by Félix Pérez
In the end, the best efforts and deep pockets of a small army of lobbyists and out-of-state corporate ed reformers weren’t enough to derail relentless Tennessee educators, parents and their allies in their quest to defeat multiple pieces legislation that would have harmed students, educators and schools.
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When the Tennessee legislative session adjourned last Thursday, educators and their friends breathed a collective sigh of relief, for they had done what few thought possible in a state that has been a hotbed for ill-conceived education reform fads. Vanquished was a bill that would have drained school resources through vouchers, another that would have opened the door to for-profit charter school companies, and yet another that would have lowered the vote threshold for the state’s Parent Trigger law, which educators and parents describe as a back-door attempt by for-profit charter school chains to corporatize neighborhood schools.
“It was definitely a battle,” said Arlington high school teacher Lomay Richmond when describing the number of bills and their well-financed backers. “One of the things that made a difference was the constant, personal contact with legislators by teachers, parents and other education stakeholders.”
The Parent Trigger legislation, which would have made it easier to close a school or convert it to a charter school, among other options, was pushed by an out-of-state group called Students First. Sponsored by state Rep. John DeBerry, whose election campaign received more than $100,000 from Students First, the legislation did not make it out of committee. The Parent Trigger legislation popping up in states is identical or strikingly similar to model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a powerful and secretive organization of corporate lobbyists and state politicians that churns out model bills behind closed doors.
By contrast, a bill with significant input from teachers — which prohibits tying teacher licensure to student scores on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) — passed overwhelmingly. The bill drew Republican and Democratic support.
In addition to visits, emails, rallies and phone calls to legislators, PTA members and teachers tapped into their community connections. A petition coordinated by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) generated 11,674 signatures and was delivered to Haslam, urging him to sign the TVAAS teacher licensure bill. Haslam signed the bill this week.
Even with the significant strides forward in the legislature, educators do not believe that the onslaught directed at public schools will stop. Teacher and TEA President Gera Summerford describes the attacks as the “march of corporatization.” Summerford, a teacher for 32 years, said recent state decisions to end collective bargaining and overhaul teachers’ due process rights “really only make sense if your ultimate goal is to destroy public education.”
Undeterred, Summerford and Richmond recognize their best option is to rally others to the defense of public schools and remain vigilant. Said Richmond:
Educators aren’t just going to sit back and take what’s given to them. We’re going to fight back.