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


 

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