Lamar’s Alternative Facts

Senator Lamar Alexander is an avid supporter of Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. He released a statement today blaming Democrats for attempting to derail the DeVos nomination. I’ll post the statement below and then address the glaring use of “alternative facts.”

Here’s the statement:

Democrats desperately are searching for a valid reason to oppose Betsy DeVos for U.S. Education Secretary because they don’t want Americans to know the real reason for their opposition.

That real reason? She has spent more than three decades helping children from low-income families choose a better school. Specifically, Democrats resent her support for allowing tax dollars to follow children to schools their low-income parents’ choose — although wealthy families choose their children’s schools every day.

Tax dollars supporting school choice is hardly subversive or new. In 2016, $121 billion in federal Pell Grants and new student loans followed 11 million college students to accredited public, private or religious schools of their choice, whether Notre Dame, Yeshiva, the University of Tennessee or Nashville’s auto diesel college. These aid payments are, according to Webster’s — “vouchers”-exactly the same form of payments that Mrs. DeVos supports for schools.
America’s experience with education vouchers began in 1944 with the GI Bill. As veterans returned from World War II, federal tax dollars followed them to the college of their choice.
Why, then, is an idea that helped produce the Greatest Generation and the world’s best colleges such a dangerous idea for our children?

Mrs. DeVos testified that she opposes Washington, D.C., requiring states to adopt vouchers, unlike her critics who delight in a National School Board imposing their mandates on states, for example, Common Core academic standards.
So, who is in the mainstream here? The GI Bill, Pell Grants, student loans, both Presidents Bush, President Trump, the 25 states that allow parents to choose among public and private schools, Congress with its passage of the Washington, D.C. voucher program, 45 U.S. senators who voted in 2015 to allow states to use existing federal dollars for vouchers, Betsy DeVos — or her senate critics?

The second reason Democrats oppose Mrs. DeVos is that she supports charter schools — public schools with fewer government and union rules so that teachers have more freedom to teach and parents have more freedom to choose the schools. In 1992, Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party created a dozen charter schools. Today there are 6,800 in 43 states and the District of Columbia. President Obama’s last Education Secretary was a charter school founder. Again, who is in the mainstream? Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor party, Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama; the last six U.S. Education Secretaries, the U.S. Congress, 43 states and the District of Columbia, Betsy DeVos — or her senate critics?

Her critics dislike that she is wealthy. Would they be happier if she had spent her money denying children from low-income families choices of schools?

Mrs. DeVos’ senate opponents are grasping for straws. We didn’t have time to question her, they say, even though she met with each one of them in their offices, and her hearing lasted nearly an hour and a half longer than either of President Obama’s education secretaries.

Now she is answering 837 written follow up questions from Democratic committee members — 1,397 if you include all the questions within a question. By comparison, Republicans asked President Obama’s first education secretary 53 written follow-up questions and his second education secretary 56 written follow-up questions, including questions within a question. In other words, Democrats have asked Mrs. DeVos 25 times as many follow-up questions as Republicans asked of either of President Obama’s education secretaries.

Finally, Democrats are throwing around conflict of interest accusations. But Betsy DeVos has signed an agreement with the independent Office of Government Ethics to divest, within 90 days of her confirmation, possible conflicts of interest identified by the ethics office, as every cabinet secretary is required to do. That agreement is on the internet.

Tax returns? Federal law does not require disclosure of tax returns for cabinet members, or for U.S. Senators. Both cabinet members and senators are already required to publish extensive disclosures of their holdings, income and debts. Cabinet members must also sign an agreement with the Office of Government Ethics to eliminate potential conflicts of interest.

One year ago, because I believe presidents should have their cabinet in place in order to govern, I worked to confirm promptly President Obama’s nomination of John King to be Education Secretary, even though I disagreed with him.

Even though they disagree with her, Democrats should also promptly confirm Betsy DeVos. Few Americans have done as much to help low-income students have a choice of better schools. She is on the side of our children. Her critics may resent that, but this says more about them than it does about her.

