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Tenn. session on education requires rapid pace

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers don’t yet have the full details about special session that kicks off Tuesday, but they do know it will be fast-paced.

Lawmakers will need to approve Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s K-12 education proposals by Jan. 19 if they are to be included in the state’s application for a share of federal “Race to the Top” money that is due that day.

The key change would include making student testing data a “significant” factor in decisions on whether to give teachers tenure and in their evaluations thereafter.

“The word ‘significant’ is sort of a lawyer’s dream, because it’s certainly subject to interpretation,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist the Tennessee Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers.

Bredesen has said he wants to leave it to the State Board of Education to determine what weight is given to testing data, but has suggested that 50 percent would be the minimum he would consider reasonable.

Meanwhile, the TEA has issued a statement saying the maximum they could agree to would be 35 percent.

“A child is more than a test score,” the statement said. “Focusing the evaluation of teachers and students primarily on test results limits learning to only what is tested.”

In an interview last week, Bredesen expressed confidence in getting his K-12 agenda passed alongside a separate set of proposals on higher education.

“I’ve never been one, I believe, for tilting at windmills,” Bredesen said.

Bredesen was given a boost when Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville endorsed the plans at a joint appearance to announce the special session last month. Republicans hold a 19-14 majority in the Senate and a 51-48 edge in the House.

Still, some fellow Democrats in the Legislature are expressing reservations at the new emphasis on the student testing data.

“There’s not a magic percentage for me,” said House Minority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville. “I want to hear testimony from all sources of information on this issue.”

While students with good teachers should be able to demonstrate some measurable success, Odom said he understands the reservations teachers have about giving too much weight to test data.

“Teachers have expressed to me their concern about the test result being the only criteria with which they’re evaluated,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Henry Fincher of Cookeville points to his sister’s experience as a teacher at schools of varying academic quality.

“She’s the same teacher at the magnet school as she was at the rough high school (she taught at before), but the test scores are pretty different,” he said. “That’s why I want to see the plan and make sure we’re not hurting the teaching profession in a rush to get the federal money.”

The governor has packaged the K-12 education changes with a range of proposals on higher education, including efforts to change the funding formula to emphasize gradation rates instead of enrollment, and to make it easier for community college students to know which courses transfer to four-year schools.

“You can’t guarantee they’ll be accepted at Vanderbilt or Harvard, but you can guarantee they’d be part of the state system,” Bredesen said.

The governor also wants students at four-year schools to take remedial courses at community colleges to save costs, and to create a more integrated system for two-year schools.