Politics » Politics Feature

Shelby Legislators in the Thick of It in Nashville



NASHVILLE — As the 2019 session of the Tennessee General Assembly concluded its first full week of activity last Friday, it became obvious that several Shelby County legislators are in the eye of the tiger. District 83 state Representative Mark White, a Republican, is chairman of the House Education Committee and, as such, is already riding that tiger.

During an introductory session of his committee last Wednesday, White scheduled two groups of presenters to testify before the committee. One group was a duo from SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education), the organization founded by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist. The SCORE representatives talked about the group's efforts to collaborate with the state's professed educational goals and were able to cite several successes in the state's educational achievement.

The second group, composed of two representatives from the state Department of Education, got a stormier response from committee members. The subject that dominated discussion was the "debacle" (that has been the operational term) of the state's failure so far to implement a completely workable testing apparatus for teacher and student assessment under the TNReady formula. TNReady is the state-devised system that replaced the testing system existing beforehand under Common Core, the nationwide eductional initiative whose uniform standards became controversial for a variety of reasons, some of them frankly political.

Questar, the vendor that has the contract under TNReady — one worth $150 million over a projected five-year period — suffered a number of system breakdowns last year that made reliable testing impossible under the online methods adopted and caused the legislature to pass measures late in the 2018 session that, in effect, nullified the validity of the results.

In the course of an intense questioning by Education Committee members, the Department of Education representatives acknowledged that Questar was still due to be paid $26 million of the $30 million pro-rated annual payment called for under the state's contract with the company and, further, was eligible to make a submission under a re-bidding process undertaken by the department. Moreover, until that process is completed, Questar remains the vendor of record.

That was too much for District 90 state Representative John DeBerry of Memphis, a Democrat. "I want to know why that company wasn't fired on the spot," he demanded. "The fact of the matter is that that system failed our children, failed our mission, failed the state of Tennessee. ... I watched our teachers, our administrators, our students, including my own grandchild, in tears."

The fact, explained the Department of Education representatives, was that federal regulations required that a contract be in place and that the testing debacle occurred too late to arrange a replacement company. Hence the new RFP (request for proposal) process.

In any case, chairman White will have his hands full dealing with the issue, as will the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Republican Dolores Gresham of Somerville, with two Shelby Countians, Republican Brian Kelsey and Democrat Raumesh Akbari, serving as co-chairs.

And so will Penny Schwinn, the Texan appointed by Governor Bill Lee to replace the departed Candace McQueen as commissioner of education. Schwinn was deputy education commissioner of education in Texas and — ironically (or appropriately) — experienced first-hand there the job of amending a failed assessment program that paralleled Tennessee's experience.

• State Representative Antonio Parkinson has figured importantly both in the debates about marijuana legislation of the 2018 session and (so far, indirectly) in the general outcry over House Speaker Glen Casada's advice to committee chairs that they have the power to prevent broadcasting committee sessions online over social media. Parkinson was prominent in live-streaming such activities last year and his actions are regarded as one of the catalysts for Casada's advisory.

The future effect of Casada's edict is uncertain for several reasons, including the fact that questions have been raised as to whether the policy could be applied to citizen attendees or media members.

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