Legislative candidates look at education
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer and DELANEY WALKER  Banner Staff Writer
Jul 22, 2014 | 1049 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles on education-related issues as seen from the perspectives of three candidates seeking Tennessee House of Representative seats in the 22nd and 24th Legislative districts.

State Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, who is running unopposed for re-election to the 24th Legislative District, and 22nd Legislative District candidates Dan Howell and J. Adam Lowe, also Cleveland Republicans, recently shared their thoughts on the Tennessee Promise scholarship measure, the role test scores once played in teacher evaluations and whether or not students should have access to vouchers that would allow them to attend private schools on the taxpayers’ dime.

Tennessee Promise allows recent high school graduates to receive funding to attend any of the state’s 13 community colleges or 27 colleges of applied technology.

Brooks said he wants to revisit the program to ensure “free college” for everyone will work in Tennessee.

“I want to make sure we are keeping our promise,” he said. “I want to make sure we can afford it. My only committees are education and finance, so I can see very clearly how that is working.”

Howell expressed similar concerns shared by Brooks.

“My first question was, ‘Can we afford it?’” Howell said. “I’m not opposed to it as long as it is affordable and doesn’t take away from K through 12 [funding].” 

Howell said he believed it could present students with educational opportunities they may not have access to otherwise, leading more to pursue careers they may not have otherwise considered.

Put in place by a pair of bills, House Bill 2491 and Senate Bill 2471, in late April, the yet-to-be-implemented state program will allow students to receive funding that could result in them not having to account for out-of-pocket tuition costs. In exchange for the funding, students take part in a mentoring program that will have them participating in activities like community service.

Students in the program will receive funding to cover all the costs not covered by other forms of financial aid, like the Tennessee Hope scholarship, according to Tennessee Public Chapter 900, which outlines its requirements.

Included in the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act, which later became part of the public chapter, was a provision that upped the amount of money students at two-year colleges could receive from $1,000 a semester to $1,500.

However, that came at a price to four-year college students, who saw a change in the amount of funding they could receive during their first two years. Instead of being $2,000 per semester for all four years, four-year college students now receive $1,500 per semester during their freshman and sophomore years. That amount increases to $2,500 per semester during their junior and senior years.

Brooks said his daughter will be affected by the change in money to four-year colleges. He has also heard from many of parents and students who are worried about the change in financial provision.

He said he intends to keep an eye on the new program while keeping in mind a simple rule: do no harm.

The state program was modeled after a program called Tennessee Achieves that has been in place locally under the name Bradley Achieves.

Lowe said he has “stewarded” the local version of Tennessee Promise that has been in place for Cleveland State Community College students for years through Bradley Achieves.

He said he supported the legislation that made such a program available to all the students in Tennessee.

Lowe acknowledged there have been some critics of the new measure due to concerns about its funding and emphasis on only recent high school graduates.

However, he said Tennessee Promise could make college a possibility for more young people than in the past.

“For those people, education is now possible,” Lowe said. “We’re trying to change the way people think about college.”

The first Tennessee Promise class will be college freshmen in the fall of 2015. The deadline to apply through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation is Nov. 1.

Brooks said he intends to look at the larger picture when he revisits Tennessee Promise.

“Often we do things in Nashville that are accidentally injurious or have unintended consequences,” he said. “I want to be sure this Tennessee Promise is not hurting the private schools. It might be great for Cleveland State, but how is it affecting Lee University? Both are in my district.”

Brooks has learned repeatedly in his time as a state representative in the Tennessee General Assembly everything done in government has an action and a reaction.

This reminder stood out in stark detail when the state enacted the First to the Top Act for the 2011-12 school year. A portion of the program mandated assessments for teachers include data on students’ growth and achievement as told by the Tennessee value-added assessment system, or TVAAS. Teachers, school administrators and school board members reacted negatively to the change across the state.

TVAAS is meant to measure the impact schools and teachers have on the scholastic progress of a student. Students’ academic progress is measured on a scale of 1 to 5 in math, reading and language arts, science and social studies. The inclusion of the TVAAS scores in a teacher’s evaluation caused stress across the board.

