gas pump in gas tank of a car

The Little Guys in the House Are a ‘Gas’ to Watch

I don’t usually comment on Tennessee political issues that are outside the focus of the organization for which I work, but what is going on with the gas tax is just too interesting to let slide.

To appreciate what’s going on, you need to understand that the state House has always had a top-down management style.

It works sort of like this. The Speakers typically give the rank-and-file Representatives (hereafter, the “Little Guys”) the freedom to represent their folks back home, so long as their views on something important don’t conflict with that of the Speaker or the Governor, to whom the Speakers for some reason seem to always take some kind of fealty oath. But when there is a conflict, the Speaker uses the loyalty of his or her committee and subcommittee chairs, engendered by their being given a position of “importance,” to bring down the hammer and get the “preferred” agenda rammed through.

For example, two years ago, the Governor’s Common Core education program had to be protected at all cost. So the word came down from somewhere on high that legislation to repeal Common Core had to die.

The Chair of the House Education Subcommittee shunted the legislation off to his subcommittee’s last meeting for the year. That almost ensured the legislation’s demise, because the Legislature would most likely adjourn before the legislation could move through the legislative committee labyrinth.

Well, the Little Guys back then, hearing from their constituents back home that they didn’t care one little bit that the Governor liked Common Core, rose up. They stuck an amendment that would repeal Common Core onto a bill that was already on the House floor, thereby forcing their concerns to be heard.

It was ugly for Speaker Harwell and the Governor. On the floor, the Little Guys ate their lunch. Eighty something legislators voted for the amendment and then for the amended bill.

Now we come to the present, what one might call “Common Core 2.0,” otherwise known as the Governor’s IMPROVE Act. The Governor quite naturally wants his bill passed, and, apparently, that means that the House Speaker has to carry out his orders. So, in recent weeks, the bill got rammed through a couple of committees by the Speaker’s henchmen, and it now sits in the House’s Finance Committee. A favorable vote there and the bill goes to the House floor.

But the Little Guys just won’t shut up and go along.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Jerry Sexton from tiny Bean Station went on record in one of the committees as saying (and I paraphrase), “Republicans sure like to talk about smaller government and lower taxes during elections, but when we get elected and come down to Nashville, something seems to change; we Republicans just have to raise taxes to fix our roads, even though the state has more money than it can spend, praise Jesus.”

The video of his comments went viral—30,000 views in a week! I think people were shocked to see a Republican courageous enough to call out Republicans for their efforts to massage an increase in the gas tax and publicly buck the Speaker and the Governor.

Then came a press conference on Monday. This time Rep. Sexton was flanked by about 16 of his colleagues. And there were more who I know would have been standing there had they been able to attend. They demanded that the IMPROVE Act be sent back to the original committee and that the process be started all over, but without all the ramming and cramming this time.

I could see a huge fight on the House floor coming. The IMPROVE Act may be rammed through Finance to the House floor in the days ahead, but then all the Little Guys may just try to “common core” the Speaker and Governor on the floor.

Now, maybe it’s just coincidence, but by week’s end Speaker Beth Harwell was coming up with a plan that does not raise the gas tax. Then, again, maybe she really does have her eye on a gubernatorial race, and maybe she got to thinking how she’d look on the campaign trail with two black eyes, one from Common Core and the other from the IMPROVE Act.

To be honest, I’m not as much interested in how we wind up paying for our roads as I am interested in seeing the Little Guys rise up. They may not “win,” but I appreciate someone standing up for us, the proverbial little guys among the citizenry. Too many of us feel like too often we have too little voice in what happens. So I say, “Little Guys, may your tribe increase! The process has got to change.”

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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school bus, student, and standard testing score sheet

Common Core 2.0—‘In Loco Parentis’ Gone Loco

It looks like the Tennessee Department of Education did not learn its lesson with Common Core. Through a new educational initiative, the Department is going down a similar path with something that is even worse. It is taking the Latin phrase in loco parentis and putting the emphasis on loco, as in this is just crazy.

The phrase in loco parentis means “in the place of a parent.” It is most often used in connection with organized education where schools, private and public, are often seen as acting in loco parentis in regard to the education of a child; they are helping parents educate their child. But what the Tennessee Department of Education now appears to want is to replace parents.

