March 22, 2012

State Senate changes state law to reflect Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind waiver

State Senators continued to work through busy schedules this week on Capitol Hill, approving several important education proposals including a bill that amends current law to reflect Tennessee’s waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and legislation to give teachers more authority over discipline in the classroom.

Senate Bill 3122, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), acknowledges Tennessee’s own ambitious but achievable goals. The legislation is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative priorities and comes after Tennessee received approval from the U.S. Department of Education to waive certain provisions of the federal NCLB law.

“This bill matches Tennessee law with Tennessee goals, moving away from the barriers created by the federal NCLB Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards,” said Senator Gresham. “No Child Left Behind created a culture of compliance. We want to create a culture of achievement. It removes the over-identification of failing schools under the NCLB provisions to a system where schools are recognized for achieving individual student progress benchmarks set though our successful Race to the Top application.”

The bill gives greater autonomy and flexibility for schools and LEAs with proven success in turning student scores around, rather than applying a state takeover for all schools eligible for state intervention under NCLB provisions. By doing so, it narrowly tailors the most significant state sanctions to focus on the bottom five percent of schools. This allows local school districts to apply their own concentrated measures to improve student scores, as the state focuses on those schools which need help the most, particularly those who are under state intervention in the Achievement School District (ASD).

The Achievement School District was created by Tennessee’s First to the Top law. Gresham’s legislation clarifies the authority, obligations and operations of the ASD to ensure meaningful intervention in the state’s lowest-performing schools as required by federal waiver provisions. It clarifies funding, property rights and procurement processes to ensure the ASD’s ability to manage schools effectively and create dramatic change and improvement. In addition, it clarifies the transition of a school from the ASD back to the local school district, removing references put into place under the No Child Left Behind law and implanting parental decision-making opportunities.

Under the waiver, Tennessee proposes to raise overall achievement by 3 to 5 percent each year and to cut achievement gaps in half over an 8-year period.

Bill to ease transfers between community colleges, private colleges and universities heads to Governor after final Senate approval

The State Senate approved and sent to Governor Bill Haslam legislation on Monday night that would make it easier for students to transfer credits between community colleges, private colleges and state universities. Senate Bill 2431, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), authorizes community colleges within the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) to enter into reverse articulation or reverse transfer agreements with four year institutions within the TBR system and institutions within the University of Tennessee, as well as private colleges accredited by the Southern Association of College and Schools (SACS).

Articulation agreements are arrangements between higher education institutions that facilitate the transfer of course credits from one school to another. Agreements outline specific courses and letter grades completed at the community college that will transfer to a university or private college. They help students begin more defined curriculums so that students understand exactly which courses will and will not transfer as they move between colleges.

Gresham said the agreements could also work to give students attending a four-year college who do not complete their degree the opportunity to transfer their credits to a community college if they choose to earn an Associate’s Degree instead.

“We have ambitious goals to increase the number of college graduates in Tennessee,” added Gresham. “The articulation agreement makes sure a student has a clear understanding of what courses to complete at a community college to transfer to a university or private college successfully. This saves them from taking repetitive courses on the university level that might lengthen their time to degree completion.”

Issues in Brief

Felons with Firearms — Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) led passage of legislation through the State Senate this week that would enact tougher sentences for gun possession by those with prior violent felony convictions. Currently, illegal possession of a firearm for convicted violent felons is punishable as a Class E felony, which carries a one to six-year sentence and up to $3,000 in fines. Senate Bill 2250 would increase the offense to a Class C felony, which is punishable by a 3 to 15-year sentence and up to $10,000 in fines for convicted felons carrying a firearm whose crime involved the use of force, violence or a deadly weapon. The punishment would be a Class D felony for felons whose conviction involved a drug offense. The bill will be heard on final consideration in the House of Representatives on Monday.

