A Plea for Caution from Russia

A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to Tennesseans About Education

By VLADIMIR V. PUTIN

Published: September 12, 2013 

MOSCOW — Recent events surrounding education policy in Tennessee have prompted me to speak directly to the people of Tennessee and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.

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Oliver Munday

Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.

The potential rebalancing of the education policy debate — towards more thoughftulness, critique, and effective collaboration — despite strong opposition from many education organizations and major political and education leaders, will result in more innocent victims.

Russia must ask: What about the children?

Any effort to depart from your current reform path, and embrace countervailing viewpoints, would undermine effective, unilateral efforts to resolve the pressing teacher evaluation, pay, and licensure issues, as well as the Charter schools-Traditional schools conflict.  Departing from the current reform path could also destabilize Metro Nashville Public Schools and Memphis City Schools. It could throw the entire emerging system out of balance.

Tennessee, and these school systems, are not witnessing a battle for public education, but the equivalent of an armed conflict between defenders of the status quo and those worried more about the children, rather than adults.  There are few champions of education reform in Tennessee. But there are more than enough defenders of the status quo and extremists of all stripes. The Tennessee Department of Education should consider formally designating certain groups, fighting with the defenders of the status quo, as education terrorists.

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue — that is, a positive and collaborative tone — enabling those truly dedicated to public education in Tennessee to develop a plan for their own future.  We do not advocate protecting any particular set of policies, but rather the law itself, as passed by the Tennessee legislature and the Tennessee Board of Education.  Russia believes that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep education policy from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not, even if it sometimes means issuing harsh sanctions.

No one doubts that spurious character attacks, politically-motivated statements, articles, op-eds, blog posts, and tweets, and selective use of research and anecdote have been used during education debates in Tennessee. But there is every reason to believe these were used not by the those truly dedicated to the cause of education, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful patrons.

It is alarming that debate in policy discussions is becoming increasingly commonplace in Tennessee. Is it in Tennessee’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around your country increasingly see Tennessee, not as a state making innovative, cage-busting strides towards high-quality seats under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us,” but rather as a model of collaborative debate and democratic critique and discussion.

But discussion and debate have proved ineffective and pointless. Memphis is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after state oversight withdraws. Metro Nashville Public Schools is divided into tribes and clans, and the civil war continues, with dozens Tweeting at each other, incessantly, each day.

No matter how targeted the discussions or how sophisticated the debate, casualties are inevitable, particularly of students left without high-quality seats, whom the debates are meant to protect.

We must stop using the language of deliberation and collaboration, and return to the path of urgent, rigorous, and innovative educational reform.

A new opportunity to avoid thoughtful debate has emerged in the past few days. Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and all members of the educational community must take advantage of both sides’ willingness to destroy any possibility of collaboration on the issues of charters.  Judging by the statements of many in the state, both sides see ramping up the rhetoric as a good alternative to considered and thoughtful debate and policy solutions.

I welcome the any Tennessean’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on education policy. We must work together to keep this hope alive, and enforce the law, as written.  We must keep moving forward.

If we can avoid any slowdown of progress and any deliberative, community- and state-wide discussions, this will improve the education atmosphere in Tennessee and strengthen the respect of others within the United States, and around the world.

My working and personal relationship with education and political leaders in Tennessee is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I have carefully studied their public (and private) statements over the last several years. And I would rather disagree with a recent case made on Tennessee’s deliberative and collaborative spirit, stating that Tennessee’s efforts at honest and thoughtful discussion, and true collaboration is “what makes Tennessee different. It’s what makes Tennessee exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to be thoughtful and deliberative, whatever the motivation. There are big school systems and small school systems, rich and poor, those with long education reform traditions and those still finding their way to true education reform. Their policies differ, too, though Russia is happy to help in fixing this. We are all different, unfortunately, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God wants every child to have a high-quality seat, and does not care how we get there, so long as we do it quickly.

Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia.

A Positive Education Agenda

The use of this image is in no way sarcastic.  Well, maybe a little.The last few years of education debate and policymaking in Tennessee have seen a lot of negativity.  You can name the fights off the top of your head: teachers’ unions and collective bargaining, vouchers, teacher evaluations, Great Hearts, charters vs. traditional public schools, K12, Inc., teacher pay, etc.  There are more.

I, for one, have been preaching, to everyone I can think to, that people on all “sides” of the debate have a lot more in common than we/you/they think.

I truly believe this.

What we need, then, is some common ground. Not faux common ground, couched as a talking point and then used to attack (“How can you not agree with X?”), but real, actual common ground.

