By Jackson Baker,
June 16, 2011

Bill Haslam’s visit to Memphis on Wednesday, during which he addressed a conclave of area teachers and signed a landmark bill at a newly opened charter school in south Memphis, gave Tennessee’s first-year Republican governor the opportunity to tout his education agenda.

And tout it he did, first to an auditorium-full of attendees at the annual summer conference of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence at Presbyterian Day School. The Institute, which was founded by philanthropist Brad Martin, a retired department store executive and former state representative who was on stage with Haslam, provides professional enhancement opportunities for public and private school teachers, and both kinds gave Haslam animated attention.

The governor reviewed some statistics he wanted to change in the state — notably a declining rate of students seeking college degrees and Tennessee’s decline into the 40s in the ranking of states with regard to their educational achievement.

Haslam singled out as victories for his agenda two bills passed in the 2011 legislative session — a measure raising the bar for public school teachers to achieve tenure, and another bill raising the cap on the number and kind of charter schools permitted in the state. Conspicuously, the governor did not mention another widely noticed legislative marker — a bill, spearheaded by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the state Senate Speaker, which abolished collective bargaining privileges for public school teachers in Tennessee.

The governor was asked about that omission at his second stop, Freedom Preparatory Academy, housed the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church building on Fields Road in south Memphis. “It actually was not part of our agenda,” Haslam acknowledged. “In the end, I think where it came out was something we obviously did sign on to, and I signed the bill. But that wasn’t originally a part of our agenda. ..Do I think it will serve the state? Yes, I do.”

Haslam used the occasion of his visit at Freedom Preparatory Academy to sign the bill which raised the cap on charter schools in Tennessee. He was accompanied at the bill signing by a contingent of bill sponsors and supporters, both Democrats and Republicans.

Charter schools were not a magic solution to Tennessee’s educational needs, Haslam stressed, merely “another thing that will help our educational system get better. “ He pointed out that charter schools are liable to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools in Tennessee and can only be authorized by an established school district, or by the new Achievement School District (ASD) created last year as part of the state’s successful application for Race to the Top federal funding.

With the governor at the bill-signing ceremony was Chris Barbic, who on August 1 will become the new director of the ASD and introduced himself to news media representatives.

Coincidentally, on Thursday, the day after the visit to Memphis by Haslam and Barbic, the state Education Department announced that the ASD would “co-manage” four “failing” schools in Shelby County — Frayser High School, Hamilton High School, Northside High School, and Raleigh-Egypt Middle School.

Essentially co-management means that Memphis City Schools will still be responsible for teachers, principals, and other personnel, while the state manages academic matters at the school.

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