Analysis:

Alexander claims that Democrats are opposing DeVos because she supports choices and options for parents of schoolchildren. That’s demonstrably false. As one example, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has said he opposes DeVos. Booker was a champion of charter-based education reform as Mayor of Newark and is seen as a Democrat who is friendly with the education reform crowd. His concerns, he says, are about her qualifications for the job.

Likewise, Democrats for Education Reform, a national group of education advocates that support a range of education options including charter schools and who have often opposed teachers’ unions, has expressed concerns about DeVos. Specifically, DFER notes:

In particular, Mrs. DeVos’ testimony was non-committal on whether public schools should be de-funded or privatized. She left confusion as to whether the decades-long federal commitment to serving children with disabilities—the Individuals with Disabilities Enforcement Act (IDEA)—should be a matter left to the states. She said that she would re-assess implementation programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act that require states to set uniform accountability standards consistent with federal guardrails. Her expressed lack of commitment to strong federal accountability, unfortunately, also extended to higher education, as she called for a reassessment of federal mandates requiring post-secondary career and technical schools to show effectiveness in preparing graduates for the workforce.

And it’s not just Democrats expressing concerns. JC Bowman, of Professional Educators of Tennessee also penned a letter indicating some reservations about DeVos. Bowman formerly worked on education policy for Florida Governor Jeb Bush — hardly a foe of school choice. Bush initiated a voucher program in Florida and was a proponent of charters.

Here’s what Bowman had to say:

Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

Alexander’s claims simply don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Those opposing DeVos are not just Democrats and they are not all opponents of school choice efforts.

Listening to her confirmation hearing, one heard DeVos advocate for an end to “gun-free school zones” because schools may face threats from Grizzly bears. DeVos also refused to say she would defend or support the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Her lack of support for basic school safety and for children with disabilities are the two most disqualifying elements of her candidacy.

It’s also worth noting that President Obama’s Education Secretaries both supported school choice in the form of charter schools and expressed support for some of today’s most popular education reforms — that is to say, Democrats don’t unilaterally oppose school choice or the education reform agenda. But Democrats AND Republicans want a Secretary of Education who will stand and fight for all children.

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


 

More Low Marks for A-F Report Card for Schools

Lincoln County has joined those giving low marks to the state’s A-F Report Card for schools.

Here’s the resolution the Lincoln County School Board adopted opposing the proposed school report card:

Heath-Lincoln

 

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


 

 

Collierville Takes a Stand Against A-F Report Card for Schools

Collierville’s School Board recently joined the chorus of those expressing concerns over the state’s new A-F Report Card for schools. Interestingly, the legislative sponsor of the idea is also now calling for a delay in the plan.

The Commercial Appeal reports:

Collierville’s school district voted Tuesday evening to lobby against a new state accountability system that assigns schools a letter grade from A through F, and leaders of some other Memphis-area school systems are likewise raising concerns.

The article notes that district leaders in Millington and Germantown are also concerned about the new system.

For its part, the Department of Education says:

“We are currently gathering feedback on the framework and will not finalize the individual measures or weighting of these measures until April, when we submit our plan to the U.S. Department of Education as part of a new federal process.”

Based on the initial feedback, it looks like the plan is headed for a grade of “F” from educators.

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


 

A-F Grading System for Schools to be Delayed?

That’s what House Majority Leader Glen Casada, who sponsored the legislation, is saying. Under his proposal, which mirrors A-F school grading systems in other states (Texas, Florida, Indiana), the Tennessee Department of Education’s annual school report card would assign a letter grade from A-F to each school in the state.

The legislation mandated the creation of the A-F scale, and the Department has designed a plan. Now, after seeing the proposed plan, Casada says it may need some work and a one year delay could give the state time to improve the proposal.

Emily West reports:

“We have been working with the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and delayed the A-F grading one year,” Casada said. “It gives heartache to many systems. We called all parties. We said there are problems with the way you want to implement it.”

