New Name, Same Game

StudentsFirst, one of the leading proponents of school vouchers in Tennessee, has a new name.

Jason Gonzales reports:

Pro-voucher student choice group StudentsFirst Tennessee has changed its name to TennesseeCAN as part of working as an official member of the 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now network.

TennesseeCAN will function as a new organization whose legislative agenda, policy priorities, staff and underlying mission remains unchanged, according to a news release from the group.

StudentsFirst has been one of several organizations supporting legislation to create school voucher programs in Tennessee. These so-called “opportunity scholarships” use public money to pay a qualifying student’s private school tuition. Despite millions in spending on campaigns and lobbying, a broad voucher plan has yet to pass the General Assembly.

A very limited voucher plan focused on a narrowly-defined group of special needs students is now in effect in Tennessee.

More on vouchers:

Craig Fitzhugh on Vouchers

Million Dollar Baby

What TN Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

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


 

 

Million Dollar Baby

Since 2011 (the 2012 election cycle), two pro-voucher groups (Students First and the American Federation for Children) have given nearly $1 million to Tennessee legislators by way of direct or in-kind contributions, according to reports filed with the Registry of Election Finance.

Two of the biggest recipients?

House Speaker Beth Harwell has received more than $43,000 via donations to either her campaign account or her political action committee (PAC).

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham has received $28,500 in contributions and support.

See the full list:

Students First-AFC Contributions 2011-present

 

Tennessee BATs Attend DC Rally

The Badass Teachers Association (BATs) is a nationwide group of teachers who aggressively argue against the status quo in education — that is, the current education reform agenda. Recently, the BATs held a national rally in Washington, DC and even had a chance to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A group of BATs from Tennessee joined the national event and TN Ed Report interviewed two of them about the experience.

Lauren Hopson is a teacher in Knox County and Lucianna Sanson is a teacher in Franklin County.  Here’s what they had to say:

1)      Why do you choose to affiliate with the BATs?

Hopson: I discovered the BATS purely by accident when I was checking to see who was posting the video of my October 2013 school board speech. I have always been a bit of a rebel, so the name fit me. At the time, I had no idea how seriously BATs took advocating for our students. Realizing that only solidifies my desire to be part of this group.

Sanson: BATs is a grassroots organization that is a support network for public schools across the nation. In TN, teachers from all areas of the state are able to network and communicate with each other about reforms that are taking place in the state of TN. This is a difficult time for public schools, teachers and students. BATs not only discuss the injustices taking place on the state level, BATs also address these issues and actively seek for positive ways to problem solve and make our public schools better for all students.

 

2)      What was the purpose of the DC BAT Rally?

Hopson: There were several purposes for the rally. Of course, the main purpose was to get the attention of the Department of Education and draw national attention to the destructive nature of current educational reform efforts. However, it also set up a place and time for educators across the country to network and share the experiences with ed reform in their own states.

Sanson: The purpose was multi-faceted. The National BATs Association wrote and delivered specific demands to the DOE and Secretary Arne Duncan- chief among them were demands to stop the over-use of Standardized testing and to halt the privatization and spread of Charter Schools across the United States.

3)      What did you learn from other BATs around the country while you were in DC?

Hopson: Surprisingly, I learned what an appreciation and admiration teachers in other states have for the TN BATs. Along with the Washington, Chicago and New York groups, we have been some of the most vocal and active BATs in the entire country during the last year. I think our own Secretary of Education’s close relationship with Arne Duncan has caused us to feel the effects of education reform more immediately than other states. However, I also think we just have a strong group of vocal teachers who have the Southern backbone to fight these destructive policies.

Sanson:  I learned that TN is not the only state that is going through these same types of reforms. I also learned that racism and socioeconomics play a large role in the take-over of our urban school systems. Basically, the suspicion that re-segregation is happening via Charter school take-overs, “parent trigger laws,” “school choice,” and “Vouchers,” was confirmed by speaking with other BATs across the country. Memphis, and the takeover of their schools by the Achievement School District (ASD), is especially troubling since it is patterned after the New Orleans Recovery School District. I learned that there are only five Public Schools left in the city of New Orleans, and, according to the Fordham Institute, Memphis is directly patterned after New Orleans.

 

4) What were the highlights of your trip to the rally?

