Disappointing

That’s the word from Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen in response to a refusal by both Shelby County and Nashville school districts to hand over student data.

As the Data Wars continue, Chalkbeat reports on McQueen’s reaction:

“We are disappointed that these districts are choosing to withhold information from parents about the options that are available to their students while routinely saying they desire more parental engagement,” she said. “Allowing parents to be informed of their educational options is the epitome of family engagement and should be embraced by every school official.”

McQueen seemed to indicate that firmer consequences could lie ahead. “We must consider all options available in situations where a district actively chooses to ignore the law,” she said in the statement. McQueen told lawmakers in a conference call last month that she was not discussing withholding state funds as a penalty at the time, according to Rep. John Clemmons, who was on the call.

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


 

TC Talks Chattanooga

Nashville-based education blogger TC Weber takes some time to explain a bit more about what’s happening with Chattanooga and the state’s Achievement School District in a recent post.

Here’s how he explains what’s happening since the threat of an ASD expansion team in Hamilton County became more real:

Let’s take a quick trip down to Chattanooga where last night a historic vote took place. The Hamilton County School Board voted 7 -2 to continue the conversation about creating a partnership zone with the Tennessee Department of Education. In case you are not familiar with the Partnership Zone plan, it’s the latest quick fix scheme developed by the TNDOE because people have started to catch on to the dumpster fire that is the Achievement School District. Under the Partnership Zone plan, both the county and the state would work together to improve underperforming schools in the district.

The plan calls for the a creation of an appointed board that would oversee the Partner Zone. This creates a bit of a conundrum. Under current law, schools governing boards can only be elected entities. So this would require a change in legislation. A change that could open a virtual pandora’s box because what’s to stop other districts from switching to an all appointed board, a hybrid, or turn control over to the mayor or other appointed officials?

The term partner is a little bit of a misnomer. The state is making it perfectly clear who wears the pants in this relationship right from the out set. The HCS Board was told that they could choose not to pursue the “Partnership Zone” but if they didn’t State Superintendent Candice McQueen would take all 5 of the priority schools plus two more schools and dump them in the Achievement District. If this is in fact a threat she was prepared to follow through with, it’s a little troubling and a clear sign that she’s willing to play politics with kids. The ASD is an unmitigated failure that should be ended this legislative session not used a stick to ensure district compliance.

As Weber points out, McQueen is using the threat of aggressive state action (takeovers, fines) to attempt to get her way lately. So far, that has not resulted in yielding in Nashville or Memphis. It will be interesting to see how the Partnership Zone plays out in Chattanooga.

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


 

The Data Wars: A New Hope?

The ongoing Data Wars between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education continue, with today being the deadline set by Commissioner Candice McQueen for districts to hand over the data or face consequences.

Yesterday, Anna Shepherd and Chris Caldwell, chairs of the Boards of Education in Nashville and Memphis respectively, penned an op-ed detailing their opposition to the data demand from McQueen.

They wrote:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has demanded that Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools surrender personal contact information for a large number of students and families in our school systems, which represent approximately 20 percent of Tennessee’s K-12 public school students.

Her argument: A new state law requires us to hand over personal information to ASD charter schools so these taxpayer-funded private schools can use the data to fill thousands of empty seats by recruiting students away from public schools.

In addition to violating student and family privacy — the right to privacy is a fundamental American principle — the problem with McQueen’s data demand is this: The ASD now is universally viewed as a failed experiment in education reform.

Shepherd and Caldwell contend that their district’s students will not be well-served by marketing efforts from charter schools operating under the banner of the Achievement School District:

Instead, McQueen proposes to shift the cost burden of the failing ASD to local taxpayers in Memphis and Nashville. She wants to confiscate our student data and information in order to stage marketing raids on our schools — which would redirect local taxpayer funds to the ASD and its charter operators at the expense of our school systems.

With today’s deadline looming, it appears school leaders in Memphis and Nashville are locked down against releasing the data demanded by McQueen. Should that position hold, the question will be: What will McQueen do about it? Will she unleash her ultimate weapon and withhold state funds from these districts as punishment?

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


 

The Data Wars: Herb Strikes Back

Yes, the Data Wars continue. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) gained new hope recently when 33 members of Nashville’s Metro Council penned a letter supporting resistance to the Achievement School District’s request for student data.