Looking back at the pieces from my school board campaign last year, I came to re-read my “issues” section from my campaign website.  I put a lot of thought and research into it at the time, and I think it still reads true.  So, if you haven’t had a chance, here’s what I think the (beginnings of) a positive education agenda look like.  It’s incomplete, for sure.  But it’s a start.  I’d love to hear what you think.  P.S. I’ve cut out the “I’m going to be a great school board member” intro and skipped right to the issues.

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Community-Supported Schools

No student should get a worse education because of their wealth or zip code.  As research has shown, however, a student’s home life, socioeconomic status, and the health of their community have a strong correlation with that student’s ultimate academic success.  Research has shown the increasing importance of communities and community support to schools.  Professors Ellen Goldring, Lora Cohen-Vogel, Claire Smrekar, and Cynthia Taylor discussed this very issue in “Schooling Closer to Home: Desegregation Policy and Neighborhood Contexts,” a study specifically of Nashville schools and communities.  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 112, No. 3 (May 2006), pp. 335-362).  Cohen-Vogel, Goldring, and Smrekar also wrote an article entitled “The Influence of Local Conditions on Social Service Partnerships, Parent Involvement, and Community Engagement in Neighborhood Schools.”  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 117, No. 1 (November 2010), pp. 51-78).  Both of these articles shed light on this crucial issue, and support the idea of the importance of communities and community context in building strong schools and supporting student learning.

To a large extent, wealth and zip code determine student outcomes, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can and must do everything in our power to support the educators and staff in our most at-risk schools, and provide them the support they need to overcome the achievement gaps our at-risk students suffer.  Ultimately, this can only ever be an incomplete solution.  Our schools need to become the centers of their communities again, and I will work to connect our parents, churches, neighborhood associations, community groups, and local residents to our schools.  To achieve this goal, we need a board member involved with and connected to the community and community leaders so that we can tailor the resources and strategies needed in each school to fit the community those schools serve.

High Standards, Less Testing

High standards are excellent — there is no question that all children can learn, and that we do a disservice to them by lowering standards, or assuming they cannot think critically or master difficult concepts.  Unfortunately, one of the most unintended, but very real consequences of the standards movement was the massive increase in testing of our students.  These days, students spend up to several weeks out of their school year taking mandated tests.  As well, because these tests are “high-stakes,” often determining funding and local control over schools and school districts, together with a  focus of laws such as No Child Left Behind on reading and math skills, there has been a movement away from rich curriculum including science, art, music, physical education, and more.  (See, for example, Richard Rothstein, “The Corruption of School Accountability,” (School Administrator, Vol. 65 No. 6 (June 2008) pp. 14-15).  Good schools and good teachers constantly assess student progress, little by little, not just with a massive test at the end of every quarter or every year (if that even ends up being necessary).  Good assessment shows where students are learning, and where teachers need to spend more time.  Good assessment happens mostly in the background, and is supplemented by longer traditional tests like chapter tests and end-of-course tests.

As a school board member, I will push our district towards the latter concept of assessment, making use of technology such as Kickboard, so that, as a policy matter, we do not put massive, unwanted pressure on our schools, educators, students, and parents, with all the negative consequences that come with high-stakes testing, while still preserving the inherent good of standards-based learning and assessment.  We can accomplish this by committing, as a district, to moving towards a collaborative model of teaching, where teachers are highly trained to use assessment and data in the classroom, and have mentors, master teachers, and coaches to help them, both in the use of that data, and in responding to the needs of their students.

High-Quality Teachers

Teachers are the backbone of our public schools.  As discussed above, though non-school factors play a major role in predicting student success, schools all over Nashville and Tennessee have shown that committed schools, with the right people and resources, can overcome a child’s background Though it is not within the province of a school board member to recruit teachers to our system, we can put in place research-based policies that will lead to higher quality teachers who stay in our system.  When asked, teachers overwhelmingly identify school leadership and school culture as reasons they do or do not stay at their school.  For example, Tennessee’s own teacher survey, TELL Tennessee, shows the following results:

Teaching_Conditions_TELL_Tennessee

These results are typical — teachers want a strong school culture with a good principal, as well as support for good instruction.  These are policy choices as to where we spend our dollars, and the latter option, “instructional practices and support” is a crucial issue addressed above with respect to assessment and support.  As a school board member, I will support the district in finding school leaders who are quality instructional leaders, but who also reach out to and build connections with their teachers and the community around them.

