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Back to July Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 137 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS JULY 1997

Tennessee Slows Down School-to-Work
A Case Study in Successful Grassroots Action

Sen. David Fowler

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NASHVILLE, TN - A coalition of grassroots groups in Tennessee has forced the bureaucracy to bring School-to-Work before the General Assembly for investigation and oversight.

When pro-family conservatives learned in August 1996 that School-to-Work was sweeping the country, they started to investigate what was happening in Tennessee. They discovered that the state Department of Education and the state Department of Labor had submitted a grant application for $36 million to the Federal Government under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. That $36 million grant was designed to leverage another $61.9 million from federal, state and local funds. Acceptance of the grant would commit Tennessee to spend $200 million over a five-year period.

A thorough study of the grant application raised many questions about how the state's educational system was being changed, who was in control, who was accountable, what those changes would mean to the students and their families, and the impact on non-public school students. Parents started to ask why the legislature had no involvement when state law clearly states, "The system of public education in Tennessee shall be governed in accordance with laws enacted by the General Assembly. . . ."

Other pro-family leaders and activists were contacted and encouraged to request a copy of the grant for review. At the October meeting of the State Board of Education, the Deputy Commissioner of Education in charge of the School-to-Career (STC) office remarked that Federal Government officials "see us as serious change agents." He went on to call STC "systemic change" (a phrase used frequently throughout the grant), adding that this is "not a program but whole structural change."

In November 1996, Senator David Fowler (R-Chattanooga) was contacted and agreed to obtain and review the grant application. The contents of the grant and the circumvention of the General Assembly raised serious questions in Senator Fowler's mind.

Shortly before Christmas of 1996, the state was notified that it would receive $28.2 million, with $4.7 million in funding during the first year.

Over the next several weeks, various contacts were made to raise questions, gather information, and seek answers to the impact of STC's implementation, all of which proved to be unsatisfactory. It appeared that the STC train "had left the station and was moving full steam ahead."

In a Feb. 16 article in the Chattanooga Free Press, the Deputy Commissioner for STC, Jimmy Hodges, was quoted as saying, "The goal during the next year is to get communities and county systems working together with local businesses to see what specific types of training are needed to fill job positions in the communities." He remarked that, while in private industry, "he never expected to be a key player in a state education plan redefining how schools train future workers."

His statements echoed the theme of an October 1995 School-to-Work meeting held in Cleveland, Tennessee. With U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in attendance, a state leader in the business community stated that "Business and education should decide what are the 5 to 10 most important jobs in the community and prepare students for those jobs." Parents were becoming very apprehensive about the philosophy of those driving the transition to a School-to-Work or School-to-Career system.

By early spring of 1997, it became clear that, if there were any chance of slowing down this "train," it would have to come from the grassroots across the state, and it would have to happen before the legislature adjourned for the year. A group met in March to plan a strategy to put the issue before the people who, in turn, would raise the issue to their senators and representatives. "Operation Grasshopper" (Numbers 13:33) was born. Members of the Grasshopper Coalition included Tennessee Eagle Forum, Tennessee Home School Association, Tennessee Christian Coalition, FLARE (Family, Life, America, Responsible Education Under God), Tennessee Association of Church Related Schools, ACE School of Tomorrow, and Gateway Christian Schools.

A resolution detailing concerns with the STC grant was developed and distributed by pro-family organizations to their members all across the state. The resolution asked for calls to be made to the legislators and to the Governor's office. The deluge then began.

Legislators, who until this point had not been informed about what was planned for the education system, had no answers for the questions asked by their constituents. When the legislators began to redirect those questions to the Department of Education, Commissioner of Education Jane Walters wrote a letter to legislators stating that "Tennessee's educational system is linked to the needs of its employees and its economy," and that the STW/STC system "was developed over several years by representatives of every constituency in the state."

Senator Fowler responded as follows: "It seems that the Department has worked with every organization in the state, every group, but the legislature - the one body constitutionally charged with making substantive policy decisions and statutorily charged with responsibility for education. I do not want to be held responsible by the voters for a program over which I had no input, let alone a vote. I cannot think of or give my constituents any good reasons for not running such sweeping changes through the legislature."

Notwithstanding the fact that the state had already been divided into 14 (later 15) regions, and the regional co-chairpersons had been appointed (none of whom was accountable to the voters), the Commissioner wrote that "many of the questions about STC are premature." Questions didn't seem premature when, that same month, it was discovered that a slick, multi-colored School-to-Work brochure filled with graphics and charts, was distributed by Jackson State Community College and Dyersburg State Community College to the public school teachers in regions 12 and 13 (western Tennessee).