Now, Tennessee’s Attorney General has weighed-in and says the alliance of MNPS and Shelby County must comply with the ASD’s request. What happens if they don’t? Nate Rau notes in the Tennessean:

McQueen’s warning leaves open the possibility the state would dock education dollars from Metro and Shelby schools if they continue to deny her request.

It wouldn’t be the first time for Nashville, as the Haslam administration withheld $3.4 million in state funds in 2012 after the school board refused to approve controversial Great Hearts charter school.

Withholding state BEP funds is a favorite “ultimate weapon,” used in the Great Hearts controversy and also threatened during the TNReady debacle in year one of that test that wasn’t.

During the debate that ultimately saw Nashville schools lose funds in a BEP penalty, Commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Department of Education had an ally in then-Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Joey Garrison reported in the (now defunct) City Paper at the time:

By this point, Huffman had already facilitated a July 26 meeting to discuss Great Hearts’ next move, a gathering that took place just hours before Great Hearts’ revised application would go before the Metro board for second consideration. The meeting site: the office of Mayor Karl Dean, also a Great Hearts backer. In attendance, among others, were Huffman, Dean, Barbic, Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote, Great Hearts officials Dan Scoggin and Peter Bezanson, and Bill DeLoache, a wealthy Nashville investor and one of the state’s leading charter school proponents.

As Rau points out, the current controversy stems from a newly-passed state law giving charter schools the opportunity to request student data from district schools. It seems, however, that there is some dispute over the intent of that law. Rau explains:

Slatery’s opinion also said that the student data may be used for the ASD to promote its schools to prospective students. State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a House education committee and supported the legislation, told The Tennessean the intent was not to create a law that allowed districts to market to each other’s students.

So it seems the legislature may need to revisit the issue to clear things up.

Also unclear: Where do the current candidates for Governor stand on protecting student data vs. providing marketing information to competing districts and schools?

Stay tuned for more. Will the Shelby-MNPS alliance continue their resistance? Will Commissioner McQueen unleash the power of BEP fund withholding? Will this issue end up in court?

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


 

Metro Council Members Back MNPS in Data Wars

I’ve written before about the escalating Data Wars between the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) and the two largest school districts – Shelby County and MNPS.

Now, Nashville’s Metro Council is weighing-in, at least in the form of a letter signed by 33 Council Members to MNPS Board Chair Anna Shepard.

The Tennessean notes:

The 33 Nashville Metro Council members signed a letter, dated Tuesday, that commends the district for “taking steps to protect the personal information of students and families.”

“We understand the state has taken a confrontational position on this issue, seeking to compel Nashville and Memphis schools to continue sharing personal information in opposition to federal and without state statute supporting their position,” the letter reads. “However, as elected representatives of the same constituents whose privacy rights are being violated, we encourage you to continue to advocate for our families by the just and proper means that are available to you.”

As I’ve noted before, Commissioner McQueen has asked for an Attorney General’s opinion on the various interpretations of a new state law that some suggest mandates the data-sharing the ASD seeks.

What happens if MNPS doesn’t share the data? There’s always the possibility the state will punish them by withholding some BEP funds.

That happened back in 2012 over the Great Hearts controversy. Those who follow MNPS closely will recall that then-Mayor Karl Dean was a prime backer of Great Hearts, which put him at odds with the elected School Board at that time.

As Joey Garrison, writing for the City Paper at the time, reported:

Emails show DeLoache, long known as an unofficial education adviser to Dean, served as a resource for Huffman, as well. After the Metro board denied Great Hearts in May, DeLoache told Huffman he hoped its rejection might “provide an opportunity to highlight to the Governor” the need to push for a statewide charter school authorizer during the 2013 legislative session. (A statewide charter authorizer would effectively supersede and therefore negate authority of local charter authorizers such as Metro.)

That’s Bill DeLoache, the wealthy Nashville investor and charter proponent who has spent heavily in the past to help elect pro-charter candidates to the MNPS School Board.

Will MNPS and Shelby County Schools face fines if they continue on their current path of protecting student data from the ASD? Will more Metro leaders stand up and support the School Board?

The Data Wars continue.

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


 

Next?

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is again looking for a Superintendent as it was announced today that current Superintendent Malika Anderson is on her way out.