The Common Core-Like Process

Like Common Core, this new initiative begins with money that, so far, the handful of legislators to whom we’ve spoken knew nothing about. And like Common Core at the outset, this, too, involves Tennessee joining a select group of states to pioneer something.

In this case, it’s not the Gates Foundation, but the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, not known for its conservative values. It has dangled private money in front of interested states. California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Washington are six of the seven states (Georgia being the other) that got the money. To me, if California thinks this is a good idea, then it’s probably not.

What Is Social and Emotional Learning?

That’s particularly true when you find out that the initiative is “for all students in preschool through high school to receive high-quality social and emotional learning.” Two of the recommended competencies are fraught with peril.

One of the competencies is “prosocial” behavior. What does that mean? In a culture increasingly embracing unnatural sexual acts as natural and gender confusion will a child be “prosocial” if he or she does not embrace those cultural values?

Another competency “refers to the capacity to make ethical decisions and develop appropriate solutions to identified problems.” That, of course, is good, but it’s not good in the hands of those who deny any absolutes, believe in moral relativism, or believe truth is what you personally feel good about.

Will Your Child ‘Pass’ the Test?

In addition, the “goal” is to set “grade-appropriate standards for social and emotional learning.” That’s a scary thought.

What kind of test is a child going to be subjected to in order to determine if he or she is socially and emotionally well according to the state’s definition of those terms? If your child doesn’t think having two dads is as good as having a mother and a father, will that child meet the “standard” for social and emotional health? Will a child be considered “prosocial” and emotionally healthy if he or she believes that bathroom usage should be based on biology or that one’s gender is determined by God and not the child’s feelings? Such thoughts might not demonstrate the requisite “capacity to make ethical decisions.”

No Parental Exemption

The insidious part about this initiative is that the goal is to make the instruction so pervasive that no parent can exempt his or her child from it, like one can with specific aspects of the sex education curriculum. According to the organization shepherding this effort, “integration of SEL [social and emotional learning] standards with standards in other subject areas promotes social and emotional development across all areas of instruction.” Maybe the state is going to help a child feel good about getting the wrong answer to a math question and learn that a correct answer is no better than a wrong answer?

But the really troubling thing is that Tennessee is already pretty far down the road on this. Already on the state’s website is a Toolkit for Tennessee Teachers and Administrators entitled “Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning Into Classroom Instruction and Educator Effectiveness.” In fact, we’re one of only five or six states that is that far along. Most states have done nothing in regard to social and emotional learning.

I have no doubt that the intentions of many involved are good. And certainly too many parents do not do a good job training up their children emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and relationally. But this kind of thing comes from those who do not respect and honor the God-given jurisdictional responsibility of parents, and this kind of power in the hands of those kind of people is dangerous.

Will Parents and Grandparents Rise Up?

We are going to start asking a whole lot more questions, but those of you with children in public schools better rise up. You better watch what’s going on before the values you are trying to teach your children are undermined by those who think your values are not socially acceptable or emotionally healthy. You better contact your state legislator. And if you don’t, then maybe you better get a second job to help pay for the private education of your child or grandchild.

This unsettling initiative has the potential for parents and legislators to provide a real social and emotional education to the liberals in our Department of Education.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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paper doll cut-out and hand writing Common Core

Hillary Clinton’s Advisor ‘Educates’ Tennessee’s Legislators

There is plenty of political furor across the state and down at the legislature over Common Core curriculum standards in Tennessee without the pot being stirred even more. But someone must have thought it needed a few more strokes of controversy because of whom someone brought in to speak to House education committee members this week.

The guest “teacher” was none other than Marc Tucker, not a household name by any means, but a name well known to those who have long had concerns about federal government intrusion into state education and, more specifically, to those with concerns about attempts by the federal government to set education policy through governors rather than the state legislatures.

Mr. Tucker first surfaced in the early 1990s during the Tennessee legislature’s battle over a reform he championed known as School-to-Work. School-to-Work was a bureaucratic ivory tower think tank-type education plan for the ages.

The objective was to evaluate all children by the eighth grade for the types of work for which testing showed they would be suited. This information would then be evaluated for them in light of labor market statistical projections for the jobs of the future. “Educators” would then encourage each child to pursue educational programs fitted for the jobs the government thought it would need and that seemed to match each child’s abilities.