This brochure described the project as "presenting . . . A New Concept for the Economic Future of West Tennessee, School-to-Work Total Career Development System." The STC brochure expressly followed the language of the grant application. It showed "Career Awareness" in K-5, "Career Exploration" in grades 6-8, choosing a "6-year plan of Study" in the 8th grade, "Career Orientation" in the 9th grade, "Career Preparation" in the 10th grade, "Career Progression" in the 11th grade, "Career Transition" in the 12th grade, and "Career Specialization" for grades 13-14+. The brochure stated that this plan is necessary "because we need to begin a structured career development system in kindergarten so our students can develop stronger skills - the skills employers say are the most important - and make better career choices when the time comes."

In response to Senator Fowler's April letter, the Commissioner of Education wrote a letter dated May 15 that did nothing to allay parents'concerns that the balance in education was being tipped toward training students for local workforce needs. She stated, "Our [the department's] expectation is that under the School-to-Career initiative the Local Partnerships will be asked to work together to make sure that the Community Colleges, and in a limited number of instances high schools, are graduating adequate numbers of students with skill certificates to meet the requirements of the local market. We also hope that, if workers are needed with a new type of skill certificate, that fact is communicated to the appropriate educational oversight body."

Many agreed with Senator Fowler's summary of the Commissioner's letter: "Your response to the matter of Skill Certificates confirms my greatest fear about the direction and intent of the program. We have been told in the Governor's weekly update that we will not have the 'European system' - the career predictions and placement system that has failed so miserably in Germany - and that students will not be directed to career choices determined by the state. . . . Commissioner, in my opinion, this is a planned economy, European model. These are now your own words, not just some 'meaningless bureaucratic mumbo jumbo' that we are going to disregard now that we got the federal money."

As the questions about STC continued to bubble to the surface, the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee scheduled time to discuss STC on the committee agenda for May 21. The Grasshopper Coalition brought in Diana Fessler, Ohio State Board of Education member, who has done extensive research and writing about STC, to make a scholarly presentation. Although her time was cut short, she was able to make important points and raise more questions. The discussion had been expected to continue the following week, but the allotted time was used up in debating other issues.

In the continuing effort to "slow the STC train," an amendment was filed with the cooperation of the Chairman of Finance, Ways and Means, to stop funding of STC. An effort was made to file the same amendment on the House budget, but was rejected. The grassroots fax, e-mail and phone networks were activated to generate calls of support for Amendment No. 493.

At the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee meeting on May 26, Maurice Painter made a presentation based on the contents of the grant application, outlining his objections as an elected local board of education member from Williamson County (adjacent to Nashville-Davidson County). Education Department spokesmen countered that the language in the grant was simply "rhetoric" and not indicative of what the true intentions were. The effort to discount the meaning of STC by calling it just "rhetoric" was used again in a later Senate Education Committee meeting.

The amendment to stop all funding failed in committee.

The Education Department statements did nothing to increase confidence in the system. It was not much comfort to parents, or to the elected officials who can be held responsible for "systemic change" in Tennessee's system of education, to discover that the state Departments of Education and Labor wrote a grant application of 60 pages plus appendices, detailing what the state agreed to do in order to get the money, and then a Department spokesman told state senators that they do not intend to comply with the agreement.

In a last-ditch effort to bring this issue under the jurisdiction of the General Assembly, Senator Fowler prepared and filed five amendments to be offered when the budget was brought up on the floor of the Senate. Since an amendment to stop all funding had failed in the Finance Committee, he presented the full Senate with an amendment to stop funds from being used for STC until the legislature acts on STC legislation.

On the Senate floor, a number of senators expressed strong support for the measure - some because of the questionable content of the STC grant, some because the legislature had been circumvented. After a stirring presentation by Senator Fowler, the amendment passed 17-14, with 11 Republicans and 6 Democrats voting for it.

Once again, the fax, e-mail and phone networks were activated to urge the House to approve Amendment No. 5. The following morning, legislators were heard saying, "What is Amendment No. 5?" Some legislators received as many as 180 calls.

When the House refused to concur in the Senate's version of the budget (which was different in several respects), the budget was sent directly to the conference committee for reconciliation without debate on any amendments. Three offers went back and forth, and the conference committee finally adopted the following language:

"Nothing contained in this act shall be construed to relinquish control to the Federal Government of the United States or usurp the traditional authority of the local school boards of the State. The General Assembly specifically reserves the right by appropriate legislation to terminate or continue acceptance of any funds from any grant from the Federal Government for a School-to-Career program. The Joint Oversight Committee on Education is directed to investigate and conduct public hearings of the School-to-Career program and report its findings to the General Assembly no later than Feb. 15, 1998."

This important victory would not have been possible without much prayer, the able leadership of Senator Fowler who spent endless hours studying, preparing, researching and presenting the case flawlessly, and the parents all across the state who let their voices be heard. The battle has now been joined and the hard work of convincing a determined administration to turn away from School-to-Work is still ahead.


 
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