And the Winner is…

Back in 2015, SCORE — The Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education — awarded the SCORE Prize for Middle Schools to New Vision Academy, a charter school in Nashville.

Here’s a bit of what they wrote about the school:

A small, single-hallway school with nine instructors on staff, NVA has an exceptionally data-rich culture. Many tools for monitoring student growth are in use at this public charter school in Nashville – assessments, benchmarks, math and reading levels – and NVA sets a new standard for using this information productively. Data improves instruction, facilitates teacher collaboration, and aids communication with students and parents.

SCORE lauded the school for an emphasis on TVAAS growth — even though that growth might not mean very much.

Fast forward to this week and a Tennessean story about what’s happening at New Vision Academy:

According to the whistleblower report, students were charged for textbooks even though the school earmarked thousands of dollars for classroom supplies. The top two executives at New Vision, who are married, make a combined $562,000.

The concerns on New Vision highlight the issue of how the district maintains oversight of charter schools. A charter school is funded with taxpayer money, but operates autonomously and is run by its own board of directors.

The teachers who exposed the situation at NVA have been invited to leave:

On Monday, the four teachers who talked to The Tennessean for this story were escorted out of the school.  Three were told not to return. One was allowed back into the school Tuesday to finish teaching the final three days of the school year. All four were told the school is accepting their resignations as of this week.

While the school is small (around 200 students), the top administrators earn more than top-level leaders in MNPS or other large districts in the state:

A financial concern raised in the whistleblower report is the salary of New Vision Academy’s executive director Tim Malone, who made $312,971 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2017, according to the organization’s most recent public tax documents. His wife, LaKesha Malone is New Vision’s second highest ranking executive. She earned $250,000 during that same period, documents showed.

The accusations prompted multiple investigations from MNPS:

Queen’s office is also investigating the school’s compliance with handicap accessibility laws. The school’s multi-story building does not have an elevator for wheelchair-bound students.

Queen said his office periodically audits charter schools and launches an inquiry when a complaint is levied. The New Vision Academy complaint, Queen said, was extremely detailed and documented, which prompted multiple investigations.

“This was extensive, well written and researched,” he said.

Stay tuned as this story unfolds.

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

Keep the education news coming!


 

Beer Me

It seems one Nashville charter school is in need of new teachers and hopes to recruit them at an event with free beer.

Here’s a portion of the invite to an event hosted by Valor Collegiate Academies:

Come meet key members of Valor’s network and school-based teams, and enjoy a beer on us while learning about career opportunities at Valor! We have several openings on both our middle and founding high school teams in Fall 2018, which you can check out here!

The event is being held at Black Abbey Brewing Company on March 28th.

As an MNPS-authorized charter school, Valor receives taxpayer funds in the way of BEP (school funding formula) dollars based on the number of students who attend.

Is is explicitly against the law to use taxpayer funds to provide free alcohol at a teacher recruitment event? Not exactly. But, it is problematic.

First, imagine the principal of any other MNPS school hosting a recruitment event and using school funds to buy free beer for guests? What would happen if the principals at JT Moore or Hillsboro High tried this?

Second, while recruiting teachers is certainly important, that can be done without using taxpayer funds to buy alcohol.

Third, the state’s Achievement School District faced some trouble in the past when they held a teacher recruitment event and offered free alcoholic drinks.

In fact, a recent Comptroller’s audit of the Achievement School District noted:

In addition, “in recognition of ASD school leaders and support staff, management purchased $1,631 of alcohol using a purchasing card and charged the expense to Charter School Grant Funding, a private grant that provides restricted funding for operating expenses for school year 2015-16 Achievement Schools … .”

That purchase came up in the discussion among lawmakers Wednesday, with Rep. Harold Love of Nashville saying he was “alarmed and disappointed.”

“We advise all offices to never buy alcohol with taxpayer funds,” Mumpower said.

As a former state employee, I recall that on state-funded travel, we were always advised not to purchase alcohol with state funds and meal reimbursements were not to include alcohol.

Perhaps Valor will suggest they raised private funds to pay for the party and so should not be subject to scrutiny. Again, imagine the principal at your child’s school telling you they’d raised private funds to help the school and instead of using them for resources for the students or training for teachers, they were using those funds to buy beer to lure people into jobs there.

In any case, on March 28th at Black Abbey Brewing, there’s free beer courtesy of Valor Collegiate. Drink up!

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


 

 

Fueling Error?

