Always on the Attack

Sen. Brian Kelsey of Shelby County took some time today to attack the Shelby County Schools and get in a jab at the teachers union. He never misses a chance to attack public schools or the educators in them.

Here’s the video:

This is the same guy who sent out a Christmas card crowing about his legal work to voucherize public schools.

This is also the same Brian Kelsey who led efforts to eliminate the Hall Income Tax and $200 million a year in revenue for the state. Then, the issue was what to do with repeated years of surplus revenue. Kelsey’s answer was NOT to invest it in schools, but instead to create a tax giveaway for investors.

Brian Kelsey does not and has not supported our state’s public schools. Now, he’s using his position as chair of the Senate Education Committee to attack public school teachers. In other Kelsey news, he’s the lead sponsor of legislation that would undermine the ability of working Tennesseans to join a union.

MORE ON KELSEY:

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Not Hopson

While Tennesseans continue to speculate on who will become the next Commissioner of Education, one prominent name is apparently out of the running.

Shelby County Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson announced today he is resigning his post effective January 2019 to take a job with Cigna.

Here’s more from the school system’s press release:

Calling the last six years the “most rewarding years” of his career, Dorsey Hopson today announced that he will soon be ending his tenure as Shelby County Schools’ top educator.

“For the past six years, we have worked together to guide this great school district through monumental changes, including a merger, demerger, school closures and a state takeover of some schools,” said Hopson. “Through it all, our educators and supporters have remained committed to aggressively increasing student achievement.

Hopson will begin a job in the private sector in January 2019 saying it was an extremely difficult decision but one that will afford him more time with his family. In addition, he said he now looks forward to supporting Shelby County Schools as an involved parent and community member.

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“No Confidence” in TNReady

Just days after members of the Knox County School Board took the Tennessee Department of Education to task for “incompetence” and an “abject failure” to measure student achievement or teacher performance, the Directors of the state’s two largest school districts, Nashville and Memphis, sent a letter to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Governor Bill Haslam stating they had “no confidence” in TNReady and asking the state to pause the test.

The letter, signed by Nashville’s Shawn Joseph and Shelby County’s Dorsey Hopson, says in part:

“We respectfully ask the State to hit the pause button on TNReady in order to allow the next Governor and Commissioner to convene a statewide working group of educators to sort out the myriad challenges in a statewide, collaborative conversation.”

The two leaders, whose districts represent 20 percent of all students in Tennessee, note:

“We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed.”

The language from these two directors is the strongest yet from any district and the first to call for an outright stop to administration of the TNReady test while the state explores other options. Johnson City’s school board sent a proposal asking for a significant reduction in testing while Wilson County is exploring the possibility of administering a different test altogether. At the same time, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney expressed concern about the poor administration of this year’s test.

It seems clear there is growing concern among educators about the continued use of TNReady. As Joseph and Hopson note, taxpayer resources have been invested in a test that is poorly implemented and yields suspect results. Taking their suggestion of a pause could give the state and a new Governor and Education Commissioner time to actually develop a process for administering an aligned assessment that does not disrupt instruction and does return useful, meaningful results to teachers, parents, and students.

Here’s the letter:

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Moving on to Memphis

One School Board candidate in Memphis has attracted significant attention and financial support from pro-privatization group TennesseeCAN. The group bills itself as a grassroots advocacy organization, though it is not clear if the work here will benefit Tennessee or Minnesota.

Chalkbeat has more on TennesseeCAN’s efforts in Memphis:

TennesseeCAN spent more than $26,000 on behalf of candidate Michelle Robinson McKissack for mailed advertisements, phone calls, and texts in late June, according to the group’s disclosure forms.

The group also sent an endorsement letter to Shante Avant and contributed $3,000 to her campaign last week, said the organization’s spokeswoman.

The story notes TennesseeCAN has long been supportive of using public money to fund private schools:

But since starting its advocacy work in the state in 2011, TennesseeCAN has been best known for supporting vouchers that would allow state money to pay for private school tuition as an option for students from low-income families. State lawmakers sought to pilot a program in Memphis, despite the fact that parents and policymakers in the city strongly opposed the measure. Vouchers could siphon off more than $18 million annually from public schools.

Both candidates supported by TennesseeCAN have said they oppose vouchers.

While the funds spent in Memphis, especially in favor of McKissack, are significant, the dollar amount pales in comparison to what was spent in the Nashville School Board races in 2016. That year, TennesseeCAN ally Stand for Children spent more than $200,000 on four School Board races in Nashville and lost all four.

