The People v. Senate Education Committee

Far too often the entrenched political machinery of the Tennessee Education Association teachers’ union is given more clout and more voice by some legislators than is given to the parents with children in the worst schools.

The Scott Brown election saw the people of Massachusetts speak loud and clear when it came to not allowing the entrenched political machinery in their state speak for them. Perhaps Washington politicians will “hear” and give more regard to the people who elect them. But it seems that message didn’t trickle down to everyone in Tennessee state government last week.

In Massachusetts, the Democrats have dominated the political landscape for years. They have no Republican members in their delegation to the U.S. House. They have had no Republican U.S. Senator since 1972. Yet that part of the political machinery in Massachusetts that had been “in charge” for so long could not “control” the people this time.

Another part of the political machinery had been the unions. They came out strongly for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, but there sure were a lot of pictures of rank and file union members in union T-shirts campaigning for her opponent, Scott Brown.

The message of Scott Brown that seemed to resonate with the people was, “This is not Ted Kennedy’s seat; it is your (the people’s) seat.” And for at least this one election, the people took their seat back from what we might say were the entrenched political players in their state.

Tennessee’s Own Problem with Entrenched Unions

One political player in Tennessee that has been entrenched for almost forever is the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). From their position of power they have even gotten the Legislature to make specific reference to their specific union in state law, ignoring the fact that there is another teacher representative organization in Tennessee. In fact, the Legislature has given the Tennessee Education Association some legal advantages over an alternative teacher organization that helps make sure that other organization can’t grow as easily.

In view of this, at least some on the Hill believe that the Tennessee Education Association would be better named the Tennessee Teachers Association, as it sometimes seems more interested in protecting the current educational system for the benefit of teachers than it is about improving education itself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Teachers are certainly entitled to have an organization looking out for their professional interests just like any other group that wants to have their interests looked out for in the state.

And you can’t really fault the TEA for the clout they have in Nashville. They only have the clout that legislators give them. But here’s the thing: Legislators only have the clout we let them have. Last week saw a visible demonstration of people vs. the “system.”

Thanks, but No Thanks

It began when newly seated Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Shelby County) sponsored a bill to start an “opportunity scholarship program” for students in the 10 worst performing schools in Memphis. Memphis has the most number of low performing schools of any school system in Tennessee. And most of those schools are in urban areas and serve low income families who cannot afford private schools or housing in more “upscale” neighborhoods that might have a better school. The bill would have allowed students in those schools who are from lower income families to take the money the state is sending to Memphis to educate that student and use it to attend another private or public school.

Sen. Kelsey’s bill was heard on Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee, and I was asked to speak on its behalf. As I spoke to the committee about the merits of giving a measure of educational freedom and opportunity to parents who, because of their economic situation, had children trapped in one of the 10 worst schools in the city, I could see and feel a sense of “dead on arrival.”

Now, the bill was not dead because there were some things that needed to be fixed or needed to be clarified. No, it was dead because a majority of the committee members present simply was not interested in getting answers to TEA’s objections or fixing their concerns or offering amendments to clarify any ambiguities. In fact, Sen. Kelsey offered an amendment to reduce the number of students who would be eligible to just those in the three worst schools. Even that amendment couldn’t garner a majority of the votes. Ultimately, by a begrudging one-vote majority, the Senate Education Committee approved an amendment allowing the parents of students at the one worst school to have some choice in their child’s education. And as amended down to just one school, the bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.

Committee members were given information about studies by the Friedman Foundation showing that not one of the 17 empirical studies done on such programs in other states had found that those programs had hurt public education. In fact, they were told that 16 studies showed the programs had a positive impact on public education, and one study found that the program had no effect on public education. Yet there was no interest among those who did not vote for the bill in learning more about the issues or exploring how the proposed program might work.

In fact, in opposing the bill, one Senator said that her children had gotten a good education through the public schools in Memphis, as if her experience meant that parents with students stuck in the worst schools would have the same happy outcome. The fact is those students are not having the same happy outcome—that’s why they are the worst schools. Unless my logic is wrong, “worst schools” doesn’t equal “best schools.” The existence of one or more good schools in a school system doesn’t mean all the schools in the system are good or that children in the worst schools shouldn’t be given the same opportunity as other students to go to a good school. But that kind of logic too often prevails when citizens don’t know what is going on and can’t challenge it.

More Clout Given to Teachers Than to Parents?