Brooks said former Bradley County Board of Education chairman Charlie Rose invited him on a six-school listening tour. Rose informed the state representative he needed to see firsthand the impact the TVAAS related assessments had on teachers.

“... There was crying and weeping and unhappy teachers with [me]. I was able to share my heart with them and say, ‘Never in my wildest dreams did I intend to make your job more difficult,’” Brooks recalled. “I heard from teachers saying they were out. They were leaving.”

Brooks asked the teachers to stay and promised the matter would be fixed in the next session.

His promise was made good when Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that prevents the Tennessee Department of Education from using student test scores to decide whether or not a teacher’s license is renewed.

House Bill 1375 and Senate Bill 2240 proposed the law which prohibited the department of education from “revoking or non-renewing” an educator’s license based “solely on student growth data as represented by TVAAS” or its equivalent.

Howell said he can speak firsthand for the stress felt by teachers when their licensure was tied to TVAAS scores.

His wife, Beverlee, is a special education teacher in Dalton, Ga. He said she told him it is not totally unusual for an “unruly” student to refuse to take a test.

Howell said, if that had happened to a Tennessee teacher, that teacher’s evaluation scores would include a test score average that was not taken.

“If you have a student refusing, they fail to take that into account,” Howell said.

While the measure being overturned provided some relief, he said he has heard from area teachers who still feel stressed.

“Morale is low; the frustration level is high,” Howell said. “We need to identify where that is coming from.”

While teacher accountability is needed, Howell stressed it not be so “stifling” that it “hurts teachers.”

Lowe said teacher licensure being tied to TVAAS scores hurt teachers because it did not leave room for teachers to “be the craftsmen they are.”

“Tennessee has to maintain that,” Lowe said.

Too much emphasis has been put on standardizing teaching methods, Lowe said. He added that such a standardization has not allowed teachers to cater as well to individual learning styles.

“We want to teach them like a robot,” Lowe said.

Lowe said some students find it difficult to master material if it is presented in certain ways, making it important to ensure teachers are able to reach students in the ways that help them best learn.

The TVAAS scores give some measure of students’ achievement, but Lowe said they fail to take into account differences like a student having test anxiety.

Lowe said he would reject any legislation that again threatened to tie teacher licensure to test scores.

Brooks encouraged educators, and not just administrators, to reach out to him in an effort to make their voice heard. He expressed positive feelings over the next general assembly session as it impacts education.

“I think you will see us in 2014-15 continue to find ways to say to the teachers, ‘You are doing a great job. You are the unsung hero, and we did not intend to run you out of your job,’” Brooks said. “What we wanted to do was say, ‘Here are some standards. If we all strive together to meet these, how much better will you be?’”

Another topic of debate has been whether or not public school students living near under-performing schools should receive vouchers to attend private schools.

While some public school superintendents have negated the idea because of the belief it would be taking money away from public schools, Howell said it can be positive.

Howell, who said he grew up the son of poor farmers, noted having access to good schools provided him with good opportunities.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to it,” Howell said. “It’s a vehicle with which we can lift children like I was out of poverty.” 

While Lowe said it might not be the best idea for every school systems, it — in principle — can give parents more of a choice in their childrens’ educations.

“The idea … is to empower parents,” Lowe said.

For example, children in some areas may be living in low-income housing and be zoned for a school that may be considered to be sub-par.

Lowe said he would champion the idea of individual school systems in Tennessee being able to decide whether or not to put a voucher program in place.

He explained the idea would be for a local school board to be able to vote for implementing such a program, if it is needed in a community. School boards in communities that are happy with the way things are now could choose not to add a school voucher program.

“It doesn’t fit Bradley County as well,” Lowe said, noting students in the local school systems already have the ability to transfer among the schools in each system as space allows.

“Bradley County kind of has school choice.”

Education-related issues continue to be hot topics not only in Cleveland and Bradley County but across the state. The candidates continue to consider the issues with Election Day right around the corner on Aug. 7.

Early voting for state legislative party primaries has already begun and will continue through Saturday, Aug. 2. No Democrats are on the ballots for either the 22nd or 24th Legislative districts.