Sen. Kelsey Offers Limited Voucher Plan

After watching competing voucher plans stall last year, Governor Haslam and Senator Brian Kelsey have both made statements this year that they’ll work together to pass a voucher plan.

Perhaps to that end, Sen. Kelsey filed a bill that proposes a limited voucher plan, initially allowing for 5,000 “opportunity scholarships” in the first year of the program.

Post Politics has the full story.

And Jon Alfuth in Memphis makes a case against vouchers here.

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

The Education Agenda

What’s the best way to move Tennessee schools forward? It seems lots of people have opinions about this.  And some organized groups (teachers, superintendents, parents) are familiar faces around the General Assembly as education legislation is discussed, debated, and voted on.

Here, I attempt to break down the education agenda according to various groups attempting to influence the debate at the General Assembly this session.

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET)

This group of teachers is the smaller of the two organizations in the state representing teachers (the other being the Tennessee Education Association).

We’ve written about PET’s 2014 agenda before.

Essentially, they are focusing on teacher licensure (and the use of TVAAS to determine continuation), protection of student and teacher data, and testing.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE)

We reported last week on the launch of this new group. They appear to stand in opposition to much of the current reform agenda in Nashville (state charter authorizer, vouchers, etc.). They also support full funding of BEP 2.0.

Tennessee Education Association (TEA)

TEA is the state’s oldest and largest association of teachers.  The TEA has historically opposed the expansion of charter schools and the use of public dollars for private schools (vouchers). They have a fairly wide-ranging legislative agenda. Additionally, they are currently undertaking a “road trip” to expose flaws in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA)

As its name implies, this group represents school boards across the state.  Though a few systems are not members, most in Tennessee are.  Here’s their complete agenda.  The organization opposes vouchers and opposes revoking a teacher’s license based solely on TVAAS data.

Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS)

The statewide organization representing school superintendents.  Their full legislative agenda can be found here. TOSS opposes vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and the revocation of a teacher’s license based on TVAAS data.

Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)

SCORE is headed-up by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  The organization is comprised of many education stakeholders and aims to provide information to policymakers as they make decisions that impact schools.  They have been supportive of the new teacher evaluation model and are the leading organization in Tennessee in support of the Common Core State Standards.  More on SCORE here.

Stand for Children

This organization has been active in Tennessee since 1999.  For the sake of full disclosure, I worked for Stand in TN from 2007-2009. The organization made its mark in Tennessee advocating for expanded access to Pre-K.  According to a recent email from new Executive Director Betty Anderson, the organization plans to focus this year’s legislative efforts on maintaining the Common Core State Standards.  They are also supportive of expanded access to Pre-K and to improvements to the BEP.

StudentsFirst

This is the Tennessee affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s nationwide StudentsFirst organization. Here’s the group’s official issue agenda.  They have been supportive of vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and teacher merit pay.

Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA)

The Tennessee PTA is comprised of parents organized at the local school level. While these groups typically support their specific school, the PTA also supports schools and students in the community and state. Their complete legislative agenda can be found here. The PTA includes in its agenda support for the inclusion of parent and student feedback in teacher evaluation and the use of “strategic compensation” for teachers.  They also support the Coordinated School Health program and changes to the BEP that would provide funding for additional nurses. The PTA opposes vouchers.

School Choice Now

This group is a joint project of the Tennessee Federation for Children and the Beacon Center of TN.  Their focus is on a statewide school voucher program, which they call “opportunity scholarships.”

Those are the major groups I’m aware of attempting to influence education policy in Tennessee. There are likely others.  But this is a starting point to understanding what’s going on at the Legislative Plaza regarding education policy and who is pushing for what policies.

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

 

A New TREE Takes Root

A new advocacy group focused on countering corporate education reformers in Tennessee announced its formation this week. Calling itself TREE (Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence), the group is focused on advocating for quality investment in schools, accountability and transparency in the education system, and local control of schools.

The group is at odds with many of the heavily-funded major players in Tennessee education — StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, Tennessee Federation for Children/Beacon Center, and others.

Unlike those groups, which receive significant funding from out-of-state special interest groups and foundations, TREE is a grassroots, citizen-funded group born in Tennessee.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact TREE’s presence has on issues like school vouchers and a state charter school authorizer.

Here’s their announcement press release:

A grassroots group of Tennesseans backed by concerned parents, teachers, and taxpayers today announced the formation of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE), a new advocacy group focused on protecting and strengthening Tennessee’s schools.
TREE is dedicated to stopping attempts by special interest groups to dismantle Tennessee’s public education system. “Well-funded, out-of-state special interest groups are now doubling down on their efforts to influence laws that will divert public money to private entities, further eroding our already underfunded schools,” TREE president Lyn Hoyt, parent to three Metro Nashville Public School students, said. “Public school parents, teachers, and advocates must be heard by our legislators.”
TREE will pursue several goals based on the group’s core values: quality investment in schools, transparency and accountability throughout the education system, and local control of our schools.
“We don’t plan to match corporate funded lobbying groups dollar for dollar,” Hoyt said. “TREE will be an authentic parent voice for legislators. We will work to educate legislators, parents, and citizens across the state about the dire consequences of legislation, pushed by special interest groups, that will negatively impact our public schools, teachers, and tax dollars.”
 
 
Twitter: @TNExcellence 
For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow us @TNEdReport

A Case Against Vouchers

Memphis teacher Jon Alfuth writes a compelling piece arguing against the adoption of vouchers in Tennessee.

Here’s an excerpt providing some very good reasons why vouchers should be looked at skeptically by Tennessee lawmakers:

Voucher programs also struggle to achieve their mission of providing low-income students with a way out of failing schools.  For example a critical study of the Milwaukee program found that it overwhelmingly helped those already receiving education through private means.  Two thirds of Milwaukee students using the voucher program in the city already attended private schools.  Instead of increasing mobility for low-income students, the program primarily served to perpetuate status quo.

Voucher programs have also caused to students inadvertently attending failing schools, thereby maintaining the very problem they are meant to solve.  It’s often difficult to determine the quality of the schools serving voucher students because private schools are not required to make public the same amount of student data as public schools.  An example of this occurring can be found right next door in Louisiana where approximately 2250 students were recently found to be attending failing schools through the state’s voucher program.

Alfuth writes from the perspective of a teacher at a charter school who supports much of the current education reform agenda, including expansion of school choice.  His concerns about vouchers are reasonable, fair, and insightful.

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

 

 

Voucher Backers Gearing up for 2014

Following a 2013 legislative session that saw voucher proposals competing and ultimately, no proposal succeeding, advocates for a vouchers, or “opportunity scholarships,” are gearing up for the 2014 legislative session.

2014 in education will likely look a lot like 2013 in terms of proposals on vouchers and charter schools.

Voucher advocates, organized under a coalition known as School Choice NOW, held a recent event in Hendersonville. There, they noted that this year’s discussions will start with Governor Haslam’s proposal from last session.  His proposal was a limited voucher plan that would initially offer 5000 vouchers in Memphis and Nashville and eventually grow to 20,000.  While it seems no competing proposal will be offered, it’s not clear what shape the final legislation will take.

Lawmakers in Chattanooga also recently discussed vouchers, with a solid pro-voucher bent coming from that delegation.

One possible stumbling block is the rapid pace of recent education reforms.  Some in the legislature, including House Speaker Beth Harwell, are suggesting that perhaps school systems need time to absorb the current crop of reforms before vouchers are allowed to move forward.

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

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.