My point is that far too often the entrenched political machinery of the Tennessee Education Association is given more clout and more voice by some legislators than is given to the parents with children in the worst schools. But the union has a PAC which gives money to and makes endorsements of legislators, while the parents of children in these schools … well, I doubt they even knew that some legislators, including ones from Memphis, were deciding for them that their children didn’t deserve a better chance for an education.

But maybe some day, like in Massachusetts, enough parents will get the information they need to let their voice be heard over the powers that be and will say “Enough … you represent us, ‘the people.’ ”

Aftershocks from the Supreme Court Earthquake

The Supreme Court’s ruling that Congress’ prohibition against corporate contributions violates the free speech rights of those corporations may mean that the chains the IRS has placed on the First Amendment free speech and freedom of religion rights of pastors and churches may have been broken as well.

The political earthquake in Massachusetts with the election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate on January 19 was not the only political earthquake that took place last week. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court’s earthquake may have set free some political captives that no one is much talking about.

On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the campaign finance laws prohibiting corporations from making political contributions was an unconstitutional restriction on the free speech rights of corporations. Most everyone thought of the ruling in terms of huge corporations being able to make contributions and to buy elections. Others thought of it in terms of the “little guy” having his financial contribution being so dwarfed by corporate contributions that their contributions would become meaningless. But there may be another significant “aftershock” from the judicial earthquake that upset the campaign finance law apple cart.

A major issue among conservative evangelicals over the years has been the IRS’s never-challenged rule that prohibits pastors from saying what they want from their pulpits about political candidates. And, of course, many churches, also bound by those rules, are also corporations.

So the question is this: If the government cannot suppress political speech in terms of contributions by corporations, can it suppress the political speech of pastors and churches who, unlike corporations, also have a First Amendment freedom to practice their religion? And what about this: Can churches now make political contributions if they want to? Would not their “dual” constitutional rights—to free speech and to freedom of religion—not also give them even more of a right to make contributions than “big tobacco,” insurance companies and financial institutions?

For years, groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have sent letters to pastors reminding them of the IRS’s rule limiting their ability to talk about candidates and threatening to report them to the IRS if they violated the rule. It’s been a huge stick that liberals have used to discourage pastors from informing their congregations about what is happening in politics and what their representatives are doing, thereby providing one fewer source of information to their people when they go to cast a vote.

Now, there are some pastors and churches that wouldn’t talk about a political issue or a candidate if they were paid to do so. For them, this ruling won’t make any difference. But to those who would if they were not concerned about protecting the tax status of their church, this political earthquake may be like the one that set free Paul and Barnabas when they were in chains.

Perhaps the chains the IRS has put around our nation’s pulpits have been broken.

Will Unrepentant Republicans Get Invited to TEA?

Washington Republicans owe liberty-loving, fiscally conservative Americans a huge public apology for their complicity in the national health care debacle because their fiscal irresponsibility undoubtedly contributed to the desperation for “change” that produced the current Congress. Republicans, if you want some of us to trust you again, then you had better admit your own wrongdoing. Otherwise, why should we not expect more of what we got the first time we trusted you in 1994?

The TEA Party movement is an interesting phenomenon, and it’s got both major political parties wondering what effect it will have in the upcoming elections. Democrats wonder if it will help Republican candidates. Some Republicans fear that TEA Party members will vote for an independent or, seeing Republicans and Democrats as merely different shades of gray, just not vote. So, as a former elected Republican, here’s some advice if Republicans want to get invited for “tea” during the next election season.

My ruminations on this issue come from what we’ve all just witnessed in Washington in connection with the Senate’s midnight and Christmas Eve votes on the national health care bill. To be blunt, it disgusted me.

Legal Bribery

Unless you’ve been in a coma, you know that a lot of “deals” were made to secure the votes needed to pass the Senate’s draft of the national health care bill. Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson was just one example, but perhaps the most visible one, of what brings contempt on Congress. He agreed to vote for the bill because he got a $45 million deal that will exempt Nebraskans from paying their share of the bill’s increased cost to their state’s Medicaid program. In essence, you and I will pay for the extra $745 million the bill will cost Tennessee, but we will also pick up part of the cost that Nebraskans would have had to pay. Already his Senate colleague from Nebraska and his own governor have condemned him. Of course, that doesn’t change what he did or change the language of the bill.

And, of course, he is not alone to be blamed. As far as I’m concerned, whoever it was that offered the deal and signed off on its being offered is as guilty as Sen. Nelson of corrupt politics. Usually with bribery, both the offeree and the offeror are guilty.

