2017 Education Issues Outlook

The 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is underway and as always, education is a hot issue on the Hill. The bill filing deadline was yesterday and some familiar issues are back again. Namely, vouchers.

While the voucher fight may be the biggest education showdown this session, issues ranging from the scope of the state’s Achievement School District to a “Teacher Bill of Rights” and of course, funding, will also be debated.

Here’s a rundown of the big issues for this session:

Vouchers

Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County is pushing a voucher plan that is essentially a pilot program that would apply to Shelby County only. Voucher advocates have failed to gain passage of a plan with statewide application over the past four legislative sessions. The idea behind this plan seems to be to limit it to Shelby County in order to mitigate opposition from lawmakers who fear a voucher scheme may negatively impact school systems in their own districts.

In addition to Kelsey’s limited plan, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville is back with the “traditional” voucher bill he’s run year after year. This plan has essentially the same requirements as Kelsey’s plan, but would be available to students across the state. It’s not clear which of these two plans has the best chance of passage. I suspect both will be set in motion, and as time wears on, one will emerge as most likely to be adopted. Voucher advocates are likely emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Of course, Tennessee already has one type of voucher. The legislature adopted an Individual Education Account voucher program designed for students with special needs back in 2015. That proposal goes into effect this year. Chalkbeat reported that only 130 families applied. That’s pretty low, considering some 20,000 students meet the eligibility requirements.

Achievement School District

Two years ago, I wrote about how the ASD’s mission creep was hampering any potential effectiveness it might have. Now, it seems that even the ASD’s leadership agrees that pulling back and refocusing is necessary. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the Achievement School District from starting new charter schools, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Tatter notes that the Tennessee Department of Education and the ASD’s leadership support the bill. This is likely welcome news for those who have raised concerns over the ASD’s performance and approach.

Teacher Bill of Rights

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville has introduced what he’s calling a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The bill outlines what Green sees as some basic protections for teachers. If adopted, his proposal would have the effect of changing the way the state evaluates teachers. Among the rights enumerated in SB 14 is the right to “be evaluated by a professional with the same subject matter expertise,” and the right to “be evaluated based only on students a teacher has taught.”

While both of these may seem like common sense, they are not current practice in Tennessee’s public schools. Many teachers are evaluated by building leaders and others who lack subject matter expertise. Further, teachers who do not generate their own student growth scores (those who don’t teach in tested subjects) are evaluated in part on school-wide scores or other metrics of student performance — meaning they receive an evaluation score based in part on students they’ve never taught.

Green’s Teacher Bill of Rights will almost certainly face opposition from the Department of Education.

Funding

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Governor Bill Haslam is proposing spending over $200 million in new money on schools. Around $60 million of that is for BEP growth. $100 million will provide districts with funds for teacher compensation. And, there’s $22 million for English Language Learners as well as $15 million for Career and Technical Education.

These are all good things and important investments for our schools. In fact, the BEP Review Committee — the state body tasked with reviewing school funding and evaluating the formula’s effectiveness, identified teacher pay and funds for English Language Learners as top priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee for this year:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Haslam’s budget proposal makes an effort to address 1 and 2. However, there’s no additional money to improve the guidance counselor ratio, no funds for the unfunded mandate of RTI and no additional money for technology.

Oh, and then there’s the persistent under-funding of schools as a result of a BEP formula that no longer works. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office says we are under-funding schools by at least $400 million. Haslam’s budget does not address the funding ratios that create this inadequacy.

Then, of course, improving the ratios does nothing on its own to achieve a long-standing BEP Review Committee goal: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

The good news is we have the money available to begin addressing the ratio deficit. The General Assembly could redirect some of our state’s surplus dollars toward improving the BEP ratios and start eating into that $400 million deficit. Doing so would return money to the taxpayers by way of investment in their local schools. It would also help County Commissions avoid raising property taxes.

Stay tuned as the bills start moving next week and beyond. It’s expected this session could last into May, and education will be a flash point throughout over these next few months.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

You’ve Been Warned

MNPS Board Members Will Pinkston and Christiane Buggs wrote a column for the Atlanta Journal Constitution urging voters in Georgia to reject that state’s effort to create an Opportunity School District modeled after Tennessee’s struggling Achievement School District.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

Under this hostile approach, the ASD rips schools from their communities and hands them over to charter operators that convert them into taxpayer-subsidized private schools. Rather than sticking to a limited scope with a baker’s dozen schools, as originally envisioned, the ASD now has nearly 30 schools in its purview — and it’s expanding every year in ill-advised ways.

They also pointed to a recent Vanderbilt study to note the ASD’s lack of results:

If the ASD actually was working, some of it might be defensible. But research by Vanderbilt University shows the ASD is failing. The online news outlet Chalkbeat recently reported that a locally led school-turnaround initiative in Memphis has “sizable positive effects on student test scores, while the ASD’s effects are marginal.”