Hopson: Singing “Lean on Me” with hundreds of teachers arm in arm in the DOE courtyard was an emotional experience. However, getting to watch my friend and our own legislator, Representative Gloria Johnson, speak during the rally about the positive effects of the “community schools” initiative was a seminal moment. She was able to share the details of a bill she is sponsoring dealing with this concept with educators from across the country who were excited to take this idea back to their home states. It even received interest during the meeting our delegation had with DOE officials at the end of the day.

Sanson: The highlight, for me, was finally meeting all of the people I have been collaborating with on a daily basis for over a year and watching our plans unfold. The Rally on Monday was a true celebration of our students and our public schools, complete with music and dancing, student performance, and spoken word. It was a visual representation of what BATs symbolizes: a holistic approach to learning and the assertion that school should be student-centered and FUN, not testing-centered and a CHORE.

 

5) Do you feel the rally and associated events accomplished anything for teachers? If so, what?

Hopson:  We did get to send in a small delegation to meet with officials in the DOE, and even briefly with Arne Duncan himself. It remains to be seen whether the ideas shared in that meeting will be taken seriously, although TN Teacher Larry Proffitt who was a part of the delegation, seemed optimistic. I do think we drew attention to the plight of students and teachers in America, and at least in my community, I heard from lots of teachers who wish they had been a part of it. Hopefully, this will lead to greater numbers at the next rally. For those of us that did go, we got to feel a sense of connection to a larger power which instilled a new sense of commitment and determination in us all.

Sanson: Yes. On Monday, the all-day celebration for public education ended with a committee meeting inside the U.S. DOE with Secretary Arne Duncan and his team. Our BATs team- which consisted of six members- one of them Larry Proffitt from TN, outlined our concerns and were heard by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and his team. The BATs have another meeting at the U.S. DOE scheduled for later this fall. We look forward to continued dialogue and discourse with the U.S.DOE.

 

6) What do you see as the future for BATs in Tennessee and nationally?

Hopson:  I hope to see BATs become a driving force in changing the direction of education reform. I want to be part of a group that politicians have to take seriously if they want to get elected. BATs should also be a group they will go to for information. With TN being in the Bible Belt, I know it will be hard for the public to get past the name Badass Teachers. Hopefully, however, they will come to see the mission behind the name and realize these Brave Activist Teachers are fighting to protect their children.

Sanson: TNBATs will continue to be the state branch of the National Group. We will continue to network and align ourselves with other parent and citizen groups across the state and nation. We will continue to work with local legislators and policy makers to bring about change. We will continue to work with the Tennessee Education Association to support equality for our teachers, support staff and students.  We will continue to educate and speak truth to power about the reality of Ed Reform and the Privatization movement; we will continue to take a stand for our students and public schools. After all, BATs exists to fight for our students and public schools.

7) How would you describe the current education climate in TN?

Hopson: Toxic. We have toxic levels of testing. We have toxic levels of stress on our students and teachers. Students and teachers have been dehumanized and reduced to nothing more than numbers and data points. There is a complete lack of trust between teachers, administrators, and politicians. Using our students as pawns to further the interests of big money, big power groups is NOT the way to improve our schools.

Sanson: Current ed climate in TN: war zone

Teachers in TN are, in the words of Lauren Hopson, “tired” of not being heard and taken seriously. We are tired of being told how to do our jobs by people who have never taught and who know nothing about teaching. We are tired of seeing our students over-tested. We are tired of teaching to a test. We are tired of being treated like second-class citizens instead of highly trained professionals. We are tired of being “excessed” and replaced by inexperienced TFA green recruits who are ill-equipped with only five weeks of training. We are tired of groups like Micheel Rhee’s Students First giving money to people running for office. We are tired of Governor Haslam and his Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman, who have done nothing to help our public schools, but who have done much to sell them to the highest bidder. Most of all, we are tired of being afraid and being bullied into compliance by people threatening our livelihoods. Tired we may be, but being on the front lines and in the trenches means that you get up and go to battle every day. That is what we will continue to do for our Public Schools and our Students: Fight for Them.

 

8) Why should other teachers affiliate with BATs?

Hopson: BATs will provide a sense of community for them and a structure around which they can organize and regain their power.

While I was touring the Civil Rights section of the American History Museum in DC, I saw a quote from A. Phillip Randolph which said, “Nobody expects ten thousand Negroes to get together and march anywhere for anything at any time….In common parlance, they are supposed to be just scared and unorganizable. Is this true? I contend it is not.”