Teacher turnover is also a problem, especially in an urban district like Nashville.  Paying teachers commensurate with our surrounding cities is a first step, and rewarding our excellent teachers must also be a priority.  However, Nashville has a gaping hole when it comes to developing its newest teachers, so that we support and retain them.  As I know personally, the first year of teaching is especially hard.  Many teachers leave the profession during or after their first year.  Again, it does not have to be this way.  Nashville needs to make a multi-year induction, evaluation, and support program a cornerstone of our practice.  The article, “What are the Effects of Induction and Mentoring on Beginning Teacher Turnover,” by Tom Smith and Richard Ingersoll, among others, shows that such programs can have an outstanding impact on developing and supporting excellent teachers, and retaining them in the district.  (American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 41 No. 3 (September 2004) pp. 681-714).  In fact, this is something beginning teachers are not being provided, though they want it (I certainly would have appreciated it during my first year teaching).

Mentoring_TELL_TennesseeAs you can see, though many teachers have a “formally assigned mentor,” a large majority of them do not have formal time to meet with that mentor during school hours, nor do they have time to observe other teachers, or have a reduced workload in order to learn how to be a good teacher.  During my time at the Mayor’s office, working on the ASSET program, I pushed for such an induction and mentoring policy, and I will continue to do so on the Board.

I believe deeply that we must support our teachers; we cannot fire our way to success.  The labor pool does not exist to replace a massive amount of teachers in our system, and the resources we would expend would be wasted.  There will always be some number of teachers who should not be teaching; I absolutely support removing such teachers.  However, the vast majority of our teachers want to be good teachers.  The vast majority are good people, committed to Nashville’s children.  I will put in place policies on the Board to support those teachers, and give them the tools they need to be better.

Education Reform Groups Gear up for 2014 Tennessee Elections

Andrea Zelinski tells the tale of big spending education reform groups and their impact on the 2012 elections.  She then notes the spending and involvement in state and local campaigns does not appear likely to stop.

She notes that Students First will likely be a big player in legislative races, after having spent more than $200,000 in 2012.

Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children (which recently hired long-time lobbyist Betty Anderson as Executive Director) were mentioned as potential new players in the 2014 cycle.

What’s unknown, so far, is whether any group or groups will band together to counter the efforts of those pushing the current agenda of charters, vouchers, and teacher merit pay.

Lamar Alexander, Rand Paul, and Charter Schools

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Rand Paul stopped by Nashville’s KIPP Academy to talk about education issues and to allow Alexander a chance to be photographed next to Tea Party favorite Paul.

The topic of discussion was school choice and the two legislators were joined by Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and House Speaker Beth Harwell.

First, let me say that KIPP Academy and a number of other Charter Schools do very fine work.  Charter Schools can offer an alternative that helps kids and the good ones are a welcome addition to the mix of options offered in urban school systems.

That said, the event seemed odd in that it was Paul who was talking about the lessons Kentucky could learn from Tennessee’s education experience.  Kentucky has no Charter Schools, no voucher schemes, and not much in terms of what current “reformers” deem necessary to “improve” schools.

Here’s what Kentucky does have:

— Higher scores on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) than Tennessee in seven out of eight categories.

— A higher ACT composite average than Tennessee

— A larger percentage of its population with 4-year college degrees than Tennessee

— A lower unemployment rate than Tennessee

In short, Kentucky’s schools are getting results and continue moving in the right direction.

So, it seems Lamar Alexander might want to ask one of the many Democratic governors Kentucky has had over the years about the importance of a long-term commitment to meaningful reform.

Kentucky’s Education Reform Act, passed in 1990, changed the way schools were funded.  It set up a new system of testing.  It provided early career support for teachers.  Funding for all schools was increased.  One feature many at yesterday’s event touted about Charter Schools (autonomy, school-based decisions) was written into the Act — Kentucky schools have Site-Based Decision-Making Councils.  These bodies (parents, teachers, administrators) make decisions about school governance and budgeting.

Kentucky spends about $1500 more per student than Tennessee and has sustained this investment (for the most part) in good and bad economic times.

Governor Steve Beshear has been committed to high quality early education.

The results are clear: Kentucky’s been committed to meaningful, sustained investment in schools and teachers and it is paying off and continues to pay off.

Tennessee has tried just about everything but sustained investment, with the 2014 legislative session sure to bring up further discussion of vouchers and other schemes – none of which will likely come with more dollars for the classroom or more support for teachers.

And on just about every indicator, Kentucky beats Tennessee when it comes to school-based outcomes.

