Voters Want Charter Reforms

 

That’s the message the Metro Nashville Education Association wants to get out as Nashville’s Mayoral candidates head to a forum focused on education this evening.

MNEA pointed to results from a poll of Tennessee voters conducted for the Center for Popular Democracy as evidence that charter reforms are a key education issue warranting attention.

The poll found that charter reforms focused on transparency and accountability received overwhelmingly favorable responses from Tennessee voters.

Additionally, the poll, conducted by GBA Strategies, found that voters ranked lack of school choice dead last among issues of concern on education. That’s particularly relevant given the advancing voucher legislation at the General Assembly.

Here’s the release from MNEA:

Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA) Leaders say a recent survey of local voters shows that Tennesseans overwhelmingly favor reforms for local charter schools to protect students and taxpayers.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected charter expansion as a priority, the survey found. Instead, voters favored charter reforms to strengthen:
• Transparency and accountability

• Teacher training and qualifications

• Anti-fraud measures

• Equity policies for high-need students
“It’s clear our communities support quality public schools, not an expansion of charter schools,” said MNEA President Stephen Henry. “We need to make sure ALL Nashville schools are held to the same accountability and transparency standards that taxpayers expect.”
The survey also found voters rated the need for more parental involvement and the reduction of excessive student testing as bigger priorities than expanding charters.

Specifically, voters favored by greater than 80% approval reforms that would:

  • provide rigorous, independent audits of charter school finances
  • require charter schools to publish how they spend taxpayer dollars, including all budgets and contracts
  • ensure that teachers in any publicly-funded school meet the same training and qualification requirements

“We need community leaders who will stand up for the strong public schools our kids deserve,” said MNEA Vice President Erick Huth. “This includes our new director of schools and our next mayor.”
The poll was conducted in January among 500 registered voters by GBA Strategies, a research firm based in Washington, D.C. It was funded, in part, by the Center for Popular Democracy, a national organization dedicated to social justice issues.

Here are some of the poll results:

  Total Support %
Transparency & Accountability  
Require state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste or abuse of public funds 86
Require companies and organizations that manage charter schools to release to parents and the public how they spend taxpayer money, including their annual budgets and contracts 85
Preventing Harm to Neighborhood Schools  
Before any new charter school is approved, conduct an analysis of the impact the school will have on neighborhood public schools 78
Ensure that neighborhood public schools do not lose funding when new charter schools open in their area 78
Protect Taxpayer funds  
Require charter schools to return taxpayer money to the school district for any student that leaves the charter school to return to a neighborhood public school during the school year 78
Stop the creation of new charter schools if state officials have not shown the ability to prevent fraud and mismanagement 69
Prohibit charter school board members and their immediate families from financially benefiting from their schools 65
Prohibit charter schools from spending taxpayer dollars on advertising or marketing 54
Serving High Need Students  
Require all teachers who work in taxpayer funded schools, including neighborhood public schools and charter schools, to meet the same training and qualification requirements 89
Require charter schools to serve high-need students such as special education students, at the same level as neighborhood public schools 79

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

Money Talks

Funny how a little thing like a BEP lawsuit asking for more than $600 million can cause Governor Haslam to propose adding a little more money to the education pot.

Yes, seven Tennessee school districts are suing over the inadequacy of the state’s education funding. And, just one week after the suit was filed, Governor Haslam suddenly “found” some $30 million to invest in funding an additional month of teacher health insurance. The state currently pays 45% of 10 months of teacher insurance, but teachers are insured for a full 12 months.

The districts are suing based on numbers provided by the BEP Review Committee, the state group tasked with annually reviewing the BEP formula and making recommendations for improvements.

The idea is that the BEP Review Committee will highlight issues that need attention and help the state avoid additional funding lawsuits.

The reality is that the BEP Review Committee reports go ignored by the legislature and most Governors until a lawsuit is filed. Twice since the original “Small Schools” suit that initially brought about the BEP the state has been sued over funding equity. Twice, the state has lost those equity lawsuits.