The Tennessean reports a tax lien has been filed against Rocketship Charter Schools in Nashville.

Here’s more:

National charter school operator Rocketship Public Schools owes more $19,000 in unpaid federal taxes, prompting the Internal Revenue Service to file a lien against the company in Nashville.

Rocketship Public Schools officials said the issue is tied to a clerical error by the third-party payroll provider it uses nationally. The charter school operator runs schools in Nashville, California, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

The property lien was filed with the Davidson County Register of Deeds in early January against Rocketship Education Wisconsin Inc. The organization’s residence is listed in Redwood City, California.

It’s not yet clear how the property lien may impact the school’s Nashville operations. An earlier report noted one new Rocketship school is closing due to low enrollment.

Rocketship has also faced challenges with expansion plans, having been denied by both the MNPS School Board and the State Board of Education.

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


 

Grounded

It seems Rocketship Nashville has been grounded. Or, at least it won’t be flying as big a fleet come next school year.

The Tennessean reports:

One of Nashville’s three Achievement School District schools will close at the end of the semester due to low enrollment, just months after it opened.

Rocketship Nashville officials said Wednesday they will shutter Partners Community Prep, which serves grades K-2 and is overseen by the state-run district.

Rocketship has also repeatedly attempted to expand operations in Nashville and been rejected by both the local school board and the State Board of Education.

Then there’s the Achievement School District forcing districts to hand over schools to charters, as in the case of Neely’s Bend Middle School. Before they handed a beloved community school over to a charter network, the ASD set up an epic battle to see which school would survive. Oh, and the ASD has a track record of being not-so-successful.  Oh, and also not very truthful.

All this disruption means that fifty students will be starting at a new school… again. Rocketship leaders say the process was a learning experience for them. Wonder what kind of experience it has been for the students?

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


 

 

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


 

Charters on the March?

Charter schools have not gained much ground outside of Memphis and Nashville, but that doesn’t mean potential charter operators and the Tennessee Charter School Center aren’t trying. Just a few years ago, there was quite a fight over a proposed charter school in Cheatham County. That application was ultimately denied.

Yesterday, the Clarksville Rotary Club hosted charter school lobbyist Emily Lilley to talk about charter schools and the process of creating one.

Of course, Clarksville residents might not be too eager to “think outside the box” as their current public schools appear to be performing quite well.

Where else are charter proponents planning to expand?

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


 

Data Wars

Candice McQueen has set up a showdown with the state’s two largest school districts over student data sharing and charter schools.

McQueen sent a letter to Shelby County Schools and shared the same letter with MNPS. In the letter, she notes a new state law requiring school districts to share student data with charter schools upon request. The data is used so that charter schools can market to potential students.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reports on the Shelby County issue:

Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday to immediately share the information requested by Green Dot Public Schools. She said the district’s refusal violates a new state law by withholding information that charter operators need to recruit students and market their programs.

Shelby County Schools has not yet said they will comply with McQueen’s request.

The primary sticking point seems to be with the charter schools that are now part of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD’s experience in Shelby County has been troubled, at best. From communication challenges to struggling performance, the ASD has not lived up to expectations.

For its part, MNPS is beginning to take steps to restrict the data available to the ASD.

Jason Gonzalez reports in the Tennessean:

The practice of providing charter schools with student contact information has been common in Nashville, but board members bristled on Tuesday over the sharing of information with the Achievement School District.

While not a final vote, the board took a crucial step forward with a new policy that will not release contact information to the Achievement School District.

The policy moved out of committee with 7 board members in favor, Jo Ann Brannon abstaining and Mary Pierce voting against the proposal.

The key question now is: What happens if Shelby County and MNPS refuse to share this data? What penalty might they face?

Gonzalez notes:

In 2012, Metro Schools decided to reject the Great Hearts Academies charter schools application — after the state directed it not to do so — and then-Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman docked Nashville $3.4 million in education funds.

Similarly, during the TNReady testing fiasco, McQueen threatened districts with a funding penalty.

It’s not yet clear what will happen this time, but it seems like a financial penalty will ultimately be on the table if the two districts fail to comply.

Stay tuned, the data wars are beginning.

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


 

What Happens When Public/Private/Charter Teachers Work Together?

This is a guest post by Alecia Ford. Ms. Ford is a teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

It’s so easy to demonize others: people on the other side of political issues, borders, the railroad tracks.

