Senator also says Common Core compromise good possibility
By Jeff Keeling
Crowe Talks K-12 Standards
Tennessee legislators support high standards and development of the critical thinking skills young people need, State Sen. Rusty Crowe said during an impromptu interview with News and Neighbor Monday, but there is a major caveat to that support.
Anything remotely associated with the “Common Core” standards Tennessee began implementing two years ago is a non-starter with the legislature – as is any set of standards that suggests a national, top-down approach. On the other hand, Crowe acknowledged, if one separates the standards from the name, and the perception that they’re part of an effort to exert federal control over a local and state issue, they largely reflect the educational approach legislators support.
“Tennesseans want us to be in charge of our own educational future,” Crowe said. “There’s the feeling that we don’t want a group of states telling us how to run our Tennessee education.
“On the other hand, that same group would tell you that we do want high standards, critical thinking, we want to move forward. We want the jobs, we want our kids to be connected to the jobs in this world we’re in.”
With the term Common Core about as unpopular in Tennessee as Obamacare, legislators don’t just want to be part of creating an alternative that keeps high standards without raising the specter of national control, Crowe said – they’re demanding such a role.
“Lieutenant Gov. (Ron) Ramsey, his quote the day after the governor’s speech was, ‘Common Core’s dead, everybody knows it,’” Crowe said, referring to comments by Ramsey following Gov. Bill Haslam’s Feb. 9 state of the state address.
Several pieces of legislation that could move through this year relate to K-12 education, testing, standards, and the amount of oversight lawmakers should have in statewide decision-making about those issues, Crowe said. These discussions come several months into a Haslam-ordered review of the standards (now called Tennessee State Standards) by professional educators and others, one that includes an open, online comment period with all standards at every grade level on the table.
“The governor saw and began to realize that Tennesseans had this great distrust with Common Core, but they didn’t distrust high standards and the critical thinking approach,” Crowe said. “They just distrusted the whole concept of being part of a national approach versus a Tennessee approach.”
Crowe admitted that the Common Core standards seemed to have played a part in Tennessee’s rising student achievement of late, and acknowledged it was state governors, not the federal government, who initially advocated for their widespread adoption.
“They were trying to figure out a way to enhance standards and tie the states together in a way that kids who move state to state could be tuned in with education no matter where they are,” Crowe said. “But when the federal government saw this, the Obama administration and the federal education secretary liked it and kind of latched onto it because it had a national feel, and that soured people to it.”
It didn’t help matters any, Crowe said, that the State Board of Education made some major unilateral decisions about not just standards but about testing, teacher licensure and pay scales, among other things.
“We had a complete distrust in the State Board of Education, and if we had had our way last year, we would have done away with them completely and started over.”
Instead, a move is afoot to have the board’s nine members appointed in equal parts by the governor, the speaker of the house and the speaker of the senate. The governor currently makes all appointments, Crowe said.
As far as standards review and revision, Crowe said Haslam’s best option would be to work with legislators like Jim Tracy, a Shelbyville Republican who has sponsored a bill requiring the State Board of Education to completely drop the current standards and implement new math and English and language arts standards before July 1, 2016.
“The legislators are very close in their thinking as to how this should be done to (Haslam’s),” Crowe said.
“We all want the same thing. We want teachers, professionals, parents – we want these standards reviewed by the people we know really have a concern about this from a student perspective.”
Though he hadn’t studied it closely yet, Crowe said he believed Tracy’s bill, “would have an approach that is very close in the way it would work to the governor’s approach. And I think with just a little bit of adjustment and a little bit of negotiating they can come together.”
In the meantime, Tennessee public schools continue teaching Common Core standards, though those standards don’t match up with the TCAP standardized tests. Use of the “PARCC” tests that were slated to replace the TCAPs and are more aligned with the new standards was prevented by passage of a law in last year’s General Assembly.
Within the last week, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents voiced support for letting Haslam’s review of the standards be completed before any legislative action.
Medicaid expansion may not be dead yet, Crowe says
While Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” plan was shot down during a special legislative session early this month, State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said the possibility of Tennessee accepting Medicaid expansion may not be completely off the table.
The chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that essentially stopped the plan in its tracks, Crowe said he thought highly of Insure Tennessee, even though he voted against it in committee.
“I could have voted yes, and made myself feel good and others feel good, but it wouldn’t have materially changed anything because the votes weren’t there.”
At least one thing has changed since that Feb. 4 vote, Crowe said. The Haslam administration has a completed waiver request to do the Tennessee Plan, which differs from the federal expansion in offering more market-based approaches and incentives for healthy choices.
Medicaid expansion could add 280,000 Tennesseans to the rolls of the insured, bring hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the state’s health care system from the federal government, and provide a major boost to hospitals, which provide most of the state’s uncompensated care.
Due to state law passed last year, though, Haslam can’t even send the request to Washington without legislative approval. And legislators expressed as one of their main concerns early this month the lack of written assurances from the government that Tennessee could run the program its own way.
Crowe said the Catch-22 could be overcome if Haslam assures legislators – by letter, for instance – that he can and would reject any waiver offer from the feds that changed the proposal he put before legislators.
“That way he could submit the waiver request in writing, and we’d have the opportunity to respond.”
Crowe said Haslam staffers, “are trying to figure out how they can move forward.”
For his part, Crowe said of Insure Tennessee, “I like the plan. I don’t see how anyone could think that it’s not a good approach.” He listed the financial backstop offered by hospitals to make up for decreasing federal payments and a move from, “entitlement to personal responsibility” as two of several reasons he supports the plan in concept.