With the election in Shelby County just around the corner, it will be interesting to see if the TennesseeCAN investment gets the desired result.

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McQueen: Do It My Way

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said yesterday that despite a desire to move a struggling Memphis middle school into a proven local turnaround model managed by the district, she is insisting the school be moved into the failing Achievement School District (ASD).

Chalkbeat reports:

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that American Way Middle School must be converted to a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. If Shelby County Schools doesn’t decide by March 15 to do that on its own, she said, the state will take over the school and move it to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

While the Shelby County Schools iZone has been lauded for achieving solid results, the state’s ASD hasn’t gotten the job done. In fact, of the original schools taken over by the ASD five years ago, all but one remain in the bottom 5% of all schools in the state. That is, there’s be no significant improvement in performance.

So, why is Candice McQueen hellbent on moving American Way into a failed reform model? The Shelby County School Board has taken corrective action and set the school on a path that has gotten proven results at other schools. Further, McQueen’s chosen intervention is one that’s simply not getting results.

Will lawmakers in Nashville take action to stop this move? So far, efforts to rein-in the ASD have been met with significant resistance. However, the lack of a successful TNReady administration has hampered the ASD’s growth. McQueen says that will no longer be a problem:

The commissioner said the state’s decision to delay school takeover until 2019 is due to delayed test scores from the state. That won’t be the case in the next round of sorting schools into various “improvement tracks” under the state’s new school accountability plan. The state’s next list of its lowest performing schools is scheduled to be released next fall, which will inform decisions for future improvement plans.

Let’s be clear: Candice McQueen has presided over a failed transition to a new test and an aggressive intervention model for struggling schools that has left kids behind. Now, she’s insisting that Shelby County do what she says. Why would anyone trust their district’s students to Candice McQueen’s judgment?

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Forced Disruption

Despite a lack of clear results, the Tennessee Department of Education continues to use the Achievement School District as a means of taking over district schools in Memphis.

The latest round of forced disruption comes as Shelby County Schools says the two schools being targeted are on a district-led path to improvement.

Chalkbeat reports:

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

Board members pointed out that the ASD simply isn’t working, and the results from schools in the ASD for five consecutive years demonstrate she’s correct.

From Chalkbeat:

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

The Achievement School District has been fraught with problems from the outset, from hosting happy hours to recruit teachers to a lack of transparency to pitting schools and communities against each other in a fight for survival. Then, of course, there’s the apparent mission creep, which could be why the program has faced so many challenges.

Now, the Shelby County School Board is pushing back. Will the Tennessee Department of Education force disruption on these two schools, or will they allow SCS to move forward on their own improvement path?

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A Broken System

A former Memphis principal writes about a broken accountability system in Tennessee:

We set goals for students to meet 100 percent college readiness, but we don’t align our resources and professional development to help teachers to attain it.

We force teachers to use resources that are not useful because they come with perks and personal gains to the district level administrators.

We promote students to the next grade when they do not meet the standards and expectations of their current grade.

We develop compensation structures based on a mythical system of accountability and achievement goals we know we can’t attain.

He writes more and it’s worth a read.

Similar evidence of a broken system can be found in MNPS, where students in some schools are shuffled into virtual classes due to a teacher shortage that still hasn’t been solved.

His is the frustration expressed by many teachers, parents, and administrators around the state: We set goals, but don’t align our resources to meet those goals. Our state’s BEP is underfunded by some $500 million, we haven’t (yet) funded Response to Intervention, and TNReady has yet to have a successful year. Oh, and to top all of that off, our teachers are paid significantly less than similarly prepared professionals.

Mackin’s voice should be heard — and policy makers should respond not with words, but with action.

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That’s Attractive

The Shelby County School Board will review proposed changes to benefits for future employees at today’s meeting, Chalkbeat reports.

The move comes as the district seeks to realize cost savings by reducing long-term costs:

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

Currently, employees must work 15 continuous years in Shelby County Schools to be eligible for retirement benefits beyond the state pension. District leaders say that savings will be realized in 20 to 30 years. It’s not clear what the total savings would be, but the district says about $570 of current per pupil spending goes to these benefits.

One concern is the impact the benefit elimination would have on attracting new teachers. Some suggest that impact could be lessened by raising salaries, but the savings from the reduction won’t come for 20-30 years and the salaries would need to be increased now in order to make up for the benefit loss.