It’s time Lamar Alexander and Tennessee’s policymakers look north, and learn the lesson that long-term, sustained support for schools is the only way to move students and the state forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Look at Charter Attrition Rates

After WSMV and The City Paper ran stories on charter schools losing “struggling students” to zoned schools in time for TCAP exams, outrage has ensued among parents and charter advocates. While some parents are upset that charter students are being sent back into the school system weeks before the TCAP exam, some charter advocates believe MNPS mislead the news station because “their own scores must not be that hot this year,” “data was skewed & manipulated,” and that MNPS does not care about individual students.

After I read the WSMV article, I emailed MNPS to ask for the same information they gave the WSMV reporter. I received seven documents from the communications office including attrition rates for MNPS and some individual school reports of attrition 9 weeks before the TCAP. Though, after my first communication with the schools, I was told that MNPS and the principal from KIPP Academy met and the school system sent me an updated attrition document that was changed after their meeting. The numbers were a little different, but the top attrition schools were still the same.

UpdatedAttrition

The first chart shows charter schools leading the way in attrition. As others have noted, if you have a smaller set of students, your percentage is higher than larger schools if a few students leave.

But, as you can see from the chart, there are a lot of people leaving all schools, zoned schools included. For Smithson Head Middle, out of an 11th day enrollment of 324, 89 students left while they have taken on 8 students throughout the year. The number of 81 for attrition equates to a -25% attrition rate. They now only enroll 243 students.

For Boys Prep, they had a smaller 11th day enrollment of 100 students. The school lost 39 students, or 39% of their student body this year. They took on 16 students for an attrition of 23 students and a -23% attrition rate. They now only enroll 77 children.

When looking at KIPP Academy, a well known charter, nationally, for it’s high standards and performance, they had an 11th day enrollment of 337. We see that 64 left while 13 came to the school during that time.

KippWDWhile looking at the school specifically, you can see that 20 students left KIPP Academy nine weeks leading up to TCAP. All but one of those 20 students that left had been suspended multiple times. Eight of those 20 are considered “special needs disability” students.

 

LeadWD

 

 

LEAD Academy lost 20 students in the nine weeks leading up to TCAP. Fourteen of those students had been suspended during the year.

 

 

 

 

Drexel1Drexel2

 

 

 

Drexel had 33 students leave within the nine week period, which means that over half of the exits took place within a 9 week period.

 

 

 

 

While more charter schools are on the way, we should be looking at attrition both in charter and in zoned schools. We need to keep more kids from changing schools. As many zoned schools see a large number of students leave their schools, I believe charter schools and zoned schools are different for one main reason: Charter students are not randomly chosen. While families zoned for schools aren’t technically randomly selected for their schools, it’s the best way to describe it. For charters, you have to go out of your way to attend the schools. Parents have to agree to longer schools day, to read to their kids, or other agreements along those lines. For zoned schools, it’s the exact opposite. The parents do nothing and the kids are sent to the school they are zoned to. So while many people are leaving zoned schools, it looks strange to see that parents would go out of their way to enroll their children in a new program to only move to a different school at a later time.

Antioch2

I wanted to show the numbers from my high school for two reasons. One, because there are many people coming and going from zoned schools, as I said earlier. Two, to show people that I attended a school with a graduation rate of 66.9% and a dropout rate of 19.6% the year I graduated. I hear continued arguments that those families who may come from nicer areas of Nashville should not have a point of view on this topic because they go to nicer schools. First, all families should be able to voice their opinions without getting attacked for where they live. I went to a school where over half of the students are considered “Economically Disadvantaged” and hallways were lined with gangs. Does that mean my opinion matters more than those who went to (fill in the school that you always site as being better than others)? No, they don’t.

When more people, both with children in the school system and not, care about our education system, it will get better. That is everyone’s goal here. We want the education of Nashville’s children to be better, some just want to get there a different way. The goal is still the same. But when people start attacking others based on where they live or where they went to school, you are undermining your whole argument. You want to give all students a chance to learn and succeed, but you won’t give all parents a right to express their ideas.

Let’s continue to talk about issues that are facing our education system. Let’s continue to meet and talk with people whose idea’s are different. Let’s continue to exchange ideas between us. Let’s continue to improve our children’s education. But let’s not continue the harsh tones and attacks that we all are doing. The only way to fix our education system is working together.

While I have written a post that may seem “anti charter,” (hint: it’s not) it doesn’t not mean I won’t work with charter schools to see what they are doing better than zoned schools. We can all question what zoned schools are doing or what charter schools are doing. The only thing we can do to help our education system is to be involved.

Here are a few organizations you can check out to get involved in your local education system.

