Capitol Hill Conversation: Dead Ed. Bills

Apr 8, 2013

The state Capitol building in Nashville.

The Tennessee General Assembly is in the last few weeks of one of the shortest legislative sessions in decades and lawmakers are scurrying to finish their business. In the rush to wrap up, legislators are killing off as many bills as they’re passing. The graveyard of dead bills includes several proposed laws dealing with education. One of those was a bill that would have strengthened the state’s “parent trigger” law and made it easier for dissatisfied parents to overhaul their children’s school administration. Representative John DeBerry of Memphis sponsored that bill, and after it failed, said it is possible the Legislature tried to take on too many education reforms all at once.

“I think we gave the impression that we were forcing a whole lot of stuff down folks throats,” DeBerry said, “and perception is reality.”

A second proposal that failed was a school voucher bill that would have allowed some children to use public money to attend private school. Governor Bill Haslam wanted to make vouchers available, but only to students who attend failing schools and qualify for free or reduced prices lunches. Many other Republicans wanted to expand the governor’s voucher bill to include middle class families, but Haslam was adamant his proposal not be changed.

“Haslam said it was his (limited) way, or the highway. Ultimately, he killed his own voucher program,” said state Capitol Reporter for WPLN Blake Farmer who watched the debate. The bill’s failure surprised many observers, including Farmer.

“This one is actually pretty amazing,” Farmer said, “because there is all kinds of energy and money behind school vouchers—just one organization hired 11 lobbyists this year. You even had issue ads running on TV, very rare.”

Another contentious education bill that failed was sponsored by State Senator Stacey Campfield, a Republican from Knoxville. Campfield wanted to require some public school employees to alert parents if their children were possibly engaging in homosexual activity. His proposed “Classroom Protection Act” mandated that counselors, nurses, principals, and assistant principals notify parents if their child’s “circumstances present immediate and urgent safety issues involving human sexuality”; and Campfield told reporters he believed the “act of homosexuality” to be just such an urgent safety concern.

Liberal groups were incensed, and the controversy drew national media attention, but it was Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a fellow Republican, who finally put the kibosh on Campfield’s bill. Ramsey decided the bill would not be a legislative priority and said, “There are some things that should be left inside the family.”

Campfield has another education bill that’s drawing national media attention. That proposal ties parents’ welfare checks to their children’s report cards. It’s possible the Legislature will take that bill up in its final few weeks, and Capitol Reporter Farmer warns that the final days of the session may bring additional surprises. 

“Until lawmakers head home for the year, there’s still a chance almost anything could be resurrected,” said Farmer.