Virtual Nonsense 

Grading Tennessee's education reform: Incomplete

Education is, of course, not the only aspect of Tennessee life which is undergoing substantial change these days, but, as has so often been said by lay and professional folks alike, it is the key to the state's future. That being the case,

we can only hope that the people who are in charge of Tennessee's destiny know what they are doing.

click to enlarge bill_haslam.jpg

We are now in the third year of the educational reforms that will be associated with the tenure of Governor Bill Haslam and his appointee as education commissioner, Kevin Huffman. The jury is still out — or should we say the examination is still under way — on the sweeping educational reforms being officially pursued. These include a plethora of new charter schools and a truly revolutionary and experimental new layer of educational bureaucracy, typified by the statewide Achievement School District being administered by Chris Barbic.

No one who has had any contact with any of the three individuals mentioned above should have any doubt as to their good intentions or their sincerity or the extent to which they believe in what they are doing. All those attributes are much in evidence.

We have our doubts about much of what has been achieved or is being attempted, but we strive to keep an open mind. We do wonder, however, about Barbic's boast that he does not have to "answer to" any school board in carrying out his particular reform agenda. Yes, there are some questionable boards with some knot-headed school board members in Tennessee, but these boards are, after all, elected, and they do represent the people.

We doubt, too, that the process of education was well served by the action of the legislature in 2011 in abolishing the bargaining rights of Tennessee's established teaching organizations, but we also know that this drastic step (for drastic is what it is) was the work not so much of Haslam and his appointees but of Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and the archconservative legislators whom Ramsey apparently can guide to his heart's content. At least those in the state Senate, of which he is the undisputed master.

Not that there aren't some blessings to go with that last fact. Because he happened to get involved in a power struggle with his House counterpart, Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, last year, Ramsey put the quietus on a House-baked plan for a state "authorizer" empowered to overrule local school boards in their decisions regarding the acceptance or rejection of charter-school proposals.

And, to give Haslam his due, he acted to quash several efforts by his party's right wing to overreach themselves in the extent to which they were proposing public vouchers for private schools. Haslam also did his best to slow down and to establish more realistic criteria for "virtual" — i.e., online — education. In particular, he tried to rein in and put a term limit on the Tennessee Virtual Academy, an institution whose head testified before a legislative committee last year in an effort to excuse his system's poor performance, introducing his personnel with non-grammatical sentences such as, "This is so-and-so, which is in control of such-and-such." Which.

Alas, the poor governor, which was overruled by the legislature. We hopes for the best, but we fears it gets worser and worser.

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