Consider the dramatic shift that efforts to enact "education reform" — that nebulous yet tantalizing term — have taken recently in Tennessee. Last year, with support from an unlikely cabal of teachers' unions, legislators and business leaders, bills advanced that changed how teachers are evaluated and loosened the charter-school cap in the state. Those reforms helped Tennessee become one of the first states awarded $501 million in federal Race to the Top grant funds — sweet nectar for a state parched by school budget drought.
One year later, however, any kinship around the issue has dissipated. With a new governor and majority in the House and Senate, Republicans have advanced a different brand of reform. Teacher tenure was overhauled, and bills repealing collective bargaining rights for teachers and allowing school vouchers have received overwhelmingly one-sided support.
Up to now, Bill Frist's State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, has stayed above the fray. When he started the nonprofit in 2009, the former U.S. senator envisioned it as a team of connected business leaders, legislators and foundations whose primary goal was to advance innovative education reform. Most often, that meant the nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization pushed lofty ideas rather than actual policy.
But recent indicators suggest SCORE may be assuming a more aggressive role — starting with its hiring of state Sen. Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) as president and CEO.
On education issues, Woodson has been a GOP loyalist this session. She co-sponsored the bill requiring teachers to wait five years instead of three for tenure. Last week, after the announcement of her new job, she abstained from voting on a bill that would provide low-income urban students with a voucher to attend a school of their choice. But she supports repealing collective bargaining rights for teachers.
Those positions are far bolder than the work SCORE has undertaken in its brief life. Before, the nonprofit tended toward innocuous projects such as a "Roadmap to Success" that lists 60 changes deemed essential. (One example: Embrace teacher collaboration and leadership.) The group also advocated linking tenure and compensation to how effective a teacher is. In addition, SCORE pushed for a charter school incubator — now in Nashville — and called for extra attention to low-performing schools.
But Woodson — who chaired the Senate Education Committee from 2005 to 2009 and served on Gov. Phil Bredesen's Race to the Top pitch team — brings a clear record of support for the Republican model of education reform. No one knows whether that would extend to the GOP's stance on teaching hot-button issues such as intelligent design. Meanwhile, SCORE's reach appears to be growing at a time of uncertainty for the state's educators.
"There's been a tremendous amount of policy change in Tennessee," Woodson tells the Scene, adding that she won't be pushing for major policy reforms right away. "We will make sure these changes are implemented successfully. It really is about implementation of transformational reform."
Just what that reform, that implementation, and SCORE's role in it might be are creating some apprehension.
"It does seem inappropriate to say they're getting more political. They are getting more governmental," says Sen. Jim Kyle, the state Senate's Democratic leader, who got a visit from Frist when the former U.S. Senate majority leader was out recruiting members for SCORE. "They're trying to direct government down the path they believe is most beneficial. And we'll have to see how that plays out."
Also watching is the Tennessee Education Association, which holds a spot on SCORE's 28-member steering committee. Jerry Winters, the union's top lobbyist, considers Woodson "articulate and intelligent," but he says he hopes she can keep ideology out of her new role.
"She is going to need a lot of credibility with teachers in the state," Winters says. "That is going to require her, to some degree, to separate herself from the partisan Republicans, whose agenda is obviously to blame the problems in schools on teachers."
Frist did little to allay those concerns in an April 16 Tennessean op-ed. Writing with Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, he argued for the end of "last in, first out," in which seniority determines which teachers keep their jobs when layoffs are imminent.
Perhaps no one embodies the fault line between teachers and reformists more than Rhee. She's revered for making academic gains in D.C.'s notoriously struggling schools, but she may be best known for firing 241 teachers deemed ineffective and tying teacher pay to how students perform on standardized tests.
"I was a little disappointed that Michelle Rhee was the one being put out front with SCORE," Winters says. "She's a lightning rod on a lot of education issues, not a lot being positive."
Winters says SCORE's leadership should have communicated their concerns to teachers or the TEA, rather than enlisting a polarizing outsider. For a collaborative organization, he says, it struck him as unusual.
But Kyle says if SCORE can position itself as the state's wingman on policy change, its services will remain in favor. A renewed pledge for effective teaching has opened the door for Teach for America to become the go-to agency, and school districts nationwide — including Davidson County — now partner with the nonprofit.
Some see SCORE clamoring for that type of influence. It should help that the group's goals align well with Gov. Bill Haslam's, whose brother James Haslam III sits on SCORE's board of directors — and whose new education commissioner, Teach for America veteran Kevin Huffman, is Rhee's ex-husband.