Tennessee lawmakers wrapped up business Wednesday night, after an arduous final day at the state Capitol dominated by a standoff over TNReady and a dispute over a constitutional amendment.
The House of Representatives and the state Senate spent most of the day locked in a bitter dispute over whether teachers are really going to be protected from repercussions if this year's TNReady scores turn out to be flawed. Last week's exams were overshadowed by frequent interruptions.
State legislators thought they had this issue settled last week, when they passed a measure that said educators and students would be "held harmless" for bad test results. But many, like East Tennessee Democrat John Mark Windle, found when they got back to their districts, teachers weren't convinced they'd fixed the problem.
"I stand in front of all my teachers and say, 'We solved this today. No adverse action. We're holding everybody harmless,'" he said. "And then I wake up on Friday morning, I get a call from my teachers, 'John Mark, why did you tell us that, because it's not true.'"
House lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — wanted a clear statement that the scores would be thrown out. And they threatened to extend the legislative session until they got it, by refusing to release the state budget for Governor Bill Haslam's signature.
But the Haslam administration and the Senate held the line. They said federal law and the state's tenure rules require the data to be preserved. Plus, they added, there's no evidence yet that the scores will be invalid.
The impasse was finally broken with a late-hour compromise. The scores will go into teachers' files. But they'll be guaranteed to be used only if the scores reflect well on them.
'Almighty God' Amendment Scuttled
That wasn't the only drama in the legislature. A proposal to amend the Tennessee Constitution to recognize "Almighty God" was scuttled on the last day of the legislative session — by a procedural maneuver.
The idea seemed to have overwhelming support from Tennessee lawmakers. But it appears the clock was run out on the proposal, perhaps on purpose.
Amending the Tennessee Constitution is incredibly complicated. One of the rules is that the exact same wording has to be read aloud — three times on three separate days — in both the House and the Senate, before there can be a final vote.
And it seemed like that requirement had been met. Until the Senate made one small suggestion — move the clause declaring that "rights come from Almighty God" to a different part of the state constitution.
Backers of the amendment learned on the last day of session that change would mean reading the amendment aloud three more times. And legislators were in no mood to hang around Nashville until Friday for that requirement to be satisfied.
The amendment's sponsor, Jonesborough Republican Micah Van Huss, smelled a rat in the turn of events. He didn't say who was to blame, but he asked lawmakers to stay in session for two more days.
They didn't, but ultimately, that might not matter. Even if everything had gone smoothly, voters wouldn't cast ballots on the proposed amendment until 2022. They could still do that, but only if things go better for its supporters next time around.