would prohibit the federal government from imposing fines or penalties on a person’s decision for deciding not to participate in the federal plan. It also calls on the state’s Attorney General to take action in the defense or prosecution of rights protected under this legislation. Last week Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey renewed his efforts to persuade Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to join his colleagues in at least 13 other states in legal action on the matter.

Advocating for small business — The Senate Commerce Labor and Agriculture Committee has voted to create a small business advocate within the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury, utilizing existing personnel. Senate Bill 3484 sponsored by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), calls for the advocate to mediate and assist with resolution of issues concerning small business owners and state departments and agencies. The bill also requires the small business advocate to prepare an annual report on their office’s activities, findings and recommendations to the governor, members of the General Assembly and the heads of the affected departments and agencies to make sure officials are notified about any problems or concerns.

Tax Freedom Day – Tennessee is ahead of other states in tax burden as April 1 has been recognized as “Tax Freedom Day” for the state. Tax Freedom Day is the first day of the year in which the state or nation, as a whole, has theoretically earned enough income to fund its annual tax burden, at all levels of government. It is annually calculated in the United States by the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based organization. The national average for Tax Freedom Day is April 9.

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