The implementation strategy, however, was to bypass state legislatures by allowing governors to apply directly for federal grants to implement the program. In essence, the federal program would be imposed on states by the federal government through governors. Sound familiar?

Mr. Tucker’s educational dream was nothing short of a planned economy taken down to the educational level beginning in the eighth grade. And Mr. Tucker was all for it.

His enthusiasm and his plan was set forth in a letter he penned to Hillary Clinton after her husband was elected President. It became known at the “Dear Hillary Letter” and reads, in pertinent part:

“I still cannot believe you won. But utter delight that you did pervades all the circles in which I move. … We think the great opportunity you have is to remold the entire American system [of education]. … What is essential is that we create a seamless web of opportunities to develop one’s skills that literally extends from cradle to grave and is the same system for everyone—young and old, poor and rich, worker and full-time student. … Clear national standards of performance in general education (the knowledge and skills that everyone is expected to hold in common) are set to the level of the best achieving nations in the world … We have a national system of education in which curriculum, pedagogy, examinations and teacher education and licensure systems are all linked to the national standards.”

That should be enough to help you understand why bringing in Mr. Tucker could only set conservatives more on edge about Common Core.

Of course, discrediting a message because of the messenger is never wise, but even as I think of the message, I can’t help but think of two things: the Tower of Babel and Daniel.

Babel reminds us of God’s aversion to men thinking they can build elaborate systems apart from Him that make Him superfluous. Sometimes when I see these cradle-to-grave government thinkers, I can’t help but wonder if what God hears coming from their mouths as they speak of their ingenious plans is something like babel. Picture Charlie Brown listening to Snoopy.

And I’m reminded of Daniel, who didn’t want to participate in what I might call King Nebuchadnezzar’s “Menu to Work” plans, but wanted to eat from the menu God had prescribed for the Hebrews. Interestingly, the “test” showed that the “standards” that God had come up with for nutrition were better than the King’s uniform, national standards.

My point is this: I believe Tennessee is capable of coming up with great standards and producing great teachers, whether it’s the standards anyone else in the nation uses. And I have no doubt that if we do, eventually the nation’s employers won’t care that they are “our” standards. Like Daniel, the quality of the students we educate will be all the proof we’ll need as to the merits of our standards.

All we lack in the legislature is a little less babel and some leaders like Daniel.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Republican elephant

Republican Parallels to the Democratic Demise?

The rhetoric within the Republican Party in Tennessee continued to escalate this week over Common Core with one Republican legislator calling the Governor a traitor to the party. As I read some of what’s been said about the role Common Core may have had in Republican primaries, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities to other issues that changed the complexion of Tennessee politics from blue to red.

The Income Tax

One issue that changed the complexion of Tennessee politics from blue to red was the income tax. During 2001-2002, leaders of the Democratic Party, along with the help of a few Republicans, including the governor at the time, pushed for an income tax. Ultimately, an income tax bill was voted on in the state House. It did not pass, but it got enough votes to make Tennessee voters really mad. And their anger played out in the coming elections.

As I reviewed the list of my former colleagues in the General Assembly during those years, one thing that seemed to be common to the Democrats who lost re-election or chose to retire was their support for the income tax. That issue was a bell-weather issue and remains one to this day.

But another issue worked against the Democrats and played to the Republican’s favor; it was the life-abortion issue.


Beginning in 2001, Republicans, me being one of them, began to push what is now known as Amendment 1 that will be on the ballot in November. Amendment 1 is an amendment to the state constitution that would reverse the decision of our state Supreme Court in which it found a “right to abortion” and struck down a number of our laws designed to protect women and the unborn.

Not being for the legislation that was the precursor to Amendment 1 on the ballot was a death knell to a number of Democrats (in addition to the one Republican who ever voted against putting it on the ballot).

The Ladder to Republican Success

The income tax and abortion were the electoral issues that really began to change the complexion of the General Assembly. Republicans rode to the majority on the back of fiscal and social conservatives. One cannot deny the role that gun rights have played in the Republican party in recent years, but the two legs of the ladder on which the state’s Republican Party rose to its current dizzying heights are fiscal and social conservatism.

A Deepening Divide?