Each summer I choose a 1 – 2 week long professional development opportunity. This year, I applied to The Educators’ Cooperative because Greg O’Loughlin at University School of Nashville was purposefully getting us “others” together. The Cooperative is a public/private/charter educator group in its second year that exists for “creating, supporting and sharing best practices in teaching and learning”, @Ed_Cooperative #forteachersbyteachers on Twitter. Greg is the Director and founder of the Cooperative.

Ideally, 30 teachers are selected from the applicants: 10 each from public, charter and private/independent schools according to the website. While our cohort didn’t hit that mark exactly, we had educators representing grades K through 12, a variety of content areas and years of experience, from magnet, zoned, charter, private and religious schools in Nashville. I have taught 12 years in Metro zoned and magnet schools, my last 7 years at J. T. Moore Middle.

Nashville has struggled to have civil dialogue about charters, public education and ed policy. The whole country is struggling with civil dialogue. In all honesty, I didn’t just want to learn more about my craft. I also wanted to get in there and meet these teachers from the “other” schools (not zoned public schools) and understand where they were coming from – no loaded words or posturing, no middlemen/women between us. I guess I was wondering… how could they?

Here’s what I learned:

  • I still and always love being a student and learning from and with others.
  • All of us are interested in professional growth and improving our craft.
  • All of us are interested in providing excellent educational opportunities for our students, in both academics and in social/emotional growth.
  • All of us chose teaching. Some of us came from non-traditional pathways, some as second career teachers, some always knew they wanted to be teachers. WE BELIEVE IN THIS MISSION.

We practiced a Critical Friends Protocol that uses small groups to generate ideas and solve problems. We explored design thinking with stoke.d one afternoon. We had a panel of mindfulness coaches answering questions. In between, we got to know each other and liked each other. We built trust all week. No time was wasted. And I wondered, what would it be like to talk about equity with this cross-section of inspired, talented, open-minded educators from across the city?

Toward the end of the week, Greg orchestrated an Ed Camp. Edcamp is a structure where participants suggest topics which are then organized into common themes and scheduled into time slots. Also called un-conference, it’s a way to catch anything you didn’t get to talk about yet and network around common interests. There is no leader in each session, just interested participants who can discuss and share ideas.

I put up post-its with EQUITY, Systemic Racism, Vouchers and Ed Policy written on them, assuring myself I wasn’t being divisive or political just for the sake of it. I reminded myself of a Brittany Packnett tweet, ‘Calling out racism isn’t divisive – racism is divisive.’ We need to be able to talk about tough topics.

Ten minutes later I was in a room with like-minded educators from all types of schools who are also interested in equity and systemic injustices. We all know some schools simply have greater needs while other schools have greater resources, financially and socially. We worry about public tax money going to private, religious and for-profit schools. We wonder why and how schools with such high concentrations of poverty still exist in Nashville. We worry vouchers will only subsidize middle class and affluent families already attending private schools, and accessibility will keep out families without transportation. We wonder whether these ideas will help or harm our most vulnerable students. We want there to be excellent choices for every family, no matter your zip code.

I saw a dedicated teacher at a new charter school working to create opportunities for her students. I heard zoned school teachers wondering if a single pot of money split by a larger number of schools would automatically mean less resources for their students and schools. I saw a private and public school teacher start talking about a shared garden space. But I didn’t see “other” anymore, not in that classroom.

We all want what’s best for OUR kids. What if we (Nashville) valued ALL kids as OUR kids? What if every student could get what they needed to thrive? We need to keep this conversation going, keep practicing civil discourse, keep reaching across the lines of other. Thank you, Greg, for bringing us together. We have work to do.

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


 

Amy Frogge on Charters and Segregation

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge posted last week about charter schools and re-segregation.

Here’s what she had to say:

“Research is clear that segregation by both race and poverty result in weaker opportunities and student outcomes. And the benefits just aren’t for students of color: White students also gain from diversity in the classroom.”

But after years of integration, Southern schools are re-segregating. Why?

“The rise of more segregated charters, paired with the persistence of private schools, are contributing to a reversal of the gains in integration made in the 1960s and 1970s. . . . Black and Latino students comprise disproportionately higher shares of charter school enrollment. [In the South], black and Latino students in charters . . . have relatively little contact with white students . . . .”

What’s the solution for this problem? According to this article: Greater local control of school districts, avoiding the splintering of school districts, “choice” programs (among traditional schools) that foster diversity and include free transportation, and housing policies that “locate subsidized housing in good quality school districts.”

READ MORE from the article she cites. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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