Tennessee’s ASD came about as a result of legislative approval of the (ultimately winning) Race to the Top application. As Buggs and Pinkston note, in its current form, the ASD has moved beyond the original vision. In doing so, the ASD has encountered problems that include troubling audit findings and a struggle to demonstrate results.

Georgia voters get to weigh-in on whether or not their state creates an ASD clone. Buggs and Pinkston offer a cautionary tale of well-intentioned reform gone wrong.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Sam Stockard on the ASD Party

Sam Stockard takes on the party atmosphere at the TN Achievement School District (ASD) in his latest column.

Here’s some of what he had to say:

The General Assembly formed ASD in fiscal 2011, and it was allowed to operate “autonomously in all respects, thus preventing the department’s prompt recognition and reaction to ASD’s administrative actions,” the report states. In 2013, the Department of Education even allowed the district to move its financial operations into a separate accounting system.

Isn’t that convenient.

In fact, audits done in 2013, 2014 and 2015 on ASD’s use of federal money showed deficiencies in internal controls and noncompliance with federal programs, “resulting in approximately $721,000 of federal questioned costs.”

Read more about the parties and other expenses at ASD while students were busy in schools run by charter operators — schools that failed to move the needle much in terms of student achievement.

MORE ON THE ASD:

WTF ASD?

Chattanooga in Talks for Expansion Team

A Friendly Reminder

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

WTF ASD?

On the heels of announcing bold expansion plans that may take it to Chattanooga, the Tennessee Achievement School District received some bad news from state auditors.

Andy Sher at the Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports:

The audit said that the Comptroller’s office has previously “reported deficiencies in ASD’s internal controls and noncompliance with federal program requirements, resulting in approximately $721,000 of federal questioned cost.”

Sher notes:

On March 30, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General, released an audit of Tennessee’s Race to the Top grant, which included funds spent by the ASD.

“This federal audit identified similar internal control deficiencies and areas of federal noncompliance with the Race to the Top grant at ASD,” the latest Comptroller notes. “During our current audit, we continued to find similar issues relating to fiscal deficiencies and noncompliance, but we have also identified new areas of deficiencies related to human resources and purchasing cards.”

At a legislative hearing today, Tennessee Department of Education Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Airhart told lawmakers that as of July 1, the Department now oversees the ASD’s finances. Airhart said the problems in the audit have been addressed.

Who could have guessed that a school district that spends its funds on cocktail receptions and then hides the social media invite when called out would have problems with fiscal management?

Not to worry, though, now the Department of Education is overseeing ASD operations. Yes, the same group that brought Tennessee the not-so-impressive TNReady rollout is now managing the ASD’s fiscal policy.

Sher called the ASD’s financial management “chaotic” in his article.

The reality is, the entire ASD has been chaotic and rather disruptive.

Auditors are in the business of finding mistakes, of course. It would be one thing if the ASD had a stellar track record of proven results and could blame the audit findings on an unrelenting focus on student success. Unfortunately, the evidence so far suggests otherwise.

So, you have a state-run school district that is failing to produce promised results at the same time it’s spending money with little oversight. So far, that hasn’t resulted in a halt to the ASD’s expansion plans.

Will 2017 be the year the legislature finally regains control of the district it created?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

 

Chattanooga in Talks for Expansion Team

The state’s fourth-largest school district will soon be in talks to become the next location of an expansion franchise in the school takeover league known as the Achievement School District (ASD). With 33 schools under its control, the ASD is considered the major league in the school takeover world.

Laura Faith Kebede reports on this development at Chalkbeat:

Leaders of the Achievement School District will begin talks with district and community leaders in Hamilton County in the coming months, according to Robert S. White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs.

The development comes despite a lack of current data due to the failure of this year’s administration of TNReady.

League leaders say a lack of data won’t slow them down as they aggressively pursue expansion in 2018 and beyond:

The ASD’s next steps have been made more challenging by the lack of test score data across Tennessee due the state’s late-spring cancellation of most of its TNReady tests. But after the hiatus year, White said he expects the state-run district to continue to take control of priority schools, even as the state rolls out a new assessment by a new test maker this coming year.

“You won’t see that two years in a row,” he said of the takeover hiatus.

The league also didn’t rule out an expansion in Nashville, where a contentious battle in 2014 resulted in Neely’s Bend Middle School “winning” ASD franchise status.

Despite an initial plan focused on stellar turnarounds of struggling schools, the ASD has a reputation for taking low-performing schools, handing them over to charter-operator general managers, and watching as the results are rarely better than under previous management teams.