Nobody expects that of teachers either, but I think BATs will change that!

Sanson: TNBATs is a group that helps and supports teachers, parents, and public schools so that we can be better teachers for our students. We are invested in our students and schools and we are determined to bring positive change back into the TN public school systems. BATs are tough, resilient, trustworthy, caring, and willing to go the distance for our students and our profession. I think the better question should be “Why wouldn’t other teachers affiliate with BATs?”

 

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

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.

Teacher Merit Pay is on the Way in Tennessee

The Tennessee State Board of Education met today and gave approval on first reading to two proposals that essentially mandate teacher merit pay starting in the 2014-15 school year.

The first proposal, effective in the 2013-14 year, removes the automatic step increases now mandated for each additional year of service.  Instead, teachers would earn a mandated base salary plus an additional amount in years 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15.  Teachers with an advanced degree would earn a higher additional amount in essentially the same time blocks.  Here are the details.

This proposal is somewhat similar to the pay plan adopted last year by Metro Nashville Public Schools that front-loaded pay, making starting salaries about $6000 higher and raising pay for most all teachers in the system, but capping any years of service increases at year 15.

The plan guarantees that no teacher may see their salary go down as a result of the adoption of this pay plan. Some teachers, however, would likely be at or above the new mandated ranges and so may not see any pay increases for a few years, depending on how their local school systems handle the pay issue.

The idea is to free up funds currently used for step increases for teachers so those funds may be used to differentiate pay among teachers.

To that end, the Board adopted another proposal effective in 2014-15.  It mandates that all systems develop a differentiated pay plan to be approved by the Department of Education.  The plan is to be merit-based and essentially must depend on either 1) filling hard to staff schools or hard to fill subjects and/or 2) rewarding performance as determined by the state’s new and ever-evolving teacher evaluation system.

Aside from the fact that performance pay doesn’t seem to work that well, there’s no indication of how districts will locate the funds necessary to make these pay adjustments work.  That is, aside from the funds that may be freed up from ending mandatory step increases, there’s no movement to add state funds to the pot to allow for significant incentives.  In fact, the base pay plan adopted by the Board simply doesn’t go far enough toward establishing an effective base.  Moving the base closer to $40,000 is part of an education agenda designed to make a meaningful impact on Tennessee schools.

Performance pay plans almost always cost more money than the step/level plans.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be pursued, but it does mean money is necessary to make them work.  Metro Nashville’s compressed pay plan cost $6 million in year one.  In Denver, where a performance pay plan has been in effect for a number of years (ProComp), the average teacher now makes $7000 more per year than they did under the old plan.  Paying teachers more is a good thing and a key component of investing in teachers to help improve schools.  But absent state dollars, it’s unclear where or how local districts will find the money to make this proposal work.

Further, because local teachers’ associations no longer have the power to bargain collectively, there is no requirement of input on new plans by teachers.  Local Boards may consult any party they wish or simply adopt an approved plan and impose it on the teachers of their district.  Of course, consulting those whose pay you are about to change about how they’d like to see it improved makes sense, but that doesn’t mean local districts will do that. And the State Board doesn’t require such collaboration.

Some (StudentsFirst) have indicated that because of this year’s teacher and state employee pension reform, there will be more money available in the state budget.  They’ve suggested using that money to improve teacher pay.  The first savings should be realized in 2014-15.  So, it will be interesting to see if there are legislative proposals that incorporate the savings from pension reform into funds available to districts for the performance pay scheme that will soon be mandated from the State Board of Education.  It will also be worth watching to see if the Board makes any movement on giving teacher base pay a meaningful increase.

Tennessee has experimented with performance pay before.  The Career Ladder program was implemented by Governor Lamar Alexander.  It was funded for a time, then became expensive, then was stopped, and is now being phased out — with fewer and fewer Career Ladder teachers remaining in service each year.

The point is, without careful planning and implementation, the proposals adopted on first reading today and likely headed for final approval in July may do nothing but put added financial pressure on local governments.  Local school districts should watch cautiously and should ask their legislators to put forward plans to use state money to fund these proposals.  While it is not clear performance pay will even have the intended positive results, it will surely fail if there is no commitment in the form of investment from those backing the plan.