Seated before a room of 35 listeners, eight Democratic candidates for Tennessee General Assembly seats outlined positions on various issues pertaining to education across the state Thursday night.
The group also had plenty of criticism to offer toward recent legislative items discussed and passed by state lawmakers.
The forum, held at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, allowed each of the candidates to give their answers to six questions pertaining to the state of education in Tennessee. Among the topics discussed were lottery scholarships, teacher evaluation models, virtual schools and a controversial evolution bill.
Rep. Tommie Brown, who represents House District 28, was the only sitting representative to participate. In the group were state Senate District 10 candidates David Testerman, Quenton Coleman and Andraé McGary; House District 26 candidate Larry Miller; District 27 candidate Frank Eaton; and District 30 candidates Sandy Smith and Brock Bennington.
When asked to state their opinions on teacher evaluations in Tennessee, the majority of candidates said they had concerns with the current model implemented as a part of Race to the Top reforms. City Councilman Andraé McGary said he thought including value-added data as a part of evaluations was detrimental to teachers.
"Value-added data, if used wrong, ends up harming teachers," McGary said. "You don't want value-added data hanging over their heads … it discourages them from coming into the system."
Candidate Larry Miller, who is running against House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, was the first to mention Hamilton County's use of an independent teacher evaluation model, Project COACH.
"It's a really cool system," Miller said. "It's short, you drop in unannounced and you look to see if there's engaged learning going on. This isn't about test scores; this isn't about some rubric."
Frank Eaton, who is challenging Rep. Richard Floyd, said he thought the state's new teacher evaluation model could possibly be viewed as "payback" by Republican members of the Legislature for not having received campaign contributions from teachers unions.
"It worries me that we are putting so many regulations on teachers, and I wonder if the motivation behind that is not political," Eaton said. "I wonder if there's not payback from what some members of the Legislature think teachers unions have denied them in the form of campaign contributions."
The forum found Rep. Tommie Brown, who was not joined by her District 28 challenger JoAnne Favors, repeatedly referring to her years of experience in the General Assembly as evidence to her understanding of education issues. When asked for her suggestions on how to best equalize teacher salaries, Brown said constituents must be willing to "bite the bullet" to help provide equal and competitive pay for teachers across the state.
"We must understand, yes, we have to be taxed if we want the services and the benefits," Brown said. "We've got to be willing to bite the bullet and come to Nashville and testify in committees in support of those who are willing to make the change."
Several of the candidates spoke out against the recent passage of a bill that would include virtual schools in state education programs. Many objected to the granting of a contract to K12 Online Public Schools, a move seen as the privatization of a government program using taxpayer dollars.
School board member David Testerman accused lawmakers of "stealing" funds meant for students and using them to bolster a profit-driven corporation.
"We need someone in state government to step forward and have some accountability, so the profits and tax dollars stay in Tennessee," Testerman said. "I think Tennessee needs to develop its own virtual school program and not give away our tax dollars to someone who is in it for profit. Don't let anybody fool you; it's all a means of getting our tax dollars and giving them away."
When asked to state their opinion on a recent bill passed that gives Tennessee teachers the opportunity to teach alternative theories to evolution in classrooms, all candidates dismissed the legislation, describing it as a "distraction" from more important issues facing the state. Candidate Brock Bennington, who is running against Rep. Vince Dean in House District 30, said he thought the bill was "fuzzy."
"When I read it, I realized it didn't really do much of anything," Bennington said. "And that's the problem. We've got too many made-up issues … if that's all we talk about, then we have a problem."
Updated @ 8:49 a.m. on 6/15/2012 to correct a minor typo in a direct quote of Frank Eaton.