Blowing Smoke 

Are lawmakers nicotine-sucking hypocrites?

Are lawmakers nicotine-sucking hypocrites?

The General Assembly has courageously decided that there’s no rush to provide its members the same health protections that it has provided for the rest of the state.

At least, that would be the generous take on it. A right-wing talk radio commentator might say that lawmakers have elected to wait until next year before deciding whether to live by the same laws that they pass for everyone else.

The matter in question is smoking, which members of the General Assembly have outlawed in most all state buildings, except the ones where they meet. Some members of the legislature have been agitating for a smoking ban for at least a decade, although they’ve been stymied by key nicotine-sucking members, who exempted the state Capitol from the regulations they established for everybody else.

This year was supposed to be different, but for connoisseurs of the legislative process it’s only different in the artful way that the latest no-smoking bill has been waylaid. After the ban cruised through the Senate on a 32-0 vote, House members agreed to refer it to the State Capital Commission for review before acting next year. The commission is the state body responsible for the historic preservation of the 149-year-old building.

Conservative commentators would call all this rank hypocrisy, unless they got tangled up in one of the other conservative orthodoxies, which objects to smoking bans in general as too much Big Brotherism.

More perceptive observers, however, would apply a more generous standard. Given the state’s new dependency on tobacco tax revenues to prop up the budget, lawmakers are doing their best to keep the state’s coffers full—all the while protecting the rest of us from the perils of secondhand smoke.

Read the fine print

House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh had lawmakers all aflutter last week when he distributed copies of a new report by the Southern Regional Education Board on pre-college testing. Although the report appeared to bring bad news about the progress of education in the state, there is less there than meets the eye.

The report, “ACT and SAT Scores in the South: The Challenge to Lead,” focuses on the change over the last decade in college entry tests. Of the 16 states that the SREB considers to be part of the South, only two—Tennessee and Mississippi—experienced declines in the average student score during that period. Tennessee fell from an ACT average of 20.2 to 20. Mississippi scores fell from an average of 18.8 to 18.6. The national average improved from 20.6 to 20.8 during the same time period.

While Tennessee’s record is nothing to be especially proud of, it’s also not an indicator that the state’s educational performance is declining. Apart from the usual arguments about the degree to which schools influence education performance—as opposed to factors like wealth and poverty, demographics and parents’ education—there was a fairly obvious statistical anomaly in the report that substantially drove results.

In Tennessee, 95 percent of high school students took the ACT in 2002. While the percentage of students taking the test grew in all states surveyed, none approached the 53 percent growth rate in Tennessee. Of the other states, only Mississippi exceeded 80 percent of the students being tested.

Why is this important? The students least likely to take the test are the ones least likely to go to college or perform well on it. If low performers opt, the average score for the state will be higher. If even the low performers take the test, the average score will fall.

During the decade under discussion, Tennessee installed an education reform program known as the Basic Education Plan, which was meant to equalize resources for learning around the state. Although there are indications that the plan hasn’t actually improved education, this report isn’t one of them. Indeed, as a consequence of the BEP, all students are pressed to take the ACT at a rate higher than any other state. It is noteworthy that the state reporting the highest percentage of improvement on the ACT was West Virginia, where the percent taking the test was 64 percent, as opposed to 95 here.

Holy Moses!

It doesn’t just happen in Tennessee.

Elkhart County, Ind., officials are determined to hang the 10 Commandments in their County Administration Building and, in the hopes of beating church-and-state issues in court, have surrounded the commandments with various other historical documents. By including a host of other significant documents with Christianity’s sacred rules, local officials are hoping the Supreme Court will apply the same standards applied to manger scenes, which are OK in public buildings so long as they are surrounded by lots of candy canes, snow persons, Santas and reindeer.

The only trouble is that the Elkharters made a little mistake. One of the documents they’re showing purports to be from Indiana’s Constitution. It isn’t. It’s the preamble to the Tennessee Constitution.

Well, why not? There’s also a Nashville in Indiana.

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