Chalkbeat has the story:

Malika Anderson, who has sought to steer Tennessee’s school turnaround district to stability after its contentious early work in Memphis and Nashville, is stepping down as its second superintendent at the end of this month.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had this to say about the move:

“This transition in no way disrupts our work,” McQueen said in a press release. “We are taking what we have learned about school improvement over the past five years and using that knowledge to maximize students’ success by putting in place a strong set of evidence-based options that will drive improvements in students performance.”

Anderson is the second Superintendent in the ASD’s short history, replacing Chris Barbic. Barbic noted on his departure:

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

The ASD has been plagued with both lackluster results and challenges connecting with the communities it serves during its brief but tumultuous existence.

According to the Department of Education’s release, a search will begin immediately for Anderson’s replacement. In the meantime, Deputy Commissioner of Education Kathleen Airhart will serve as Interim Superintendent. Before coming to the Department of Education, Airhart was the Director of Schools in Putnam County.

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


 

Trade Offer

I reported last week on the Data Wars brewing between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Now, as both Nashville and Memphis dig in, MNPS is offering a trade of sorts.

Chalkbeat reports on a letter sent by MNPS Board Chair Anna Shepard to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

In her letter, Shepard proposes cooperation between the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) and MNPS based on several conditions.

Specifically:

I would personally be willing to consider a coordinated initiative under which MNPS, using its existing communications infrastructure, would inform families about ASD choice options — if they choose to “opt in” to such communications. I cannot speak for my board colleagues until such time as we have had the opportunity to deliberate on this concept.

Shepard’s conditions:

  1. A moratorium on ASD expansion
  2. State subsidies for schools that lose students to the ASD
  3. The State engage in discussions around a new “fiscal impact” component of the BEP to address the impact charter schools have on local school districts

Regarding that fiscal impact, an audit of MNPS published in 2015 noted this:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

As for the ASD moratorium, it seems that the turnaround district continues to produce underwhelming results. Combine this with a track record of poor communication and you begin to understand why districts aren’t eager for the ASD to open more schools in their backyards.

For her part, Commissioner McQueen is seeking an Attorney General’s opinion on the MNPS and Shelby County interpretation of the data-sharing law passed in the 2017 legislative session.

It seems unlikely that McQueen would agree to the conditions set forth by Shepard. It seems possible both MNPS and Shelby County will face the threat of fines should they continue resisting.

Stay tuned as the Data Wars heat up.

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


 

New Franchise

I’ve written before about the state’s Achievement School District eyeing Chattanooga for an expansion of it’s reach.

Now, it seems the speculation is nearing an end and Chattanooga will see some form of state intervention. Will it be the major league of the ASD? What seems more likely is a minor league effort, a “partnership zone.”

More from Chalkbeat on how that might work:

In a partnership zone, clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. Local leaders get to experiment the same way that charter schools can, but they continue to have a say in how their schools are run. State officials get to push for needed improvements, but they aren’t solely responsible for strong results — something that has proven elusive so far for them.

The partnership zone idea originated in Springfield, Massachusetts, where an “Empowerment Zone” is finishing its second year. There, educators and community leaders who might oppose school takeovers — or be displaced by them — have embraced the zone, which has nine schools and is set to grow. As a result, people there say, changes in schools are gaining traction.

This would mark a change in approach from the ASD’s top-down, low communication, high confrontation efforts in Memphis and Nashville. I’ve previously noted that the ASD is being reined-in after years of an aggressive approach that won the district plenty of enemies while failing to generate measurable results.

Time will tell if the state’s new approach and developmental league effort will be more well-received and/or more successful than the ASD.

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


 

A Little Less Creepy

Two years ago I wrote about Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) creeping beyond its original mission. I noted then that the state’s Race to the Top grant which spawned the ASD envisioned a handful of schools receiving highly targeted attention. I argued that rapid growth and a lack of clear communication contributed to a bumpy start for the turnaround effort. I concluded by offering this suggestion:

By creeping beyond its admirable mission, the ASD has become an example of good intentions gone awry. Focusing on the original goal of using highly focused effort to both improve struggling schools AND learn new strategies to help other schools would be a welcome change.

Now, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports the ASD is being scaled back and re-focused. She notes:

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

It will be interesting to watch how the “new” ASD evolves. Will it really focus on building partnerships and clear communication? Or, will it revert back to the posturing that caused problems as it grew in Memphis?

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


 

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