Governor Haslam’s administration has said that education funding is now a priority — but that wasn’t the case last year and he didn’t seem to be making any real moves this year until a lawsuit was filed.

Only seven districts are party to the current suit while others continue to debate joining in.

In Metro Nashville, some on the Board have openly suggested a more collaborative approach. I would suggest that after giving Bill Haslam four years to get serious about school funding, the time for collaboration is over. Haslam has created a duplicative BEP Task Force that has the stated goal of rearranging the slices of a pie that’s too small.

When asked about the latest threat of a suit before it became a reality, Haslam said he was committed to doing “something” about school funding, but he just didn’t know what yet.

This $30 million is a tiny olive branch, but far from a serious move toward funding schools properly. And, with legislators like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick saying Tennessee’s schools are currently properly funded, it’s unclear how much support truly improving the funding situation will have. In fact, at today’s legislative hearing on school vouchers, McCormick took a swipe at school boards, suggesting they should focus on educating kids instead of filing lawsuits.

I would also note that for those on the MNPS Board who want to collaborate with Haslam that he has been supportive of voucher schemes that will devastate public schools, especially MNPS. Haslam’s support of dangerous voucher schemes and lack of any serious effort to improve school funding combined with his legislative leaders taking verbal swipes at school boards means he’s deserving of a serious confrontation — not a collaborative spirit.

You don’t wait around for someone who has never shown an interest in making an effort to see if they suddenly will do something good. You don’t take the coin they toss in the way of some insurance money as evidence they are finally serious about giving you what you deserve.

The bottom line is this: The BEP is broken. 

Bill Haslam has made no meaningful effort to fix it. Until a lawsuit was filed, his administration wasn’t even willing to admit there was a problem with funding for teacher insurance.

Tennessee school districts, teachers, and parents should start working together to insist that the legislature and the Governor develop serious, long-term funding solutions for our state’s schools. If the BEP problem is not fixed by legislative action, the legislature and Governor may be forced to fix it by the courts. It’s long past time for the serious work of making the BEP work for all of Tennessee.

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

My Time at the State Capitol

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the halls of Legislative Plaza at the State Capitol. I also visited the capitol a few weeks ago with members of the Tennessee Reading Association’s Advocacy Committee. Unlike some, I highly enjoy my time on the hill. Here are a few of my takeaways.

There were a lot more people in the education committees then there were in 2012 when I last worked on the hill. As many already know, more and more people are concerned about education in Tennessee. That means there are more advocates and stakeholders when it comes to education. While many people crammed into education committee rooms, other committees sat almost empty. This really shows you how important education is in Tennessee. A lot of time, energy, and lobbying are taking place in the education world.

I spoke to numerous people about Dr. Candice McQueen, the newly appointed Commissioner of Education. Everyone I spoke with only had praise for Dr. McQueen. With Commissioner McQueen at the helm of the department, I believe these next four years will be systematically different than the last four years. Commissioner McQueen was already highly revered in the education world before she became Commissioner, and I believe she will leave the Department of Education in an even higher regard. From the looks of social media, Commissioner McQueen is traveling around the state at every chance she gets. I like that.

With the Tennessee Reading Association, we visited with the education committee chairs. Each chair, Representative John Fogerty, Representative Harry Brooks, and Senator Dolores Gresham, were very receptive on our message of staying on course to retain high standards. While we were advocating for Common Core, we understood that the standards would most likely change names. I think everyone agrees that Common Core will go away, but with a high quality Tennessee State Standards left in Common Core’s place. Too much money has been spent on teacher training to just get rid of the standards all together.

Legislators are already reviewing comments that stakeholders are making through the Tennessee Education Standards Review. https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/ I hope that everyone will go online and take part in this review process. They need to hear from teachers!

If you don’t know who your legislators are, go to this site to find out. http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/ It’s important that you know who represents you at the state capitol. When contacting your member, tell your legislator that you are a constituent and a teacher.

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


 

Validating the Invalid?