State Collaborative on Reforming Education

TEA Teachers – Tennessee Education Association

Professional Educators of Tennessee

Tennessee Charter Schools Association


 

TNEdReport Interviews Rep. Joe Pitts

We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rep. Joe Pitts for the Tennessee Education Report. He is a member of the House Education Committee and the House Education Subcommittee. He is a vocal voice in both committees. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.

Let’s start with Vouchers:

What impact will vouchers have on local school districts in terms of budget and tax burden?

A:  Vouchers will have an immediate impact on local government’s budgets and the potential impact on local property tax is significant.  The voucher will further dilute public education funding currently going to the local school district which has an extensive infrastructure – buildings, supervisory staff, transportation, etc. that supports ALL students residing in their jurisdiction.  It is a delicate balance of funds that can be turned upside down if a sudden shift in funding policy, like vouchers, is made.

Do you believe that even if a limited voucher plan passes, the ultimate goal is statewide vouchers with broad qualifications? 

A:  If the past is prologue to the future, then one only need to look at the Charter school authorization passed many years ago by the General Assembly.  The original concept was to address at-risk students in schools within specific geographic boundaries, and we even had a limit on the number of charter schools within those communities. Now, despite evidence to the contrary, Charter schools are available statewide for every student regardless of academic need.  While Charter schools certainly have their place, given the right circumstances, it should be a tool at the LEA’s disposal.

An amendment recently passed to make private schools provide school lunches to those who come to the school via vouchers. Does that help your concern about students choosing free lunch or a private school?

A:  Requiring a school participating in the voucher program to offer a school lunch program makes a flawed proposal less objectionable but still not one I can support.  We don’t need a voucher program for at-risk students in failing schools.  Currently if a student is in a failing school, the parents can raise their hand and request their student go to another, non-failing school, in the same district without sacrificing basic human needs like breakfast and lunch, and transportation, and special needs students get access to the services they need.

Why do you think the GOP is focused on vouchers/charters instead of fully-funding BEP 2.0?

A:  Take a look around the country.  Vouchers seem to be the “cause de jour.”  It appears our education system is the last bastion of public funded services that haven’t been co-opted by the for-profit sector; sadly, not anymore.

Finally, do you think there will be transition problems when taking a child out of a public school and placing them in a private school? Do you think the child may fall behind from the start?

A:  When the child moves from one public school to another public school, or in this case, a private school, it will present some challenges.  Children are resilient though, but I am concerned about the moving back and forth between and among systems since not all private school curriculum lines up with the public school system.

Let’s more on to charters.

Do you believe the recent charter authorizer bill is taking away local control from local education boards?

A:  Yes.  Sadly, as amended, the bill would establish a non-elected group of people appointed by both Speakers and the Governor, to decide how and how much local tax money could be obligated for a state authorized charter school. That’s like the state deciding how big your police force should be and sending you the bill. This is just plain wrong.

Are you supportive of charter schools that get local approval or would you rather limit how many charter schools can open in the state?

A:  I do believe charter schools are a good option for LEA’s who need to try something different for students with specific academic needs.  Being a member of a local school board is a difficult task.  You are required and responsible for the academic achievement of all students in your district but have no say in the funding allocated by any of the funding entities.  I am not a fan of establishing limits on schools if the LEA has control of the authorization.

General Education Questions

If you were the commissioner of education, what would be the first thing you would do to improve public education in Tennessee?

A:  Three things simultaneously:  I would implore the Governor to make it our policy that no new changes would be sought or implemented for two years or until we can sort out the changes enacted in the last two years.

Next I would meet with the school directors and school boards, individually, of every district with a failing school and let them know we are going to become partners.  Instead of a shotgun marriage, it would be a partnership based on putting our resources where are mouths are and helping the failing schools first and immediately.  Students struggling in schools are very often victims of their home environment.  I would deploy an intervention team consisting of master level social workers, health professionals and academic coaches to these schools immediately to provide intensive work and support.

Lastly, I would work with the Charter schools to create a bold new platform for turning around these schools in our districts not meeting expectations.  We need to look beyond the numbers and think about year round charter schools, extended hours, or other non-traditional means to address the needs of the students and their families.  A charter school that mirrors a traditional public school hardly seems worth the effort.

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our LEA’s are performing at a high level, given the meager resources we allocate to them, and are open to our help, be it public or private, to give our students the best education experience possible.

Certain reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirst have very specific policy agendas for reforming education. Some of the typical policies associated with these groups include vouchers, charter schools, pay-for-performance, and ending seniority rules.

