Matlock: state lawmakers to focus on Race to the Top

Tommy Millsaps  The Advocate and Democrat

State Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, says education will be the focus in a special legislative session of the Tennessee General Assembly in January. Gov. Phil Bredesen has called for a special session of the General Assembly focusing on education, including both K-12 and higher education.

The special session is set to begin Jan. 12 to coincide with the start of the regular legislative session. To compete for more than $4 billion in federal education funding through the Race to the Top program, states must complete applications to compete for the money by Jan. 19. Matlock said he and other state lawmakers do not like the idea of having to accept increased federal authority over education.

"We trust the local school directors and school boards, not the bureaucrats in Washington," he said. However, Matlock acknowledged to make the state eligible for $400 million in federal funding through the Race to the Top education initiative, the state will have to agree to the federal guidelines when lawmakers return next month.

Race to the Top in general will call for tougher accountability for schools and teachers. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state teachers' union, in a statement said it supports the governor's call for a special session, which would focus on qualifying the state for the Race to the Top program. But, TEA also worries the emphasis on standardized student performance testing might increase.

Earl Wiman, TEA president, said his membership is concerned too much is already riding on student performance, based on a multiple-choice test. Tennessee teachers' experience with No Child Left Behind program has made them wary of federal programs big on tests and small on an overall evaluation of teacher's performance, Wiman said. "We just want to make sure that, as we redesign this evaluation system and look at student performance, it does what it ought to do, which is to improve student learning," he added.

The union is pleased Gov. Bredesen has taken steps to ensure teacher's voices will be heard in the complicated, but important process," said Wiman. Both the Monroe County and Sweetwater City school systems have said they will applied for the funds if the state is awarded the money.

Budget cuts

Garnering the education funding could be key because the state is facing at least a $1 billion budget shortfall. And that estimate could be very conservative, Matlock said. He fears changes to health care pending at the federal level could add another $1 billion in debt to the state.

Matlock said due to the poor economy and state budget concerns, state departments are looking at making 6 to 9 percent budget cuts in the upcoming state budget. As for his own plans, Matlock said he will run for re-election in 2010. Matlock said if he is lucky enough to be re-elected, that would give him three terms and six years in the Tennessee House, and that would likely be enough for him.