The Tennessee House of Representatives passed legislation today (HB 108) that makes changes to current practice in teacher evaluation as Tennessee transitions to its new testing regime, TNReady.

The changes adjust the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation that is dependent on TVAAS scores to 10% next year, 20% the following year, and back to the current 35% by the 2017-18 academic year.

This plan is designed to allow for a transition period to the new TNReady tests which will include constructed-response questions and be aligned to the so-called Tennessee standards which match up with the Common Core State Standards.

Here’s the problem: There is no statistically valid way to predict expected growth on a new test based on the historic results of TCAP. First, the new test has (supposedly) not been fully designed. Second, the test is in a different format. It’s both computer-based and it contains constructed-response questions. That is, students must write-out answers and/or demonstrate their work.

Since Tennessee has never had a test like this, it’s impossible to predict growth at all. Not even with 10% confidence. Not with any confidence. It is the textbook definition of comparing apples to oranges.

Clearly, legislators feel like at the very least, this is an improvement. A reasonable accommodation to teachers as our state makes a transition.

But, how is using 10% of an invalid number a good thing? Should any part of a teacher’s evaluation be made up of a number that reveals nothing at all about that teacher’s performance?

While value-added data alone is a relatively poor predictor of teacher performance, the value-added estimate used next year is especially poor because it is not at all valid.

But, don’t just take my word for it. Researchers studying the validity of value-added measures asked whether value-added gave different results depending on the type of question asked. Particularly relevant now because Tennessee is shifting to a new test with different types of questions.

Here’s what Lockwood and McCaffrey (2007) had to say in the Journal of Educational Measurement:

We find that the variation in estimated effects resulting from the different mathematics achievement measures is large relative to variation resulting from choices about model specification, and that the variation within teachers across achievement measures is larger than the variation across teachers. These results suggest that conclusions about individual teachers’ performance based on value-added models can be sensitive to the ways in which student achievement is measured.
These findings align with similar findings by Martineau (2006) and Schmidt et al (2005)
You get different results depending on the type of question you’re measuring.

The researchers tested various VAM models (including the type used in TVAAS) and found that teacher effect estimates changed significantly based on both what was being measured AND how it was measured. 

And they concluded:

Our results provide a clear example that caution is needed when interpreting estimated teacher effects because there is the potential for teacher performance to depend on the skills that are measured by the achievement tests.

If you measure different skills, you get different results. That decreases (or eliminates) the reliability of those results. TNReady is measuring different skills in a different format than TCAP. It’s BOTH a different type of test AND a test on different standards. Any value-added comparison between the two tests is statistically suspect, at best. In the first year, such a comparison is invalid and unreliable. As more years of data become available, it may be possible to make some correlation between past TCAP results and TNReady scores.

Or, if the state is determined to use growth scores (and wants to use them with accuracy), they will wait several years and build completely new growth models based on TNReady alone. At least three years of data would be needed in order to build such a model.

It seems likely that the Senate will follow the House’s lead on Monday and overwhelmingly support the proposed evaluation changes. But in doing so, they should be asking themselves if it’s really ok to base any part of a teacher’s evaluation on numbers that reliably predict nothing.

More on Value-Added:

Real World Harms of Value-Added Data

Struggles with Value-Added Data

 

What Could Go Wrong?

Last week, I wrote about the newest voucher craze sweeping the Tennessee General Assembly — vouchers for kids with IEPs – individualized education plans.

The concept sounds interesting, but as noted in the post, the program lacks accountability. Tennessee’s program is modeled after Florida’s McKay Scholarship, and Sara Mead of Education Sector studied that plan and found it to be seriously lacking.

But, what does that mean? What could go wrong?

Well, everything.

A story in the Miami New Times details a number of problems with the McKay program – the very plan Tennessee is seeking to emulate if the legislation passes here.

Here are some highlights:

South Florida Prep

South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:

Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

Exponential Growth

Once a niche scholarship fund, the McKay program has boomed exponentially in the 12 years since it was introduced under Gov. Jeb Bush, with $148.6 million handed out in the past 12 months, a 38 percent increase from just more than five years ago.