Gangs / Crime — Norris also won passage of Senate Bill 2252, which enhances penalties for certain gang-related crimes committed by groups of three or more people one classification higher than if they had acted alone. A person robbed or assaulted by more than one assailant has a much greater chance of suffering severe injury or death. The legislation cracking down on gangs and the “Felons with Firearms” bill are part of a package of public safety bills included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda. The bills were recommended by a Public Safety Subcabinet Working Group that developed 11 objectives and 40 action steps in their multi-year safety action plan with the goal of significantly reducing drug abuse and drug trafficking; curbing violent crime; and lowering the rate of repeat offenders in Tennessee.

CorrectionsSenate Bill 2248, sponsored by Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), is now on its way to the Governor after State Senators gave approval to an amendment placed on the bill by the House of Representatives. The legislation gives the State Department of Corrections the authority to supervise probation and parole services to provide a seamless one person contact for offenders throughout the entire criminal justice system and is also included in Governor Bill Haslam’s Public Safety legislative package. Forty states operate under a consolidated system, which is widely recognized as the best practice in corrections. The existing organizational structure that actually performs under the Board of Pardons and Paroles will remain intact upon transfer to the Department of Corrections.

Transitioning Youth Empowerment Act — The State Senate unanimously approved and sent to the Governor the Tennessee Transitioning Youth Empowerment Act, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) that would help foster children who are in state custody transition into adulthood. The bill continues a successful initiative which began in 2010 and was due to expire in June. Senate Bill 2199, which is endorsed by Governor Bill Haslam, continues a critical program that provides assistance to foster children between the ages of 18-21 once they age out of the foster care system. According to the Midwest Evaluation of Former Foster Youth, when compared to those youth who were discharged from foster care at 18, young adults who remained in care until 21 were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in a school or training program; three times as likely to be enrolled in college; less likely to be current recipients of other forms of government assistance, to have substance abuse problems and alcohol dependence, to be homeless, report being arrested or incarcerated; and are less likely to have experienced a pregnancy

Kelsey Smith Act — State Senators approved legislation this week that would help law enforcement in locating a missing person believed to be the victim of a crime. Senate Bill 2413, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), requires wireless providers to “ping” the victim’s cell phone at the request of law enforcement authorities to help locate the missing person when there is sufficient information to believe there is a risk or threat of death or serious physical harm. The “Kelsey Smith Act” is named after an 18-year old Kansas woman who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in 2007. The tragedy resulted in a nationwide movement by her parents, Greg and Missey Smith, and other advocates to ensure that law enforcement authorities can receive assistance from a cell phone provider to help find the missing person. All members of the State Senate were added as sponsors of the bill.

Medal of Honor — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder posthumously awarded Sergeant First Class Dennis Murray the first Tennessee Fallen Heroes Medal. Murray was killed when insurgents attacked his unit with an improvised explosive device (IED) on November 21, 2011 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Murray is survived by his mother, Wanda Maxey, wife, Shelee Murray, and his two children, Sebastian and Savannah. The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 541, sponsored by Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), to honor and recognize service members killed in the line of duty in 2011.

Prescription Drug Abuse — The Senate Health and Welfare Committee has approved a proposal to curb prescription drug abuse by requiring doctors or their designees to check the state’s Controlled Substance Monitoring Database for patients’ prescription history before prescribing an opioid or benzodiazepine substance. Senate Bill 2733 which is included in Governor Bill Haslam’s legislative package, requires pharmacies to collect a patient’s prescription information and report that information to the database within seven days. Currently it must be reported within 40 days. The bill also enhances penalties for doctor shopping from a Class A misdemeanor offense to a Class E Felony when it involves 250 or more pills. The stiffer penalties allow law enforcement officials to go after dealers who distribute the drugs illegally. The bill now goes to the Senate Government Operations Committee before moving to the Finance Committee and then to the floor for final consideration. The bill is sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman).

Wounded Soldier Honored — The State Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 711, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), in recognition United States Marine Corp Corporal Christian Brown of Munford. Corporal Brown suffered severe internal and external injuries in December in Afghanistan from an improvised explosive device (IED). The resolution applauds Brown’s “dedication and bravery in the face of grave danger” and extends the General Assembly’s best wishes for a speedy recovery. Brown is now receiving care at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Norris will be among participants in the Honor Benefit Ride from Collierville to Brown’s home town of Munford to raise funds for the wounded soldier this weekend.

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