The Memphis franchise(s) have been plagued with unrest from “fans” expecting the league to live up to its promises.

In fact, one local group has asked the league to stop looking to Memphis for new expansion teams. Due to what it considers market saturation, that’s a request the league is likely to honor in the short term.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga awaits word regarding which eligible school(s) could get the call from the school takeover major league.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

TC Takes on the ASD

Nashville parent and blogger TC Weber attended the National Charter School Conference in June and has some thoughts on a panel that featured Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD).

Specific to Tennessee, Weber notes comments by the ASD’s Superintendent, Malika Anderson:

Malika Anderson spoke next and spun the narrative that the Achievement School District was a success in Tennessee because schools in Memphis’s Innovation Zone, or iZone as it’s commonly referred to, along with statewide priority schools, were performing so well. She stated that schools had years to improve and had failed to do so until now, and it was only because of the fear of a state takeover that made this happen. She glossed over how far the ASD was from reaching their goals. She completely ignored the fact that many were ready to see the ASD go the way of the RSD and have schools brought back under local oversight. Her argument was that in spite of failing to make real progress, the ASD should still be rewarded with more time for inspiring through fear.

TC provides a comprehensive analysis of the ASD session and issues a warning for other states considering adopting a similar reform model. It’s all well worth a read.

More on the ASD:

A Friendly Reminder

Rhetoric vs. Reality: ASD Edition

So, About the ASD

Tennessee Thunderdome

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

A Friendly Reminder

The National Charter Schools Conference is in Nashville this week and includes a number of sessions, including one highlighting the work of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

Here’s how that session is described:

From Recovery to Extraordinary: States and Charter Schools Working Together

The Louisiana Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District have brought new attention to the role that charter schools can play in replacing poor performing schools. They have also tested the theory that the freedoms associated with chartering can in fact benefit those who are the most at risk. This panel will explore the role that charters have played in serving the hardest to educate and what policymakers should consider to better serve these students.

This session happened today and included a presentation from TN ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson.

It’s interesting that the TN ASD is pitched as a success story, given that the results have been mixed at best.

In fact, the community at Neely’s Bend in Nashville was not too happy about being thrown into a sort of Thunderdome for school survival back in 2014. But it seems unlikely that Anderson mentioned that.

The ASD community relations effort in Memphis has been so bad that the local NAACP chapter has called for a moratorium on expansion there.

There’s also been some pretty thorough analysis of what appeared to be a rigged Neighborhood Advisory Committee process.

Then, there’s the Vanderbilt University study that suggests the ASD isn’t quite getting the promised results:

While there were some changes year-to-year — up and down — there was no statistical improvement on the whole, certainly not enough to catapult these low-performing schools into some of the state’s best, which was the lofty goal.

This followed a report by Gary Rubinstein noting the ASD’s numbers simply aren’t that great:

As you can see, four of the original six schools are still in the bottom 5% while the other two have now ‘catapulted’ to the bottom 6%.

Oh, and that Neely’s Bend school that was taken over by ASD-approved operator LEAD? Turns out, it was turning around on it’s own and performing better than many ASD schools:

Neely’s Bend is showing a growth rate well above the district average and has posted consecutive years of growth in both Math and Science, with some pretty solid numbers in Science over the past two years.

While testing chaos has been cited as a reason to pause ASD expansion plans for the moment, it’s also been noted that the ASD has moved beyond the original, planned mission:

Instead, the ASD has followed a rather bumpy path, growing while struggling to meet performance goals. The ASD needs growth of 8-10 points a year in the schools it operates in order to hit its targets — and it is well below that number now. That may be in part due to the rapid growth beyond original expectations.

The point is this: The Tennessee ASD is hardly a success story. It’s a great story of PR spin and fun cocktail parties, but the actual results are limited, at best. And, it’s operated with quite a bit of controversy in both Memphis and Nashville. It’s never a good plan to pit one school against another in a fight for education survival. And it is certainly not clear that the ASD plan is better than the turnaround that was already occurring at Nashville’s Neely’s Bend.

Those looking to Tennessee for guidance on how to create an “Achievement School District” would be best served using our state’s experience as a guide for what not to do.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

 

 

 

Ready to Pause

Citing what has been a rough transition year to TNReady, the Achievement School District announced a pause on school takeovers for next year.

Chalkbeat has the story:

The Achievement School District will not seek to take over more low-performing schools in the 2017-18 school year because of the state’s transition to its new K-12 assessment this year, district leaders said Friday.

The decision is consistent with allowances being shown by the State Department of Education over student grades and teacher evaluations due to the failed rollout of TNReady, according to the announcement by Tennessee’s school turnaround district.