There are 1,013 schools — 65 percent of them religious — collecting McKay vouchers from 22,198 children at an average of $7,144 per year.

Similarly, proponents of the vouchers in Tennessee suggest that plan will be modest, and not widely used. The Florida numbers tell a different — and financially devastating story.

No Accountability

While supporters of the measure in Tennessee claim that accountability measures are included, they were also included in the Florida legislation. Nevertheless, here’s what’s happened there:

According to one former DOE investigator, who claimed his office was stymied by trickle-down gubernatorial politics, the agency failed to uncover “even a significant fraction” of the McKay crime that was occurring.

Administrators who have received funding include criminals convicted of cocaine dealing, kidnapping, witness tampering, and burglary.

Even in investigations where fraud, including forgery and stealing student information to bolster enrollment, is proven, arrests are rare. The thieves are usually allowed to simply repay the stolen loot in installments — or at least promise to — and continue to accept McKay payments.

Opening the Door

Just as in Florida, the Tennessee voucher plan is being pushed as a way to help kids with IEPs access services. But, here’s what has happened:

To be eligible for a McKay voucher in the early days, a student would have had to qualify for an individual education program (IEP) — which encompasses conditions ranging from attention disorders and autism to physical disabilities — and be failing in public schools. The latter requirement was eventually scrapped by legislators. A cap limiting the number of McKay kids per district was also tossed.

Who Will Check?

The proposed Tennessee plan creates “Individual Education Accounts” for parents/guardians of children qualifying for the program — the qualifications being the child has attended at least two semesters of public school in Tennessee and currently has an IEP.

The parent can then use the funds to provide services either through a private school or on their own, by purchasing curriculum or paying for tutoring. Though the bill requires the Department of Education to set up procedures for policing the program, it seems it would be difficult to keep track of the 6000-8000 accounts the plan is estimated to create in the early years. Additionally, of course, the Department would have to track providers of education services and curriculum. How long will it take to discover fraud? And what happens to the students with legitimate needs who are poorly or never served?

As proposed, Tennessee’s program has many similarities to the way the program in Florida began. The only way to prevent such a plan from becoming a disaster in Tennessee, it seems, is to never let it get started.

 

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

 

Vouchers Gone Wild

Vouchers are going wild in the Tennessee General Assembly this week and its not clear where they’ll stop.

First, the Senate Finance Committee tacked on an amendment to the principle voucher vehicle, SB 999.

The amendment adds the words “public or nonpublic school” to the bill.

Here’s what that means: Students could use the so-called Opportunity Scholarship to pay “out of district” tuition to a neighboring school district.

A family lives in Davidson County but wants their child to attend school in Williamson. The language allows them to use the voucher to send their child to school in Williamson if they meet all the other voucher requirements.

This is problematic on several fronts. First, there’s no way for districts to predict how many students will apply for admission from outside their district. This makes planning for growth/space needs difficult.

Next, the voucher amount may or may not equal the actual per pupil dollars spent on the child — creating a financial burden for the receiving district as well as for the district that loses the student. Yes, even if students leave a public school system, fixed costs mean vouchers increase, not decrease expenses.

The amendment will surely require a new Fiscal Note — an analysis of the financial impact of the bill.  And its adoption delayed consideration of the companion bill in the House Education – Administration & Planning Committee.

Following this adventure in vouchers, the Senate Education Committee and a House subcommittee approved a voucher plan that would allow any Tennessee student with an IEP – Individualized Education Plan – to receive vouchers. 120,000 Tennessee students currently meet this definition.

That means that in addition to the 20,000 student cap that is in the first voucher bill, another 120,000 students would be eligible. It’s not hard to imagine an ultimate goal of making vouchers available to every single student in Tennessee.

The idea for the IEP voucher plan is based on a plan promoted by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who saw the program adopted in his state while he was in office.

A report by Sara Mead of Education Sector at American Institutes for Research notes that the Florida program, on which the Tennessee legislation is modeled, is problematic.