When a proposal was floated in Nashville for teachers to trade their pension for higher pay during their years of service, I did an analysis on what it would cost to make up the difference.  It’s an expensive proposition. While these benefits are not as costly as a pension (which is managed by the state), it’s not difficult to imagine a pay raise of $5,000 or more per year being necessary to offset the future benefit loss.

Additionally, one promise of a teaching career historically has been the promise of a secure retirement. No one gets rich off a teacher pension, but having that guaranteed income combined with access to affordable health insurance certainly makes life easier.

It will be interesting to see how Shelby County leaders handle this issue and how that action impacts the recruiting of new employees.

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The Data Wars: A New Hope?

The ongoing Data Wars between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education continue, with today being the deadline set by Commissioner Candice McQueen for districts to hand over the data or face consequences.

Yesterday, Anna Shepherd and Chris Caldwell, chairs of the Boards of Education in Nashville and Memphis respectively, penned an op-ed detailing their opposition to the data demand from McQueen.

They wrote:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has demanded that Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools surrender personal contact information for a large number of students and families in our school systems, which represent approximately 20 percent of Tennessee’s K-12 public school students.

Her argument: A new state law requires us to hand over personal information to ASD charter schools so these taxpayer-funded private schools can use the data to fill thousands of empty seats by recruiting students away from public schools.

In addition to violating student and family privacy — the right to privacy is a fundamental American principle — the problem with McQueen’s data demand is this: The ASD now is universally viewed as a failed experiment in education reform.

Shepherd and Caldwell contend that their district’s students will not be well-served by marketing efforts from charter schools operating under the banner of the Achievement School District:

Instead, McQueen proposes to shift the cost burden of the failing ASD to local taxpayers in Memphis and Nashville. She wants to confiscate our student data and information in order to stage marketing raids on our schools — which would redirect local taxpayer funds to the ASD and its charter operators at the expense of our school systems.

With today’s deadline looming, it appears school leaders in Memphis and Nashville are locked down against releasing the data demanded by McQueen. Should that position hold, the question will be: What will McQueen do about it? Will she unleash her ultimate weapon and withhold state funds from these districts as punishment?

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The Data Wars: Herb Strikes Back

Yes, the Data Wars continue. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) gained new hope recently when 33 members of Nashville’s Metro Council penned a letter supporting resistance to the Achievement School District’s request for student data.

Now, Tennessee’s Attorney General has weighed-in and says the alliance of MNPS and Shelby County must comply with the ASD’s request. What happens if they don’t? Nate Rau notes in the Tennessean:

McQueen’s warning leaves open the possibility the state would dock education dollars from Metro and Shelby schools if they continue to deny her request.

It wouldn’t be the first time for Nashville, as the Haslam administration withheld $3.4 million in state funds in 2012 after the school board refused to approve controversial Great Hearts charter school.

Withholding state BEP funds is a favorite “ultimate weapon,” used in the Great Hearts controversy and also threatened during the TNReady debacle in year one of that test that wasn’t.

During the debate that ultimately saw Nashville schools lose funds in a BEP penalty, Commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Department of Education had an ally in then-Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Joey Garrison reported in the (now defunct) City Paper at the time:

By this point, Huffman had already facilitated a July 26 meeting to discuss Great Hearts’ next move, a gathering that took place just hours before Great Hearts’ revised application would go before the Metro board for second consideration. The meeting site: the office of Mayor Karl Dean, also a Great Hearts backer. In attendance, among others, were Huffman, Dean, Barbic, Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote, Great Hearts officials Dan Scoggin and Peter Bezanson, and Bill DeLoache, a wealthy Nashville investor and one of the state’s leading charter school proponents.

As Rau points out, the current controversy stems from a newly-passed state law giving charter schools the opportunity to request student data from district schools. It seems, however, that there is some dispute over the intent of that law. Rau explains:

Slatery’s opinion also said that the student data may be used for the ASD to promote its schools to prospective students. State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a House education committee and supported the legislation, told The Tennessean the intent was not to create a law that allowed districts to market to each other’s students.

So it seems the legislature may need to revisit the issue to clear things up.

Also unclear: Where do the current candidates for Governor stand on protecting student data vs. providing marketing information to competing districts and schools?

Stay tuned for more. Will the Shelby-MNPS alliance continue their resistance? Will Commissioner McQueen unleash the power of BEP fund withholding? Will this issue end up in court?

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