Some would say it’s not corrupt politics—that is politics. In fact, Sen. Harry Reid said as much. As far as I’m concerned, apart from his substantive position on the matter, he needs to go, too, because of his attitude about the process, along with everyone else up there who shrugs and says the same thing.

Whom Does America Trust?

But I’m getting off track. The point really is about Republican legislators and the TEA Party members. An interesting national poll released at the end of last year showed that more Americans indicated a preference for a TEA Party candidate over either a Democrat or a Republican. That should particularly disturb Republican Party leadership—particularly ones like House Republican Leader John Boehner, who supported a pro-choice, pro-homosexual marriage Republican candidate for a recent special election in New York’s 23rd District.

Sen. McConnell Needs to Listen to Himself

But it was a statement made by Senate Minority (Republican) Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor the night the health care bill passed the Senate that caught my attention. He said, “I guarantee you the people who voted for this bill are going to get an earful when they finally get home for the first time since Thanksgiving. … My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law.”

I think he’s right—those who voted for this are going to hear about it. Of course, if they only hear about it now and not when you vote in November, then don’t complain. Just pull down your electoral britches and expect to get paddled again with more of the same.

But what really got me was saying his Republican colleagues will work to stop this from becoming law. That is good. But if he thinks that means I’m going to trust him and his Republican colleagues to do the right thing if they are put back in charge, then he’s made a leap in his logic as far as I’m concerned.

As one person who is beginning to feel like I identify more with the TEA Party than the Republican Party, at least those in leadership in Washington, I think Sen. McConnell needs to get “an earful” too. In my opinion, the Republican leadership in Washington owes rank and file Republicans and liberty-loving, fiscally conservative Americans of every political stripe a HUGE public apology for their complicity in this bill.

Republican Complicity

You may wonder what I mean since no Republican voted for the bill. Well, here’s what I mean.

Had Republicans not done such a horrible job once they took over control in 1994, had they stuck to their platform position on limited government and fiscal responsibility, and had they not driven budget earmarks (political words for what normal people would call bribes and kickbacks) that have really gotten the federal budget in such a mess, then maybe not as many Americans, rightly knowing something was wrong, would have grasped for “change” in 2006 and 2008.

Had Republicans in Washington done their job from 1994 to 2006, we might not have had such a fiscally irresponsible, unconstitutional, liberty-and-property-seizing bill being crammed down our throats. Things did not go from good to bad with the elections in 2006 and 2008; they went from bad to worse. But things being worse does not make the bad better or okay. Bad is bad.

If the Congressmen (Senate and House) who were in Washington from 1994 to 2006 (Sen. Corker, you get a pass; you weren’t there) want my vote—want to get invited to my election year “tea party”—then I had better hear a sincere public apology from them personally or as a caucus or as a party, admitting that they had a hand in putting America where it is fiscally.

I don’t mind giving a person a second chance, and you know Sen. McConnell and his colleagues are hoping we’ll give it to them. But, if you ask me, why give someone another chance if they haven’t admitted their own wrongdoing first? Who takes back an adulterous spouse who is unrepentant and unapologetic?

Unrepentant Adulterers

And the fact is Washington Republicans were adulterous in their allegiance to their platform principles. They went whoring after votes (see Old Testament Hosea for the propriety of that word in this context), the same as Democrats do by giving things to everybody who could line their pockets with campaign cash and blocks of votes. To heck with being a statesman and standing for what is just and righteous or even just plain constitutional and fiscally prudent. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want an unrepentant person (or party) back in a position to do more of the same to me than they’ve done in the past. Better to be betrayed by a known opponent than a supposed friend and ally.

Oh, I want change now, too. But I want change I can really believe in. And I assure you right now I’m skeptical of both parties.

I’m waiting for my apology. And I doubt I’m alone. Is there anyone else holding a tea party like mine?

Will Education Session be ‘Special’?

Whether the legislature comes up with a teacher evaluation process that qualifies the state for extra federal funds or not, the special session will indeed be “special” if there is also some reform in teacher tenure. Reforming tenure will improve public education.

The Governor is calling a special session to discuss education reform, in particular, an increased level of teacher accountability so as to qualify for a few hundred million federal dollars for K-12 education. Here’s what would make it really special.

Having a special session on education is a great idea. Its improvement is certainly needed. And it’s hard for legislators or the public to really focus on it when there are 1,500 or so other bills clamoring for our attention. A session just on education is certainly unique, but unique doesn’t mean it will be special. That designation will depend on what they accomplish. Rearranging the chairs on the deck on the Titanic didn’t do anything “special” in the face of the huge tear in the ship’s underbelly.