Here are some highlights:

McKay students do not have to take the annual state tests administered to public school students, and McKay schools are not required to report any information on student outcomes—which goes against the national trend toward standards and accountability in public education. Thus, it is virtually impossible to say whether special-needs children using McKay vouchers to attend private schools are faring better, worse, or about the same as they had in their old public schools. It is also difficult to determine whether the McKay program is improving existing special-education services, since, unlike public schools, McKay schools are not required to provide these services at all.

Tennessee’s plan would have a similar lack of accountability — which means parents could claim the voucher and then have their child be grossly under-served.

Mead continues:

McKay’s lack of accountability requirements and its minimal quality and service expectations make McKay a seriously flawed program. Under the current structure of the program, taxpayers have almost no knowledge of how their money is being spent, and neither taxpayers nor parents have access to solid information about the performance of different McKay schools. For parents, the stakes are very high, as they are required to give up their due process rights under IDEA if they choose to participate in the McKay program. Parents, taxpayers, and the state’s special-needs children deserve better.

Moving toward a program with zero accountability and unproven results seems a grave disservice to the families of special needs children in Tennessee.

Next week may yield a slow down for these two voucher initiatives. Or, it could be more vouchers gone wild – more tax dollars spent, less accountability.

More on School Vouchers:

Fiscal Note Fantasy

TSBA Talks Vouchers

Why Vouchers Won’t Work

Should Tennesseans Support School Vouchers?

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

 

TNReady … Already?

Back in November, the State of Tennessee awarded a contract to Measurement Inc. to develop the new assessment that would replace TCAP.

This assessment is to be aligned to state standards (largely based on Common Core State Standards) and should take into account feedback from Tennesseans.

Measurement Inc. will be paid $108 million for the contract.

Chalkbeat noted at the time the contract was awarded:

Measurement Inc. is subcontracting to AIR, a much larger player in the country’s testing market. AIR already has contracts with Utah and Florida, so Tennessee educators will be able to compare scores of Tennessee students with students from those states “with certainty and immediately.” AIR is also working with Smarter Balanced, one of two federally funded consortia charged with developing Common Core-aligned exams. That means that educators in Tennessee will also likely be able to measure their students’ progress with students in the 16 states in the Smarter Balanced Consortium.

The Department of Education notes on its website:

Comparability: While the assessments will be unique to Tennessee, TNReady will allow Tennesseans to compare our student progress to that of other states. Through a partnership between Measurement Inc. and American Institutes for Research, TNReady will offer Tennessee a comparison of student performance with other states, likely to include Florida and Utah.

While Measurement Inc. has an interesting approach to recruiting test graders, another item about the contract is also noteworthy.

The Department and Chalkbeat both noted the ability to compare Tennessee test scores with other states, including Utah and Florida.

Here’s why that’s possible. On December 5th, the Utah Board of Education approved the use of revenue from test licensing agreements with Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee based on contracts with AIR, the organization with which Measurement Inc. has a contract, as noted by Chalkbeat.

The contract notes that Utah’s expected arrangement in Tennessee is worth $2.3 million per year (running from 2015-2017) and that Tennessee will use questions licensed for the Utah assessment in Math and ELA in its 2015-16 assessment.

So, Tennessee’s new test will use questions developed for Utah’s assessment and also licensed to Florida and Arizona.

The contract further notes that any release of the questions either by accident or as required by law, will result in a fee of $5000 per test item released. That means if Tennessee wants to release a bank of questions generated from the Utah test and used for Tennessee’s assessment, the state would pay $5000 per question.

While Tennessee has said it may change or adapt the test going forward, it seems that the 2016 edition of the test may be well underway in terms of its development.

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

 

Why Vouchers Won’t Work

Samantha Bates, Director of Member Services for Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) offers her take on why vouchers won’t work in Tennessee.