Like the two issues that divided the Democrats from the Republicans, if Republicans are not careful, Common Core and traditional social issues may divide the Republican Party itself. In this last election cycle, it seemed that the divide in the party between fiscal and social conservatives became more pronounced. Though one might not readily see how Common Core fits that divide, it does.

Those who push Common Core seem concerned that our students are not learning what is needed to have a strong economy in a global marketplace. They tend to be fiscal conservatives.

On the other side are those who seem concerned that Common Core elevates political correctness over our founding principles and gives too great a nod to big government, particularly the federal government, and to globalism.

However, many in this latter camp are also those we might call “traditional” social conservatives, those concerned about abortion, parental rights in education, the homosexual agenda, and threats to religious liberty. The two “sides” are not identical, but that’s what makes things so explosive politically—when you add them together, you begin to find a lot of upset people.

Finding a Way Forward

The bottom line is that Tennessee Republicans must find a way to address the issues social conservatives care about. Personally, I don’t think we have to choose between high academic standards and keeping liberal political philosophies and political correctness out of our schools. I also don’t think we have to choose between being socially conservative and being fiscally conservative. In fact, the former makes the latter possible.

But I do think this: Smiles of feigned concern and pats on the head of social conservatives by Republican fiscal conservatives may not work to keep everybody in the hoped-for big tent of the Republican party happy. In this last election cycle the rumblings were audible. If the trend continues, expect the rhetoric to escalate and for there to be more political bloodshed in the 2016 primaries.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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pencils and upwards graph

Common Core Games Bring Back Memories and Make New Ones

To date, I have not weighed in on the pros and cons of Common Core in our state, because there are many organizations tackling the issue head on and the organization I lead is taking on other issues often left “untended.” Just thinking about Common Core brought to mind some memories from an unpleasant time when I was in the Senate. But yesterday something happened that created some new memories that were a break from the past.

For those who don’t know what Common Core is, at a very basic level, it is a set of curriculum standards to be implemented in our state’s public schools. The term includes all the testing and data collection issues that come with the standards.

How Things Were Handled in the House

Common Core has been very controversial among a number of conservatives, and several bills were filed at the start of the current legislative session to repeal or otherwise mortally wound it.

The key bills were scheduled to be heard as part of the House Education Subcommittee’s calendar for Tuesday, February 25. But since the representative sponsoring the bills didn’t know his bills had been scheduled to be heard until toward the end of the week before, he asked to have one bill moved to the next week and the other bills moved to the week after that.

Normally, that is no problem. In my 20 years of involvement at the state legislature,  it has been rare that a bill sponsor’s first request to move a bill to a different date is denied. It’s sort of a matter of “legislative courtesy,” because at some point everyone will need extra time to prepare.

But this time it seemed to be a problem to somebody. Even though the bill’s sponsor was first told there shouldn’t be a problem granting his request, later that day, the sponsor was essentially told to put his bills up for a vote on the 25th of February or they would be put on the subcommittee’s last calendar, currently expected to be very near the end of the session.

Being on the last calendar meant that there would be little time for the bills to wind through the legislative process following its subcommittee hearing and, even if the bills did pass, it was unlikely that the legislature would have time to override a gubernatorial veto.

What Bothered Me

It pains me to say it, but this kind of procedural maneuvering and treatment of a representative is the way things were handled under the Democratic regime of the past. It’s how the income tax debate was handled—only what a few wanted to have debated could be debated. I know. I was there. I suggested all kinds of ways to avoid the legislative imposition of an income tax on the people, but the House Democratic leadership didn’t want it to be heard. Unfortunately, in those days, there was nothing Republicans could do.

However, unlike the old days when the minority party Republicans could do nothing about such things, there are people who can stop it now.

The ‘Little Guys’ Win

Yesterday, a number of rank-and-file Republicans, joined by a number of Democrats, staged an unprecedented move. They used the procedural rules to take the battle over Common Core straight to the House floor. And, in at least one key respect, they prevailed, passing a bill that included a provision to delay the testing component of Common Core until July 1, 2016.

There are still several hurdles before that bill becomes law, and more games may yet be played. But at least yesterday the “little guys” made it clear they would not be ignored. They were not going down without a fight. And that is a refreshing break from the past.

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