- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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May 2

The Johnson City Press on penalties for cockfighting in Tennessee:

Tennessee legislators adjourned last month leaving this state with some of the weakest penalties for cockfighting in this nation.

Year after year, members of the state General Assembly have blocked efforts to make participating in a cockfight in Tennessee a felony. Despite a number of shocking cockfighting arrests in Tennessee in recent years, the state still has very lax penalties for cockfighting.

State legislators have declined to get tough on cockfighting even after hearing testimony from federal agents who say Tennessee is part of the infamous “Cockfighting Corridor,” where criminals who engage in this blood sport flock to ply their despicable trade.

An agent with the FBI also told legislators a few years ago that the operator of a busted cockfighting pit in Cocke County said he bribed a state lawmaker nearly 20 years before to lower the penalty for cockfighting from a felony to a misdemeanor.

That testimony came during a hearing on legislation, sponsored by state Rep. John Lundberg, R-Bristol, was heard in a subcommittee of the House Agricultural Committee, whose members have demonstrated an unexplainable loyalty to the cockfighting lobby.

There’s an obvious link between cockfighting and interstate gambling. And if that is not enough illegal activity to justify the attention of lawmakers in Nashville, how about drug trafficking and contraband?

Both animal welfare groups and law enforcement officials say say there is a direct connection between cockfighting and trafficking in meth and other illegal drugs.

Law enforcement and animal welfare activists all agree - cockfighting is not a harmless diversion. It’s a barbaric crime that deserves more than a slap on the wrist.

Online:

http://www.johnsoncitypress.com

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May 4

The Knoxville News Sentinel on state constitutional amendment process:

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery III has decided to appeal a federal judge’s ruling ordering a recount of the 2014 vote on a state constitutional amendment that excludes a right to abortion.

The appeal is the right reaction, regardless of the fate of the amendment. The case shows the need to clarify how Tennesseans can change their governing charter.

The amendment, Amendment 1 on the 2014 ballot, stated that no right to abortion exists in the Tennessee Constitution. Despite its language, the amendment would not allow the Legislature to outlaw abortion because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. The amendment, however, does make it easier for new state abortion restrictions to withstand legal challenges.

The amendment passed with 53 percent of the vote. Eight opponents quickly filed a legal challenge over the state’s method of counting votes.

Under the state constitution as revised in the Constitutional Convention of 1953, amendments must be ratified by a “majority of all citizens of the state voting for governor.” Officials traditionally have interpreted the passage to mean that to be ratified, an amendment would have to receive votes equal to a majority of votes in the governor’s race. In other words, if 1 million people vote in the governor’s race, then at least 500,001 would be needed for passage.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp ruled last month that the historically used method is “fundamentally unfair.” The plain language of the passage, he determined, requires that only the ballots cast in the governor’s race be counted toward the amendment. Election officials first would have to pull the ballots with votes cast for governor and then count the votes on those ballots for or against an amendment. He ordered a recount on Amendment 1 using that method.

Amendment 1 showed the significance of the tabulation method. Several anti-abortion groups urged supporters to forego voting in the gubernatorial race, in which Republican Gov. Bill Haslam had token opposition, to lower the number of votes needed for the amendment’s passage.

The strategy apparently worked. More people voted on Amendment 1 than in the gubernatorial race - the first time that has happened since the language was adopted in 1953 - by a margin of 32,627.

While it is mathematically possible a recount could result in the failure of the amendment, the chances are slim. A total of 76,389 people voted in the 2014 election but not in the governor’s race. Under the method ordered by Sharp, none of their votes for or against the amendment would be counted. If 52,299 of them - nearly seven of 10 - voted “yes” on Amendment 1 but bypassed the governor’s race, the amendment would fail.

Complicating matters is a 2015 fire in Van Buren County that destroyed that county’s election records. The Secretary of State recorded that 1,512 Van Buren County residents voted in the governor’s race.

According to Sharp, the traditional tabulation method violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. Slattery’s appeal should result in an answer to this vital constitutional question for future amendments.

Online:

http://www.knoxnews.com

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April 30

The Commercial Appeal on state standardized testing:

The movement to keep the kids home from school on standardized-test days surely picked up momentum this week when the Tennessee Department of Education terminated its contact with the vendor in charge of TNReady tests.

Public confidence in the education establishment’s accountability push has never been through the roof, but the latest snafu makes it clear that a lot of work has to be done before school rankings, teacher evaluations and the like can really be trusted.

This year’s process began unraveling in February when Measurement Inc.’s server could not handle the volume of schools logging on to the tests, forcing a switch from online testing to paper-and-pencil.

This week the Department of Education, which has spent $1.6 million for preliminary work on the process, suspended testing for grades 3-8 when the company was unable to deliver the necessary supplies to carry out the revised plan.

The development was announced by Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen in a call with superintendents. Despite missing deadlines, the company declined to take responsibility for the problem in an interview with The Washington Post.

“There are still several weeks left in school in the state of Tennessee, so I’m not sure why they would not let us do two more days of shipping and go ahead and administer the tests,” company president Henry Scherich told the newspaper.

We suspect the Department of Education is in a reasonably good position to judge whether there is enough time left in the school year to get the test scores it needs to go ahead with school rankings and other performance indicators.

Fortunately, the department will still be able to crunch the numbers generated at various high schools across the state, which reportedly have received the materials they need for the new TNReady tests that replaced the TCAPs this year.

We say fortunately because this page has never advocated the complete abandonment of standardized tests. Fewer tests? Sure. Consistent tests from year to year? Definitely.

Bartlett City Schools Superintendent David Stephens told The Commercial Appeal’s Jane Roberts that Tennessee has not had a true test of what students were learning for several years.

But uniform testing from district to district and across state lines is necessary for assessing how well students in various forms of publicly funded schools - charters as well as traditional schools - compare. And how much progress they’re making.

Measuring student progress also is necessary to determine what works in the drive to raise academic achievement and which teachers are performing well in this critical task.

The setbacks have been frustrating, to be sure, but if and when the bugs are out of the system, participation in a uniform effort to measure student achievement should be mandatory in every school district throughout Tennessee.

Online:

http://www.commercialappeal.com

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