What’s the counter-argument?  What are the marquee policies Democrats embrace?  If there aren’t a set of marquee proposals everyone is on board with, why not?  What’s being done to get the Democrats on a united front, to have a set of counter proposals instead of just playing defense?

A:  The reform movement initiatives, added to the self-inflicted policy crush imposed on LEA’s over the past three years, is contributing nothing to the public discourse about improving student performance.  If you think about it, we made significant changes to public policy in education in 2010 as a part of our First to the Top agenda proposed by Gov Bredesen – a Democrat, followed by nightmarish changes to the teachers’ environment in 2011 by eliminating collective bargaining, tenure, and removing TEA from their seat at the table, all in the name of “reform.”

On top of all that we approved virtual schools, unlimited charter schools, put undue pressure on teachers and principals by adopting an assessment tool that is unnecessarily bureaucratic, adopted the Common Core, and are preparing to implement a new assessment called PARRC.  Now, we are attacking our teacher preparation programs by looking at putting artificial thresholds on ACT and SAT scores for students who wish to go through their respective College of Education.  I’ve said it before; we are giving our education system whiplash with these rapid-fire changes and creating massive confusion.  Who can blame more seasoned teachers from deciding to retire instead of continuing in a system that does not appreciate their significant achievement and experience in the classroom and will subject them to the latest reform experiment?

Perhaps the corporate robber barons of the reform movement need to be asked to leave the room and let the education professionals do their jobs.  I have complete faith in our school districts across our state if we can offer our help instead of the cram down policies that have little to no basis in fact or success.

 

Andy, John, and I want to thank Rep. Pitts for his time. Please follow us on twitter @TNEdReport and like us on Facebook.


 

 

 

The Life of an Adjective or The Many Faces of Great Hearts

Following yesterday’s House Education Subcommittee meeting covering HB 0702/SB 0830, which creates a state-level charter school authorizer, most news outlets related this particular piece of legislation to the rejected application of Great Hearts Academies in their desire to open five charter schools in Nashville.  We did too.  It got me thinking about the nomenclature, having referred to the Great Hearts story more than once myself.  Without further ado, a working list (the first two are me):

There’s a dissertation here somewhere, I’m sure of it.

State Charter School Authorizer Bill Filed

It’s here.  As many (including myself) have predicted in the wake of the Great Hearts fallout in Nashville, Tennessee Republicans have filed legislation to give the state Board of Education the power to authorize (i.e., create) charter schools in Tennessee.  An amendment that rewrites HB 0702/SB 0830, heretofore an innocuous bill that increased the time to appeal an adverse charter decision from 10 days to 20 days, will be introduced tomorrow.  This caption bill has now been replaced by a bill that does quite a bit more.

The full text of the amendment can be found here.  The pertinent parts are reproduced and discussed below.

(1) The state Board of Education can now directly grant charter schools.

SECTION 1.  Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-13-104, is amended by deleting subdivision (4) in its entirety and substituting instead:

(4) “Chartering authority” means:

(A) The local board of education or the achievement school district as defined in § 49-1-614 that approves, renews or decides to to revoke a public charter school application or agreement; or

(B) The state board of education, if the state board approves:

(i) A charter school under § 49-13-141 when an LEA is the sponsor of a charter school; or

(ii) A charter school directly under § 49-13-109.

(2) There is no appeal of the State Board’s decision, if application is made directly to the State Board in the first instance.

SECTION 4.  Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-13-110(b), is amended by deleting the punctuation “.” at the end of the second sentence and substituting instead the following language:

; provided, that if the chartering authority is the state board of education, then no appeal may be made of the state board’s decision to deny a petition to amend the charter

(3) A charter submitting a renewal application can apply either to the LEA that originally authorized it OR to the State Board.  If the application is made to the state Board, there is no appeal.

SECTION 8.  Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-13-121(b), is amended by designating the existing language as subdivision (1) and by adding the following language as new subdivision (2):

(2) If the state board of education is the chartering authority of a charter school, the school may submit its renewal application to either the LEA or the state board.  If the school submits its renewal application to the state board, then the decision of the state board on the application is final and may not be appealed.

(4) Charters denied renewal or fighting revocation have ten days to appeal the decision to the state Board, except in certain cases.

SECTION 10.  Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-13-122(c), is amended by deleting the subsection in its entirety and by substituting instead the following:

(c)

(1) If the chartering authority is an LEA, a decision by the LEA not to renew or revoke a charter agreement may be appealed to the state board of education within ten (10) days of the decision, except for revocations or failures to renew based on the violations specified in subdivision (a)(2).  Appeals from revocations or decisions not to renew a charter agreement shall be in accordance with § 49-13-108.