Beware the Strings Don’t Hang Us

The first thing I think legislators need to consider are the strings with which the package of federal money will be wrapped. There are always strings with federal money. And even if the strings are acceptable now, that doesn’t mean they won’t send next year’s installment or the installment 10 years from now wrapped with different strings. After the way the health care bill was handled and all the control it extends to the federal government, should we expect this Congress and President to not want the same control over education?

About 10 years ago I carried a bill that changed the whole way child support was collected in Tennessee. Were there widespread problems with our collection system? No. We changed it because Congress decided to withhold several hundred millions in funds for the Aid to Families of Dependent Children if we didn’t. Changing our collection system was not part of the “deal” when Tennessee “signed up” decades ago. So, I’m not yelling wolf when I say, “Watch out.”

I’m not saying we couldn’t use the money. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take it—somebody’s going to get it whether we take our share or not. But it would be “special” if the legislature took pains to make sure the money wasn’t used to start some new recurring program we couldn’t afford to discontinue or to continue with our own state tax dollars if the strings become too onerous or offensive. If it can be used for nonrecurring expenses, so much the better.

Improvement Tethered by Tenure

A second thing that would be “special” is seeing reform to teacher tenure. There are many good teachers out there, and many who do not walk lockstep with the state teacher’s union on every issue. But tenure is an idea out of time. It has become an expensive, cumbersome obstacle to removing teachers who aren’t getting the job done. It’s easier and less expensive than litigation to move an ineffective teacher to another grade or another school. Or, if necessary, move them into administration. Protest all you want, defenders of tenure, but you know it happens.

Tenure Ignores Human Nature

But the law is problematic because it’s built on a premise that ignores the reality of human nature. And laws that do that, in time, will prove to be a bad.

Human nature is such that if we can get something for nothing, we’re inclined to take it. People will compare effort required with reward to be gained, and if we can give less effort and get enough of what we want, we’ll give less effort. Please understand, this is not true only of teachers; it’s true of all of us, but it’s not less true because a person is a teacher. And tenure has given license to this kind of thinking for too many people in education.

And please don’t give me the old idea that we need to protect teachers from politics. Unless you are self-employed, there are politics on every job. And, even the self-employed person has to play “politics” with his or her customers or lose them to someone else. And though it may be a shock to some, there are even politics in the church. Just ask someone who has been a preacher or minister of music for a few years.

Accountability with Reward Is Needed

But tenure is not the only problem. As stated, we naturally evaluate effort compared to reward. And in public education, there is not much reward for effort. Only a self-motivated person of real integrity will do their best regardless in a rewardless system year after year.

So, let’s put the two together: reward and accountability. For example, treat principals like a CEO. Hold the principal responsible for the progress of the school he or she leads. No progress, no job; good progress, then above-average pay.

With that kind of system in place, then tenure for teachers could be more easily modified. If a principal’s job and income depends on educational achievement, then it would make sense that the principal is not going to fire a good, effective teacher for petty reasons. I have had law partners with whom I strongly disagreed on a number of political and social issues and who often rubbed me the wrong way (as I know I probably did them), but they were good lawyers and profitable, so we pressed on. Only a foolish, shortsighted principal whose job depends on the success of his or her school would fire a teacher who is producing. Could it happen? Yes. But if the teacher is good, don’t you think another principal desirous of keeping his or her job and getting paid better would hire that teacher? And if good teachers were constantly leaving for another school, that in itself becomes an evaluation of that principal.

The session would be special if we could figure out a way to pay those who perform better than those who do not. Unfortunately, too many leaders in the teachers union prefer security to success and count some reward better than risk with great reward. And we wonder why so many students can accept mediocrity?

Will Republicans Lead or Follow?

It would be special if we had enough legislators say “enough” and stand up for students and for better education instead of the campaign cash and “votes” that teachers unions promise to deliver. And Republican legislators had better be careful they don’t succumb to the union’s newfound fondness for them like their Washington counterparts did with tax-and-spenders once they got control of Congress in 1994.

Remember, Republican legislator, the union wouldn’t endorse even an unopposed incumbent Republican candidate (maybe a true RINO every once in a while) before Republicans took control. My advice: Take their money, just don’t take all they’re selling. And if you feel you have to take their opinions if you take your money, remember you got where you are without their votes or their money. Politicians who forget where they come from need to be sent back to where they came from.

Stay tuned with us, and let’s hope for something special that will improve education and maintain our state’s educational and fiscal freedom.