As written and passed by the legislature in 2016, new accountability standards that give letter grades to each school across the state should go into effect for 2017.

The news of the possible delay comes as some education leaders are calling for the proposal to be scrapped altogether.

Legislative action is required to delay the implementation and it seems likely there will also be legislation that aims to eliminate the system entirely.

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


 

Joey Hassell’s Tweetstorm of Truth

Ripley High School Principal Joey Hassell has been tweeting this weekend about the state’s move to an A-F grading system for schools. The new system came about because of a legislative mandate. Hassell’s not happy about it. Interestingly, Hassell was formerly an Assistant Commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education.

Here are a few of his tweets about the A-F grading system for schools:

 

As you can see, Hassell is quite unhappy with the move to the new grading system. His opinion seems to be supported by at least some district-level leaders based on likes and retweets he’s received.

The A-F system is set to start next school year, based on results from this year’s battery of tests and other data.

The legislature could make changes to the proposal in the upcoming legislative session, which starts on Tuesday, January 10th.

 

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


 

Sargent Proposes BEP Changes

State Representative and House Finance Chair Charles Sargent will change how the state divvies up the school funding formula, known as the BEP.

Franklin Home Page reports:

In his first bill, Sargent said breaking down the figures and math with the BEP formula is simply complicated. But essentially, what he wants to accomplish is making sure districts receive their fair share of money.

New money would go into the BEP formula, and would provide a baseline for what the state has to provide per district. School districts should receive 80 percent of the average funding per pupil.

Essentially, no district would receive less than 80% of the state’s average per pupil expenditure.

The story also notes that Sargent wants the state to begin fully funding growth for districts:

Sargent said his second bill is a little bit less complex. Simply, he said he wanted the state to pay for growth entirely for districts. Right now, it only pays a partial percentage. And for districts that growing quickly like Williamson, it could be a game changer. The district grew last year by 1,800 students. In the next five years, that number will expand to 10,000 new students in WCS.

At the present time this last year, we funded anything over 1.4 percent growth,” Sargent said. “So if your district grew 2.4 percent, we paid for one percent of the at increase. But really, we need to fully fund all growth.”

With the state experiencing a significant budget surplus, it will be interesting to see if these proposed changes or other improvements to the BEP are adopted.

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


 

 

Washington Co. Joins Waiver Wave

Last night, the Washington County School Board voted 6-3 in favor of a resolution asking the State of Tennessee to grant a 1-year waiver from the use of TNReady scores in teacher evaluations and student grades. The resolution is similar to those passed in Nashville and Knox County and comes after the State Board of Education voted to change the way End of Course tests are counted in student grades.

The Washington County resolution comes just days before the Tennessee General Assembly returns to action (January 10th). Barring action by the State Board to grant a waiver, the only way it will happen is if lawmakers force the issue.

Similar resolutions were passed last year ahead of TNReady testing that ultimately failed. That makes this year the first year of new tests, now administered by Questar.

Tune in next week and beyond to see if more school boards pass resolutions asking for a waiver or if the State Board or legislature take action.

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


 

Not Even Licensed

A new report out of Memphis indicates that 66 bus drivers from Durham School Services were not properly licensed.

Durham is the same company that operates buses in Chattanooga, where a recent crash resulted in 6 deaths.

Jennifer Pignolet of the Commercial Appeal reports:

The company that runs school transportation for Shelby County Schools and other districts contracted with a Memphis driving academy not authorized to license school bus drivers.

Sixty-six drivers actively employed by Durham School Services across Shelby County will have to retake their commercial driver’s license test over winter break after the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security suspended operation of Private First Class Driving Academy.

Her story also notes:

Durham has previously come under fire from local school officials. An examination of police records in late 2014 found that Durham school bus drivers had been involved in at least 32 wrecks in Shelby County during the school year, a 27 percent increase over the previous year. Bus drivers were cited in 18 of those incidents.