We are living in an age of historic transformation. There is a no doubt that traditional conservative and liberal ideology has undergone a seismic shift. Political labels mean nothing to voters, because it is very obvious that they mean nothing to politicians elected under a political banner of a party. In education the name of the game is race to the top; in politics it is race to the trough.

Calvin Coolidge understood that the power to tax is the power to destroy. He said, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny.” Government at all levels has created problems and then miraculously been seen as the savior to resolve that issue. We understand, however, that top-down reform rarely reaches the grassroots.

Unless we generate improved capacities in our people, organizations, and communities to see the world differently and to utilize new concepts and methods, we will continue to try to advance ideas and approaches that are increasingly out of date. For example, we have made our system of public education adhere to one set of rules and then handcuffed them. Now we want to allow other approaches to operate under different constructs. Should we not focus on means to free our state and local school districts from onerous rules and regulations and give them greater freedom to operate? Instead of charter schools, for example, what about charter districts in Tennessee. Let’s simply block-grant federal and money to the states or districts.

Education is the process by which we infuse knowledge of our culture and our moral values in our children. However, our schools are being changed from essential community institutions into government agencies. Rather than serving as hubs of civic life, our schools are converting into apparatuses of state and national policy more concerned with economic development than with the diffusion of culture; more concerned with issues associated with international competitiveness than with concern about national character. We have lost our vision because we handcuffed public schools with burdensome rules and regulations and outsourced our policymaking to chambers of commerce and wealthy philanthropists and their well-funded think tanks.

Just as good teachers know when to put aside curriculum to do what is right for children, good leaders will support that effort and good policy will embrace it. The move to shift more state and local dollars to vouchers in Tennessee will not work and will further destroy our public schools. Under a recent proposal the attempt is to target the lowest performing five percent. There will always be a bottom five percent. So, if your school is not on the list, rest assured it will eventually get there. The numbers will expand, and local school systems will be required to absorb the cost to educate the students that remain.

If policymakers want to argue that the latest voucher proposal will promote market-driven competition, they are operating under a false assumption. They will need to come to grips with the fact that, as a whole, Tennessee lacks the necessary infrastructure of quality private schools, and that list is further narrowed with ones that operate at a reasonable tuition rate in line with any proposed voucher. There are some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim schools that may meet the criteria. While the U.S. Constitution is silent on how states fund or provide a quality education, and courts around the nation have upheld that providing money to faith-based schools through vouchers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, each community will ultimately debate if this is where they want their tax money to be spent.

It would also stand to reason, if we are concerned about accountability in public schools and with public monies we will need to also need to be concerned with accountability of a voucher school. If the testing and evaluation system are critical for quality in public schools, would they not be as equally critical for private schools? Vouchers could lead private schools to excessive regulation, as well as undermine the quality and independence of private schools. Whoever pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.

A voucher program will also inevitably lead to continued growth and power by the Tennessee Department of Education over local education. Vouchers will not eliminate or substantially reduce the state’s role in education, and it will take significant resources to oversee the program. If you like big government, this will increase the size and scope of the Tennessee Department of Education.

For some, vouchers are a means to eliminate public education. Looking at the argument for a moment, do we really want a massive system of government contractors, albeit private schools, approved by the state, who in turn will themselves lobby and demand larger subsidies? Vouchers will also likely drive up the cost for parents in private schools whose children do not use or qualify for vouchers.

Philosopher George Santayana defined fanaticism as amplifying your efforts when you have forgotten your purpose. While public schools must promote personal development and intellectual growth, education goes beyond preparing students for college or the workforce. We must remind ourselves of the purpose of public education under the Tennessee Constitution: “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Will vouchers, as proposed, meet that standard?

There are many people working hard to strengthen our system of free public schools. We simply believe that local educators, rather than outside influences, are the people who must transform our schools. We have been there. We are teachers, principals, superintendents and boards of education and we do not believe vouchers will work in our state.

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

 

Dr. Sharon Roberts: Students, Teachers, Principals Need Stability on Standards

NOTE: Below is a guest post by Dr. Sharon Roberts, Chief Operating Officer, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how to improve our schools and increase student achievement, and it can often be tough to cut through the chatter and identify the smartest solutions. But right now, Tennessee has a clear path forward that is easy to see.

