The Political Year 2013 for Dummies 

Education matters loomed large, especially at state and local levels.

Governor Bill Haslam (left); Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (right)

Jackson Baker

Governor Bill Haslam (left); Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (right)

So what happened in 2013, a year that began with the federal government dangling perilously off a "fiscal cliff," local politics still absorbed with the apparently insoluble Shelby County Schools (SCS) dilemma, and state politics handily under the control of a monolithic state Republican Party?

The cliff-hanger fiscal situation was resolved in complicated trade-off enacted by both houses of Congress in the early hours of New Year 2013; the initiative on the schools front would pass to six county suburbs when the state legislature passed another in a series of laws easing their way to independent school districts; and the state GOP, though still holding unchallenged sway in Tennessee at large, showed the beginnings of schism in their own ranks.

• To start with that last point: Had Governor Bill Haslam not gotten his back up late in the 2013 legislative session and stood down members of his own Republican Party, including state Senate speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and state senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown, all 95 counties in Tennessee, including Shelby, would have seen the advent by now of taxpayer-funded vouchers for use in private schools.

Haslam, responding to pressure from GOP legislative ranks, had consented to a modest pilot program of vouchers, to begin with 5,000 low-income students statewide at a modest level of funding, but Kelsey — with the support, as he thought, of Ramsey — pushed for a much more open-ended and better-funded program that would have made private-school vouchers accessible to much of the state's middle class.

The governor, elected in the Republican sweep year of 2010, had spent most of his first term acceding to the wishes of Ramsey, who also bore the title of lieutenant governor and was widely regarded as the real power in state government. But in late April, as the legislature headed to a close, Haslam dug in and said no to any enlargement of his voucher program.

Ramsey, intent on keeping to the abbreviated session calendar he had insisted on, bowed to the governor's wishes and cut bait. Kelsey, however, didn't get the memo or misread the message and resolved to keep on agitating for a large-scale version of what he called "opportunity scholarships." The result was that Haslam instructed state senator Mark Norris of Collierville, the Senate majority leader and the titular sponsor of the administration voucher bill, to withdraw it rather than let it be modified or expanded.

End of story, at least for 2013. The saga is due for a sequel in 2014, when an undeterred Kelsey, emboldened by his mid-summer climb of the legendary Mount Kilimanjaro in East Africa, vows to renew his efforts in the coming session. Prognosis: Some kind of voucher program will pass, much to the dismay of orthodox supporters of public education.

Yet another radical departure from educational tradition was averted in the last week of the 2013 session, when Ramsey, angered by the House's action in rejecting his pet judicial redistricting bill, retaliated by refusing to allow floor action on a bill, pushed by House speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, that would basically have allowed charter school applicants, under certain circumstances, to forgo the approval of local school boards.

That bill, too, is among the undead, and, whether or not the speakers renew their power struggle, Harwell's charter-authorizer bill is destined to resurface.

• As indicated, education loomed large on the local political front as well. As 2013 began, U.S. district judge Hardy Mays had just invalidated as unconstitutional the 2012 legislation sponsored by Colliervillians Norris and state representative Curry Todd, which permitted new school districts in Shelby County and only Shelby County. That gave the Shelby County Commission — where an 8-to-5 coalition opposed major aspects of the suburbs' school plans — a leg-up in ongoing negotiations with the suburbs, an advantage that would not survive the 2013 legislative session, which saw the passage of yet another Norris-Todd bill, this one allowing new school districts statewide.

The back-and-forth of the schools struggle wore on into its third year in the manner of a shaggy-dog story, but after the suburbs — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington — revoted their support for independent school districts to begin in August 2014 and elected school boards, the impasse was on its way to being broken. There was, after all, the likelihood of new action in the General Assembly, this time to facilitate the suburbs' acquisition of school property. And the county commission's new chairman, James Harvey, let it be known he was about to defect from the majority faction on the litigation issue.

Meanwhile, supervision of SCS affairs had passed from a 23-member provisional board, mainly made up of city and county board holdovers, to a permanent seven-member board elected in 2012, and that board, following the lead of former school attorney Dorsey Hopson, now SCS superintendent, made the suburbs an offer they couldn't refuse: They could have the school buildings, provided they were willing to pay SCS, in 12 annual installments, a sum equivalent to 10 cents on the dollar for the properties acquired — these payments ostensibly to help the system offset the cost of SCS employees' post-retirement benefits.

Only Germantown, faced with the determination of SCS to retain three of its schools where students from unincorporated areas were in the majority, did any dithering at all, but it, too, eventually settled, and the showdown between Memphis and its suburban neighbors was finally over, almost exactly three years from the day, December 20, 2010, that it formally began with the Memphis City Schools board's vote to surrender its charter.

Who won? It's complicated. But here's one way of determining a winner: The city of Memphis got out from under the add-on cost of helping to underwrite an independent urban school system, while the six suburbs took on those burdens. (All taxpaying Shelby Countians, regardless of where they reside, pay for education at large via the county general fund.)

Oddly, the old Memphis city system was now, with the addition of unincorporated Shelby County, the new county system. The old county system had become six city systems (or five, since Arlington and Lakeland intended more or less to share one.)

Further scrambling the landscape were the facts that the state, under Haslam's aggressive program of educational "reform," had subsumed several underachieving Memphis schools into a new Achievement School District.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats in Washington had traded fumbles — the former with a Tea Party-inspired governmental shutdown that brought the GOP's national popularity to an all-time low, the latter with a rollout of Obamacare so buggy that it almost made the Republicans' wildest condemnations of it look reasonable.

A side effect of the rollout mess for Tennessee was that Governor Haslam, a moderate chameleon trying his damnedest to blend in with Tea Party colors, was given ammunition to defend his rejection of $1.5 billion annually in federal funds for Medicaid expansion and his eschewal of another $64 million from the feds for pre-K education.

(The latter rejection blended in with that of Memphis taxpayers, who voted down a referendum for a sales-tax-supported pre-K program locally.)

But mirabile dictu (that's ancient Roman for "Holy heck!"), the federal gridlock that we've all grown accustomed to was eased at year's end by a two-year budget agreement between the parties that should obviate the need for any more cliff-hanging in 2014. It's an election year, though, and there's no way of escaping the resultant Sturm und Drang (that's German for "hellzapoppin'").

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