Sore at the Core 

Dolores Gresham, state Senate education chair, gets an earful of discontent from both the left and right about proposed new educational standards.

It is hard to tell exactly how many members of the general public are worked up about the issue of Common Core educational standards, but there are clearly enough, on both sides of the political spectrum, to bedevil the Tennessee General Assembly as it prepares to wade into the issue.

click to enlarge Gresham at Dutch Treat - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Gresham at Dutch Treat

The most recent legislative pillar to find that out was District 10 state Senator Dolores Gresham, the Somerville Republican who heads the Senate Education Committee and, as such, has been entrusted with the introduction of bills supportive of Common Core, the set of educational standards that are due to become effective in 45 of the 50 states this year.

Tennessee is one of the 45 states, and Governor Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman remain supporters of Common Core, but they and Gresham are now grappling with increasingly vehement resistance to Common Core from the political right and left.

Gresham found this out again Saturday, when she addressed a full house at Pancho's on White Station for a meeting of the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon. Ordinarily, the Dutch Treat group trends to a relative handful of Tea Party conservatives. The Tea Party and other conservative elements were well represented Saturday, but so were critics from left of center, and interruptions were frequent and sustained as Gresham attempted to present her legislative goals.

Essentially, she tried to assure the overflow group that the series of bills she has introduced, among other things, would attempt to minimize the imposition of national controls on Tennessee's version of Common Core, block what she called "data mining" (i.e., sharing the state's statistical results with the federal government), impose local controls on textbook content, and exempt science and social studies from the state's version of Common Core.

That did not ally the critics, either of left or right. The former object chiefly to the reliance of Common Core on teaching-to-the-test techniques, especially in language and math, which they believe restrict educational breadth in favor of artificial results and inflict needless stress on both students and teachers. The latter object to the very idea of standards, which they fear smack of Big Brotherism and creeping statism.

As Gresham and others have explained, Common Core is an outgrowth of initiatives begun in 2009 under state, not federal auspices, specifically at the behest of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. The Common Core standards have evolved with input from the participating states but also from major nonprofit groups such as the Gates Foundation and with support from the current secretary of education, Arne Duncan.

Tennessee's involvement is tightly linked with its success in and subsequent funding from the Race to the Top educational-reform competition developed by Duncan. The state's Race to the Top efforts began under former Governor Phil Bredesen and continue under Haslam.

In any case, there are now serious efforts in the legislature to delay implementation of Common Core in Tennessee, and, given the mounting turmoil across the political spectrum, the task of passing enabling legislation — Gresham's or anybody else's — is clearly going to be formidable.

• One of several hot primary races brewing on the Democratic side of this year's countywide election is that for the new District 10 position on the Shelby County Commission.

As of early in the week, with Thursday's February 20th filing deadline just days away, only relative unknown Curtis Byrd and Reginald Milton had filed, but of the three other Democrats who had picked up petitions — Jake Brown, Martavius Jones, and Louis Morganfield — two, Brown and Jones, have previously attracted considerable attention.

They, along with Milton, a community organizer whose previous campaigns for office have given him considerable name recognition, had been the subject of frequent speculation among local Democrats regarding the ways in which they might split the primary vote.

Jones, a prominent — even pivotal — member of both the old Memphis City Schools board and the provisional Shelby County Schools board that succeeded it, also has significant name recognition. At this point, he may not have as many rank-and-file party activists on his side as Milton (who has been endorsed by 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, among several other influentials), but he has another ace in the hole.

That was demonstrated at a recent well-attended fund-raising affair on Milton's behalf at the Side Street Grill at Overton Square.

Off to the side of Milton's impressive crowd were J.W. Gibson, Aubrey Howard, and Osbie Howard, three prominent African Americans with both business credentials and political connections. They were there not as attendees of the Milton affair but in pursuance of a regular social ritual of their own, built around a love of good cigars.

But they were also, it turned out, leaning strongly not to Milton, the man of the hour that evening, but to Jones, whose profession is that of stockbroker, and their presence — though not intended as such — was a reminder that the former school board member has a potential claim on the loyalty of entrepreneurs in the black community.

Brown, on the other hand, is a young white man who has made something of a splash as a party activist and hopes to draw on a youth vote. In theory, he stands to benefit from a split in the African-American vote between Milton and Jones, but his problem from the beginning has been two-fold: He is a relative newcomer and, so far, lacks strong ties with the black communities that are predominant in District 10.

Worse, from the standpoint of his hopes, Brown also has gone through some recent changes in his professional life and campaign. Formerly associated with Liz Rincon and Associates as a consultant, he said this week he was on a "leave of absence" from that relationship and that Rincon was no longer directly supervising his campaign efforts.

That turned out to be an understatement. Liz Rincon, whose renamed consulting company, The Rincon Strategy Agency, continues efforts on behalf of several candidates — notably Mike McCusker, a candidate in the Democratic primary for Criminal Court Clerk — says emphatically that, as of December, she had dissolved her professional relationship with Brown.

In any case, Milton would at the moment appear to have the upper hand, with Jones remaining a strong potential challenger. Both he and Brown said early in the week they intended to file by Thursday's deadline.

• Meanwhile, the gang's all there in the Democratic primary for Shelby County mayor. County Commissioner Steve Mulroy's filing on Monday completed a roster of four candidates, all hopeful of opposing incumbent Republican County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who filed for reelection last week.

Mulroy claimed a $55,000 haul from one week's worth of fund-raising and boasted an impressive endorsement list, including commission colleagues Justin Ford and Sidney Chism and former interim county mayor Joe Ford Jr.

Previously filing for the Democratic mayoral primary were former county Commissioner Deidre Malone, current commission Chair James Harvey, and former school board member, the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr.

• Another county commissioner, Henri Brooks, was scheduled to file for the Democratic nomination for Juvenile Court clerk this week in the company of her campaign chairperson, Ruby Wharton, wife of Mayor A C Wharton and the eminence behind the Ruby R. Wharton Award for Outstanding Women, which Brooks won this year for her work toward reforming Juvenile Court.

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