By Graham Sweeney
Education reform and bill limitations were the chief topics discussed last week by several state officials.
During a Jan. 2 meeting hosted by the Republican Women of Purpose, State Senators Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), along with State Representatives Jim Coley (R-Bartlett), Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) and Mark White (R-Memphis), touted the GOP’s current supermajority in both the Tennessee House and Senate and gave a glimpse into the party’s plans for the 108th General Assembly, which officially convened at noon on Tuesday.
“We used to talk about 17 and 50,” Norris said to those attending the event at the Tournament Players Club in Southwind. “It took us 17 votes in the Senate and 50 in the House to pass anything.”
However, with Republicans holding 26 of 30 seats in the Senate and 70 of 99 in the House of Representatives, Norris said the GOP should be able to “pass anything” that it “desires.”
“Just because we might be able to,” the Senate majority leader continued, “doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.”
Lollar, who sits on the House Education Committee, called 2013 a big year for the GOP.
“This year,” he said, “whether we tweak with a word or a bill, we are changing 140 years of certain types of compromises we’ve had to make because we were a minority.”
One area the GOP hopes to constrain during the 108th General Assembly is education reform.
“What happens here in Shelby County is really part and parcel of a broader reform issue,” Norris said.
Kelsey said he plans to reintroduce the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act for an eighth year.
“This would allow low-income children to take the funds that we are already spending on them wherever they want to take them,” he said. “Whether it’s another public school or a private school within the system.
“Its time that we start focusing on whether we are educating our children,” he continued, “rather than where we are educating them.”
Regarding the formation of charter schools, Kelsey said the wrong people have been charged with such decisions in the past.
“We’ve had a system in which the fox is guarding the hen house,” he said. “You had the local school board, who had a disincentive to allow students to attend charter schools because that takes jobs and money away from their local school systems.
“They were the ones who were ultimately making the decisions on whether or not charter schools could open in this county and throughout Tennessee,” he continued.
Kelsey said such decisions should be made by a statewide board “with business sense.”
Noting that education reform is a “key component” in the future creation of jobs, Kelsey said that while the state is headed in the right direction, even Tennessee’s “good” school systems are underperforming.
“Even systems like Shelby County Schools are not doing great as compared to systems in other states,” he said. “They are doing great compared to school systems within Tennessee, like Memphis City Schools, but not compared to other states.”