Superintendents from 114 of the state’s 141 school districts have signed letters asking their state legislators not to change Tennessee’s academic standards during this legislative session. The letters echo the findings of SCORE’s 2014-15 State of Education in Tennessee report, which identified moving ahead with updated assessments and stability for the standards as the top priority for the coming year.

It’s not often that we see this much alignment from such a diverse group – representing small rural districts, large cities, and communities of sizes in between. The leaders that signed these letters represent districts that educate about 85 percent of all Tennessee public school students. When we have this many voices speaking together, it is important to respectfully listen to what they are saying. The great majority of Tennessee school district leaders – the people who witness every day how our academic standards are working in classrooms – want to keep those standards unchanged this year and let the current process to review and refine our standards play out.

On the heels of these superintendents and directors of schools speaking out, we heard from community college presidents who agree. They know that in recent years about 68 percent of students entering community college have needed to take remedial classes to get prepared for college-level work and that a stronger foundation in K-12 means success in post high school credentialing and work. They are working diligently to help Tennessee achieve the bold goals of the Drive to 55. That’s why they, too, asked policymakers to maintain the existing standards that are helping strengthen students’ skills.

Superintendents, college presidents, and educators we talk to across the state agree that providing a stable environment to move ahead is the best thing we can do for Tennessee students this year.

The urge to take bold action during the legislative session can be strong, especially when it comes to setting our kids up for success. But this year, educators and many others believe that the strongest leadership our leaders can provide is to hold off on major changes and give our teachers, students, and parents some stability while they implement the student-focused policies that have already been put in place.

While there is no need for legislative action, I do urge other Tennesseans – especially teachers – to take action by taking the time to review our English language arts and math standards and provide feedback on what’s working and what can be improved. That’s the best way to ensure our state standards will work in Tennessee classrooms. You can visit www.tn.gov/standardsreview to see what the standards look like and offer your own thoughts.

The decisions we make today will impact an entire generation of Tennesseans. We all want to make sure that our students are on the path to success in college, careers, and wherever life takes them. Right now, our policymakers can keep students on that path by rejecting proposals to start over or to go back and committing to gathering thoughtful input and building on the strong foundation that is already in place, and that is paying dividends for our students.

Dr. Sharon Roberts oversees SCORE’s organizational operations and project management to further the organization’s mission, vision, and strategic plan. She is also heavily involved in SCORE’s outreach program, targeting and engaging stakeholders across the state. Prior to joining SCORE, Dr. Roberts entire career was spent as an educator, beginning as a special education teacher in the Grainger County School System, spending 21 years in Knox County School system as a teacher, instructional coach, principal and assistant superintendent, and then becoming Director of the Lebanon (TN) Special School District.

TSBA Talks Vouchers

The Tennessee School Boards Association is out with an op-ed on its opposition to vouchers. Here are four key points taken directly from the piece:

1. Vouchers use your money to help pay for a student to go to a private school that answers to private administrators and not you the taxpayer.  Public schools must answer to the people and are held accountable for the use of local, state and federal educational tax money.

2. Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution specifically states “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”  Nowhere in our constitution is the General Assembly directed to take taxpayer money and use it for a voucher system so parents can use public money to send their children to private schools.

3. Private schools are not public institutions, and without proper oversight the “qualifications and standards” for students may fall short of expectations and undermine the fundamental idea of equality in education.  Vouchers require the public to supplement these standards even if they are contrary to state and federal education law.

4. Vouchers force the public to support two drastically different educational systems one over which the public has no oversight.

 

Essentially, the TSBA argument boils down to accountability and accessibility. Private schools simply aren’t (and won’t be) accountable to the taxpayers funding them. And private schools are not accessible to all Tennessee students, even with a voucher program.

It’s also worth noting that a voucher program would drive up the costs of local school districts without a corresponding increase in revenue.

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