(2) If the chartering authority is not an LEA, a decision by the chartering authority not to renew or revoke a charter agreement is final and may not be appealed.

(5)  This is the big one: This only applies to Nashville (and maybe Memphis*).

SECTION 11.  Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 13, is amended by adding the following language as a new section:

49-13-109.

(a) If an LEA is located in a county having a population of more than six hundred thousand (600,000) according to the 2010 federal census or any subsequent federal census and if there have been two (2) or more denials of charter school applications remanded to the LEA by the state board of education with instructions for approval pursuant to § 49-13-108, then a charter school sponsor may apply directly to the state board for approval, and, if approved, the state board shall serve as the chartering authority.  The state board’s decision to approve or deny an application under this subsection shall be final and not subject to appeal.

(b) The department of education shall assist the state board with general oversight of any charter school authorized by the state board, including assisting with monitoring compliance with § 49-13-111 and the school’s adherence to the charter agreement.

(c) For accountability purposes under § 49-1-602, except for schools authorized under § 49-13-141, the performance of a charter school authorized by the state board shall not be attributable to the LEA.

(d) Funding for charter schools authorized by the state board shall be in accordance with § 49-13-112, except that the LEA in which the charter school operates shall pay to the department one hundred percent (100%) of the per student share of local funding and any federal funding in the custody of the LEA that is due to the charter school.  The department shall withhold from the LEA the per student share of state funding that is due to the charter school as well as any federal funding in the custody of the department that is due to the charter school.  The department shall then allocate and disburse these funds to the charter school in accordance with procedures developed by the department.

(e) The department shall determine the amount of the state BEP non-classroom component for capital outlay to be distributed to a charter school authorized by the state board according to § 49-13-112(c).  The LEA shall pay to the department the required local match under the BEP for capital outlay as a non-classroom component for distribution to the charter school.

(f) A charter school authorized by the state board may contract with the LEA in which the school operate for school support services or student support services, including, but not limited to, food services and transportation.

A few things to note:

  • This is the political compromise I alluded to before.  There was a potential for a split in the Tennessee Republican Party between rural and urban Republicans, especially over an issue like local control.  This legislation is crafted so that rural Republicans can vote for it, without worrying that it will affect their districts.  Again, most rural Republicans (and urban ones, for that matter), have no problem “putting Nashville (or Memphis) in its place,” when they feel it’s warranted.
  • There’s a bit of a hidden hammer: While Nashville (and Memphis?) are the only places that currently qualify, other large cities (Knoxville, Chattanooga) could potentially qualify if they establish themselves as non-compliant when it comes to authorizing charter schools.  All it takes is the requisite population, and two charter school denials that are overturned by the State Board, and you qualify for state authorization in your city.  (Note: Knox County only stands at about 440,000 residents, and Hamilton County at 340,000 so there’s quite a ways to go for both of them to qualify.  This is pretty squarely aimed at Nashville, but there’s nothing to say the General Assembly couldn’t drop the population threshold either this year or in coming years).  Either way, having one of the qualifications for state chartering authority be that an LEA has twice denied schools, but been overturned by the state, is a none-too-subtle reminder not to deny applications lightly, or at all.
  • This might actually be a better financial deal for charter schools.  Under this legislation, a charter school authorized by the state would get the full state, local, and federal share of per-pupil dollars, plus a “local match” from the LEA for capital outlay.  The latter portion, especially, may be a change from how things currently work when charters are authorized by an LEA.
  • The performance of state-authorized charters will not count for or against the LEA.  This one’s pretty straightforward, and is likely to make it into the final legislation, on pure fairness grounds.
  • There are a fair number of incentives for new charters to go the state route.  Including the possible funding advantage discussed above, state-authorized charters would have a much smaller bureaucracy to contend with, and likely a set of administrators more ideologically inclined to support charter schooling.  The fact that this legislation permits existing charters seeking renewal to switch over to state authorization further confirms that the state appears to be actively seeking to charter schools, not just as a fallback for an inefficient or contentious local process.

* I can’t say for sure that this applies to Memphis, because I don’t know if MCS/SCS has had two charter denials go up on appeal and get reversed.  Memphis certainly qualifies in terms of population.

A Conservative Remedy to the Great Hearts Mess

In the wake of the Great Hearts mess in Nashville, there has been much discussion of a statewide charter authorizer.  The Tennessee Charter Schools Association, the Tennessee Charter School Incubator, and the powerful lobbying group StudentsFirst, led by Michelle Rhee, are on the record supporting a statewide authorizer.

