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.


 

 

 

Voucher Debate Heats Up With 800k Ad Buy.

The voucher debate now looks like campaign season with a huge advertising purchase by the American Federation for Children, a DC based education group that promotes vouchers. The Tennessee Journal (not available online) first reported on Friday that the Federation was buying ad spaces.

The Tennessee Federation for Children has been running cable TV ads in Tipton and Rutherford counties, declaring that Reps. Debra Moody (R-Covington) and Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro), both members
of the Education Subcommittee, can make a difference on the issue. The ads do not mention a specific bill.

This weekend, the federation is adding cable and digital ads in the districts of Reps. Mary Littleton (R-Dickson), Pat Marsh (R-Shelbyville), and Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville). Williams is on the Education Committee.

By Friday afternoon, the Associated Press reported an 800k ad buy the group.

An official familiar with the plans tells The Associated Press that the state chapter of the American Federation for Children is spending $800,000 on broadcast television, cable and radio advertising – a vast amount for political advertising or issue advocacy in the state.

Tennessean Reporter Joey Garrison has heard pro vouchers ads since January on 92Q, a radio station located in Nashville.

This isn’t the first time that the American Federation for Children has thrown thousands of dollars into Tennessee. The group spent almost $36,000 to help reelect Representative John Deberry during the last campaign season. We knew this was coming once the Federation hired Chip Saltsman to promote school vouchers in Tennessee. Saltsman is the former chief of staff for US Representative Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), former chair of the TNGOP, and served as campaign manger for Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run.

The Federation isn’t the only group that is running TV ads. Again from The Tennessee Journal:

Meanwhile, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, formerly the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, has been airing a TV ad on broadcast stations in Nashville and Knoxville promoting “scholarships and choice for K-12 students.” It also doesn’t mention a particular bill.

This comes at a time when some legislators (specifically Sen. Brian Kelsey) want to see a bigger voucher bill than what has been proposed by Gov. Haslam. The Tennessee Education Report will keep you update on any changes to the current voucher bill.

Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 

Why are Teachers So Unhappy?

The results of the Survey of the American Teacher for 2012 are out and guess what?  Teachers aren’t very happy.  Teacher job satisfaction is at an all-time low and has dropped 23 points over the past five years, including a 5-point drop between 2011 and 2012.

Guess what happens to people who aren’t very satisfied with their work?  1) They don’t do it very well and 2) They end up leaving that job and finding something more satisfying.

But why? What might be making teachers so dissatisfied?

Well, the value-proposition for teachers is not a great one, for starters.  Pay is not great and support is not great and so teachers don’t feel good about their relative value.

Specific to Tennessee, a number of “reforms” have taken shape in recent years that no doubt contribute to the unhappiness of the Tennessee teacher.

First, there was the successful effort to end collective bargaining in Tennessee.  This in spite of the fact that no evidence was shown that this would improve student outcomes.  Collective bargaining in Tennessee was mostly about giving teachers a seat at the table when budgets and salaries and resources were discussed.  Rarely did teachers strike and they certainly never held Boards hostage for huge pay increases.  In fact, many local teacher’s associations bargained for textbooks and other resources for students in place of raises for the teachers.  One middle Tennessee district’s teachers offered to forego a raise for the length of a 3-year contract in exchange for keeping the health insurance match intact.  Instead, the teachers saw their portion of health insurance increase and have so far gone without a local raise for six years.  Now, with no seat at the table at all, teachers across Tennessee have even less input into district operations and resources.  And it’s not like Tennessee’s state or local governments are lavishing high pay and impressive resources on teachers.

The same year that collective bargaining ended for Tennessee teachers, the state implemented a new evaluation system.  Policymakers seemed to think it was more important to get the evaluations in place than to get them right.  And there have been changes in the first two years and more changes coming.  Imagine being told by your boss that there are certain standards you have to meet.  Then being told that all of that will now change.  And then change again next year and the year after that.  How secure would you feel about your job?  That’s what Tennessee teachers are facing.

This year, instead of focusing on boosting teacher pay or increasing support through mentoring or coaching programs or adding more resources to schools, legislators are focused on an unproven (and in the case of one Vanderbilt study — proven NOT to work) performance pay schemes.

And the Governor is focused on adding an even less proven and likely expensive voucher scheme to the mix.

This is a state that truly took a step forward with the BEP back in 1992.  Then stopped fully-funding it when it got too expensive about six years later.  Then, Pre-K was expanded.  And the expansion has stopped because finding the money became too difficult.  And possibly because it became trendy to suggest that we could improve our schools without making new investments in the people in them.  Four classes of 4-year-olds have become kindergarteners since the last expansion of Pre-K.  This in a state with one of the lowest rates of college degree attainment.  That’s four years worth of students who are significantly less likely to graduate from high school.  And for those who do, they are far less ready for college than they would have been if they had enjoyed access to the high-quality Pre-K program Tennessee offers a fraction of its families.

The BEP was reformed as BEP 2.0 around 2007.  That reform, too, proved too expensive.  Many districts around our state would have seen significant increases had the new BEP been fully-funded these last few years.  Instead, budget challenges (and unwillingness to raise revenue) at the local level have meant stagnation in teacher pay and a lack of resources for students.

Tennessee’s education policy history is fraught with examples like these.  Well-meaning reforms and investments thwarted when the going gets tough and finding money for schools gets too difficult.

And now, we’re asking more from our teachers than ever before with less pay, no seat at the table, and few resources.  Is it any wonder they are dissatisfied?

 

 

 

 

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.