Critics of the ASD applauded the move as a step in the right direction:

“It’s a positive first step toward a series of course corrections that need to happen with the Achievement School District. I’m glad the state is listening,” said Will Pinkston, a Nashville board member who sponsored the resolution for an ASD moratorium, approved just this week by Nashville’s school board.

More on the ASD:

Memphis NAACP Says No More ASD

Rhetoric vs. Reality: ASD Edition

The ASD’s NAC for Problems

Resolved: No More ASD

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

Mary Pierce on the ASD Resolution

Nashville School Board Member Mary Pierce took to Facebook to discuss the passage of a resolution calling for a moratorium on school takeovers from the ASD. Her comments are below.

After getting a few confused questions about the ASD Resolution passed on Tuesday night, I’m posting the YouTube link of the meeting & this discussion begins around 1:53 mark. The initial stated purpose of the proposed resolution called for a moratorium of ASD takeovers based on the first year of TN Ready Scores. Given that the state has acknowledged TN Ready issues and excluded use of scores in teacher evaluations, this type of resolution made sense to me.

However, when I received our agenda packet, I read the resolution presented as one that went well beyond this call for a one-year moratorium. It is my opinion that it made subjective allegations against the ASD, referenced that MNPS *might* implement the same type of IZone as Shelby County Schools and asked for funding to do just that (yet our board has never discussed this), and generally was written with a tone of which I did not agree. And, as I stated Tuesday night, it must be owned that there was nothing preventing Shelby County from implementing an iZone prior to the external pressure applied by the presence of the ASD. I also find it ironic that the gains heralded by many about the SCS iZone are based on the very same TCAP/TVAAS scores deemed flawed by those same people when used on district schools that are not performing as well. But that’s a whole other topic.

I amended the resolution (below with the original and my tracked changes) which still requested a one year reprieve from ASD takeovers based on the first year TN Ready scores, and also asked for local education agencies (LEAs) to be included in the legislative committee summer study the TN DOE has announced for “ASD Clean-Up,” including plans to return the takeover schools back to the LEAs as soon as practicable. (Edit: Click here to see original post with picture)

This amended version failed in a 4:4 vote (Dr. Gentry had left for a community meeting) and then Mr. Pinkston’s original resolution passed 5:3 with Elissa Kim, Tyese Hunter and I voting against.

By the way, resolutions are simply statements of resolve and often a request–like this one–but they have no binding authority.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfq6F4Q8d6k


 

RTTT Had Everything to do With Charter Schools

I was sent a Facebook comment by Nashville School Board Member Will Pinkston in regards to the Race to the Top grant that Tennessee won in 2010. Pinkston claims that Race to the Top had nothing to do with charter schools. Race to the Top had everything to do with charter schools.

PinkstonComment

 

Before I break down the Race to the Top application, let’s revisit the Will Pinkston of 2013 after he was elected to the school board. In 2013, Pinkston praised Kevin Huffman and Bill Haslam for their work in continuing the reform started under Bredesen. Pinkston also endorsed Haslam in 2010, around the time he worked for Bill Frist’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

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Pinkston also advocated for charter schools.

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I remembered that Will Pinkston as I read through the Race to the Top application that was submitted by the state of Tennessee. Let’s remember that Will Pinkston helped write the application while he worked for Governor Phil Bredesen.

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You can read through the application here. The Race to the Top grant application mentions “charter school” 108 times. The Achievement School District was mentioned a lot in this grant application. Will Pinkston has said that he was in the room when the Achievement School District was created.

According to the grant application, the ASD would pull together an “unprecedented set of non-profits” to open charter schools in the ASD and other schools. The ASD was created, from the beginning, to partner with an unprecedented amount of charter schools.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 8.54.57 PMThe application, which Will Pinkston helped write, gushed over how great charter schools are. It also shows how Tennessee wanted to use charter schools to help in the turnaround of failing schools. The application shows Tennessee’s love of charter schools by showing that Governor Bredesen signed an updated charter school law in 2009.

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The application goes on to say that the state is actively recruiting charter school leaders to the state. While the state itself will help recruit, the ASD specifically will help charter schools find facilities in Tennessee.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 9.10.48 PMThe current landscape of Tennessee’s charter schools was mapped out years ago in this Race to the Top application. The ASD has partnered with charter schools to help turnaround school districts and state and city leaders have gone out to recruit charter school leaders. We have seen both of those items happen right here in Nashville.

If we move back to the start of the application, we see that the application is pushing for more charter schools. The application reads, “In this application, we describe how the atmosphere in the state encourages fresh ways of thinking, opens the education market to charter schools…”Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 9.54.58 PM

If the Race to the Top application had nothing to do with charters, why was so much of the application about charter schools? The state, and their grant writers, knew what they wanted. They wanted more charter schools in the state of Tennessee. They got their wish.