The political question has been, however, whether rural Republicans would support such an entity, given that it would supplant local control with an appointed, statewide body.  It looks like this split between urban and rural Republicans might be real.  Speaker Harwell (R-Nashville), for instance, looks like she would support such a measure.  Just within the last few days, however, Rep. John Forgety (R-Athens) has filed a bill (HB 0446) that would change the existing charter appeal law.  This could well be taken as a signal that some part of the Republican caucus (or perhaps just Rep. Forgety — there doesn’t yet seem to be a Senate sponsor) would rather just fix the existing law than create a new statewide authorizer.  Here’s the pertinent text:

(D) Either the local board of education or the sponsor proposing the charter school application may appeal the final decision of the state board of education within thirty (30) days of its entry to the chancery court in the judicial circuit in which the local board of education is located. The review of the court shall be de novo on the record and shall be undertaken in accordance with the procedures governing common law writs of certiorari.

Does this foreshadow a split in the Republican caucus on this issue?  We shall see.

Vouchers, Charters, and Triggers — Oh My! A Preview of Education Legislation in the 2013 Tennessee General Assembly

Michelle Rhee seems to have her hands firmly around Tennessee Education policy as this legislative session begins. Rhee’s group, StudentsFirst, contributed more than $200,000 (or was it more?) in state legislative races in 2012 and they’re getting what they paid for. In short, Rhee’s top policy priorities are now the top priorities of the legislature and Governor Haslam. Here’s a rundown of these policies — all very much en vogue among the education reform elite. None particularly useful in moving Tennessee schools forward.

Vouchers

Or, as some like to call them, “Opportunity Scholarships.” After the Governor’s Task Force on Vouchers came up short of clear recommendations for a voucher scheme, Governor Haslam appeared to cool to the idea. He noted instead that legislators may bring forth a plan and he’d work with that. Then, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush came to town in early January and immediately following the Governor’s public event with Bush, Haslam announced he’d be introducing his own version of a voucher scheme. Never mind that the four largest school districts — the ones most likely to be impacted by a voucher plan — have all expressed opposition. And never mind that many private schools have indicated that they won’t accept the vouchers. Haslam has seen the light as shown to him by Bush and Rhee and he’ll now be moving to divert state education dollars to private schools. This in a state that ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending on public education.

Charters

Tennessee already has among the most liberal charter school laws in the country. Any student in any district that has charter schools may attend a charter school. The local school boards do, however, have control over authorizing a charter to operate in their district and control over closing charters if they are failing. All seemed to be going well with charters opening and growing in Memphis and Nashville. And then there was Great Hearts vs. Metro Nashville. While the Metro Nashville School Board approved several new charters in 2012 and has been fairly aggressive about recruiting charter operators to town, the Board rejected the charter application of Arizona-based Great Hearts Academy. They did so over concerns about diversity and legitimate questions over whether the school would truly meet the community’s needs. The State Board of Education over-ruled the Metro Board and directed them to reconsider. A new school board was elected. And the new board ALSO rejected Great Hearts. So, the state department of education, headed-up by Rhee’s ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, hit Metro with a $3.4 million penalty — withholding BEP funds the district was counting on. Now, Great Hearts is lobbying for a state charter authorizer — a state board that would be unelected and unaccountable — to be created. This charter authorizer would allow charter operators to bypass local school boards and be authorized to operate a charter in a district whether or not the locally elected school board wanted it.

Parent Trigger

The “parent trigger” concept is the idea that if a school is failing and 50% +1 of the parents in that school vote to do so, the parents can convert the school to a charter. Those parents may then “run” the school and hire/fire faculty and obtain other budgetary controls. This may sound like a reasonable proposition. However, in practice, it is a disaster. A school in Indiana recently “pulled the trigger” and the parents were stunned to discover the lack of available resources. The parents presented a list of demands including iPads for all students. The Board replied that in order for that demand to be met, a number of faculty would have to be let go. Parent trigger can also be used by sketchy charter operators to gain a foothold into a school. Rhee is of course behind this measure as well.

Each of these efforts appeals to policymakers because none require any new investment in Tennessee schools. The idea is that we already have money out there, and that if we just did these “new, cool things” we’d have better schools. They allow politicians to claim to be pro-education without making the hard decisions that would lead to meaningful new investments in our schools. Moreover, each of these policies has potentially disastrous effects on an already struggling school system. Stay tuned as the 2013 legislative session advances and these policies gain traction.