I previously noted reports of Durham’s safety record which raised questions about the vendor when compared with similar bus operators.

Specifically:

According to federal safety data, Durham School Services has been involved in 346 crashes in the past two years. These accidents have resulted in 142 injuries and 3 fatalities. During that same time period, the company was cited 53 times for “unsafe driving conditions”. According to data compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “93% of motor carriers in the same safety event group have better on-road performance” than Durham.

The repeated issues with Durham School Services raise questions about both the vendor and about outsourcing essential school services generally. An earlier piece noted that the push to outsource bus services may be the result of under-funded schools systems searching for financial answers.

Unfortunately, outsourcing bus services may have immediate financial benefits, but rarely results in long-term savings. The issues around Durham’s performance also raise troubling questions about safety.

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


 

 

The Nashville Chamber’s Education Report Card

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce today released its annual Education Report Card for MNPS today.

Here are some highlights:

The graduation rate, which measures the percentage of all students who graduate from high school within four years, plus a summer period, fell from 81.6 percent in 2015 to 81 percent in 2016. The number of MNPS students taking the ACT increased by 586 students in 2016, while the percentage of those scoring at least a 21 dropped from 30 percent in 2015 to 28 percent in 2016. Based on these limited results, we must conclude that MNPS did not record overall improvement during 2015- 2016 – for the second year in a row. With a new director of schools and executive team in place for the 2016-2017 school year, there is an expectation in the community for MNPS to resume a faster pace of improvement.

And the recommendations:

1. Metro Schools should expand its commitment to school-based budgeting to ensure equitable access to resources across all schools.

2. The State of Tennessee should incorporate measures of both career and college readiness into the new school and district accountability system.

3. Metro Schools should ensure that its early-grade teachers have demonstrated expertise in literacy instruction.

4. Metro Schools should measure each school’s implementation of the district’s literacy initiatives to ensure fidelity.

5. Metro Schools should engage community partners in developing a citywide plan and timeline to ensure early-grade (K-2) literacy by May 2017.

For more details on the findings used to reach the recommendations, read the full report.

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


 

A Late Call

Yesterday, the State Board of Education met and amended the state’s high school policy, including how End of Course exams factor into a student’s final grades.

As I reported earlier, this meeting happened just days before the semester ended for many students.

Here’s a note from Commissioner McQueen’s latest message to educators on the topic:

Yesterday, the State Board of Education voted on final reading to approve the department’s proposal to phase in EOC scores into high school students’ grades beginning this school year and continuing during the next few years. Also in the proposal, the department recommended to provide districts with students’ raw score points earned out of the total available instead of the conversion score that the department provided previously, commonly called quick scores. Please reference this memo (here) and FAQ document (here) for additional context. This policy becomes effective immediately for all 2016 fall block courses taking EOCs. The exams will account for 10 percent of students’ course grades this year.

Remarkably, the memo McQueen cites notes that the first reading of this policy change was in October. However, the special called meeting on adopting the change and making it official didn’t happen until yesterday. While the October meeting may have signaled the Board’s intent, there was no official policy change until just days before the semester ended.

Between October and now, of course, two large school districts have seen their boards pass resolutions asking the State Board and General Assembly to not count these tests in either student grades or teacher evaluations as we transition to a new test with a new vendor. Those concerns were apparently ignored at yesterday’s meeting.

The legislature could take action on the issue in 2017, but doing so may create confusion since students on block scheduling will have completed courses and received grades.

One provision of the change that is worth noting is that if EOC scores are not available to districts at least five instructional days before a course ends, the district may elect NOT to use those scores in a student’s final grade. For many districts, that day was yesterday.

If districts do decide to use the scores for this semester and next, they may only count for 10% of a student’s final grade.

I’d suggest that the more prudent course is for districts to not count the scores at all this year as we are in a transition year.

The late call (why not a special meeting a few weeks after the first meeting?) raises questions about the State Board’s responsiveness to the concerns of those officials doing the day-t0-day work of running a school district.

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