Democrats Introduce Legislation to Repeal Virtual Schools

In the wake of K12 Inc.’s broadly publicized failures, and the dust-up on Capitol Hill about them, two Democrats, Representative Mike Stewart and Senator Lowe Finney, have filed legislation (HB 0728/SB 0807) to repeal the Virtual Public Schools Act.  Many folks may not be aware that the Virtual Public Schools Act (T.C.A. 49-16-201 et seq.) is actually self-repealing.  Section 216 of the Act reads:

This part is repealed effective June 30, 2015.

Rep. Stewart/Sen. Finney’s bill simply changes the repeal date from June 30, 2015 to June 30, 2013.

There’s a good bit of frustration with K12 Inc. and virtual schools right now, even by members of the Republican majority.  That being said, however, Sen. Gresham, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has signaled that she’s not ready to do away with virtual schools just yet, as has Governor Haslam.

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.

John Deberry and the Parent Trigger Bill

State Representative John DeBerry (D-Mempis) has filed the first parent trigger bill of the session. DeBerry, who survived his primary challenge thanks to over $112,000 from StudentsFirst, rewrites the current parent trigger laws in his bill (Yes, we already have trigger laws on the books). House Bill 77* lowers the threshold, from 60 percent to 51 percent, for how many signatures the parents must have before the school can be turned over to a charter. The bill is only for eligible public schools that are in the bottom twenty percent of the state in student academic performance. This bill is exactly what StudentsFirst wants to happen in Tennessee. StudentsFirst recently held a screening for the movie “Won’t Back Down” in Nashville. The movie, which is about two women who want to convert their failing inner city school over to a charter school, was attended by many political figures.  Huffington Post reported that “Won’t Back Down” set the record for worst opening of a film that released in over 2,500 theaters.

While StudentsFirst wants Tennessee to make it easier to “pull the trigger”, The Nashville City Paper reported that the current law has only “been in play” two times since the law was put on the books in 2002. The first in Memphis in 2007 when a school was turned over to a charter and is currently taking place in Knoxville, where a charter school is trying to take over a school after the charter was denied by the school board. Deberry is trying to change the law that has rarely been used.

Deberry has also filed a resolution to designate January 26 – February 2013 as “School Choice Week” in Tennessee.

*Senator Reginald Tate (D-Mempis) has filed the companion bill, SB483. Senator Tate is the 1st Vice-Chair for the Senate Education Committee.

Virtual Schools in Tennessee

In the wake of the renewed K12 dust-up, Andy Sher over at the Times Free Press has another good article out this morning highlighting a new bill put forward by the Haslam Administration to cap online school enrollment.  By the way, let it be known that the Times Free Press (and Andy Sher) have had consistently excellent coverage of this issue over the past year.  Whether it’s because Chattanooga native (and almost certainly next Mayor) Andy Berke started the anti-virtual schools crusade (and then homed in on* K12 as its dismal performance became public), or because K12’s Tennessee “home” is in Union County, just a ways down the road from Chattanooga, who knows.

Here’s the important point to take from Sher’s article today:

Haslam’s legislation would apply to the Tennessee Virtual Academy and any other online schools that come down the path. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is carrying the administration’s package of bills, said Tuesday he had not been fully briefed on the measure.

Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said in an email, “This bill is meant to enhance the accountability for virtual schools, and to base their future growth on demonstrated performance.

“This is not about K12; this is a matter of learning from the first year of implementation of the Virtual Schools Act and making improvements with a focus on student achievement,” she said.

The bill restricts new operators of online schools to no more than 1,500 students. After students demonstrate they are indeed learning through state achievement tests, they can enroll no more than 5,000. That cap also applies to K12 Inc.’s operation, Gauthier confirmed.

Another provision in the bill restricts a county online school’s ability to accept students from outside the local district.

That initially would not apply to K12 Inc.’s current student population in Union County. But Gauthier confirmed that in the future it would apply to new students.

That’s right.  K12 is not on its own here.  Aside from the prospect of future virtual schools, there is already at least one other virtual school operating in Tennessee.  Did you know that Metro Nashville Public Schools has its own virtual school?  It’s true!

For all of the protesting by the spokeswoman for Commissioner Huffman, this most certainly is about K12 and the Tennessee Virtual Academy.  What the response signals, however, is that the current legislature (and Governor and Commissioner) appear to be unwilling to backtrack on virtual schools entirely, as many K12 critics would like.  Instead, the measure put forward would be a compromise, while still preserving the opportunity for growth in Tennessee of (1) virtual schools and (2) for-profit school operators.**

*It is unclear whether the correct usage is “home in on” or “hone in on.”  I have used the former, because it appears to make more sense grammatically.

**The New York Times did an extensive piece on for-profit online school operators in 2011.

Tennessee’s Vouchers Bill

As highlighted in Gov. Haslam’s speech last night, he’s putting forward a relatively conservative version of vouchers this year.  The bill itself (HB 0190/SB 0196) was filed yesterday.  It’s being carried in the House by Rep. McCormick and in the Senate by Sen. Norris.  The salient points are as follows:

(1) It’s only for low-income students (family must qualify for free or reduced price lunch to be eligible)

(2) It’s only for students in low-performing schools (must be a bottom 5% school “in overall achievement as determined by the performance standards and other criteria set by the state board”)

(3) It’s only for public school students (sort of — you have to have been in a public school for at least 2 semesters immediately prior to receiving a voucher OR you’re enrolling in a Tennessee school for the first time)

(4) Participation by private schools is voluntary (and they have to agree to take what the state pays and not charge parents anything above that)

(5) Participating private schools will have to give state assessments and turn over certain data on performance of voucher students.

(6) (THIS IS  A BIG ONE) Participating private schools do not have to offer special education services.  They cannot “discriminate against students with special education needs” BUT “as a nonpublic school, a participating school is required to offer only those services it already provides to assist students with special needs. If a scholarship student would have been entitled to receive special education services in the public school the student would otherwise be attending, the parent shall acknowledge in writing, as part of the enrollment process, that the parent agrees to accept only services that are available to the student in the nonpublic school.”

Some general thoughts:

Just as a point of comparison, our charter schools legislation started the exact same way, with regards to the first few requirements.  Originally, charter school enrollment was limited to free and reduced price lunch students who were in “failing” schools.  Over the years, these requirements have been dropped.  Tennessee is now an “open enrollment” charter school state (anyone can go to a charter school), with no caps on the number of charters operating.

If/when the vouchers legislation passes, I expect to see similar broadening in coming years (unless the generally anti-voucher (with the notable exception of Rep. John DeBerry) Democrats stage an amazing electoral comeback).

Other thoughts: The requirement that participating private schools not offer any special education services beyond what they already offer (which, for most private schools (with some exceptions), is very little — most private schools are not equipped/interested in catering to severe special needs students), is a very important point.  Though this provision is in line with the TNGOP’s stance on not forcing private entities to act a certain way (unless you happen to be Vanderbilt University), it’s still feeds the narrative among anti-voucher (and anti-charter) folks that these reforms simply skim the cream off of public school enrollment (“cream” including high-performing students and, more importantly, students with motivated and active parents) and leave behind low-performing students and high-needs special education students.

Much more ink will be spilled about this in the coming weeks and months, so be sure to check back.

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.