Future of Schools

Meet the lawmakers who will serve as gatekeepers of state education policy

The inauguration of Gov. Bill Haslam on Jan. 17 coincided with the release of legislative committee assignments for the Tennessee General Assembly.

Expecting a bevy of education bills and responding to an intense interest in legislation that could affect Tennessee public schools, House Speaker Beth Harwell has almost doubled the number of state representatives who will consider education proposals that soon will begin to wind through the Tennessee General Assembly.

Harwell has divided the House Education Committee into two bodies and increased the total number of members from 15 to 26 due to the complex and high-profile nature of education policy, as well as the sheer number of education bills expected to be filed. Education also is a highly desired committee assignment this year, the speaker said Tuesday.

“I had a lot of members seek to serve on the House Education Committee, which is a good thing,” Harwell told Chalkbeat. “This allowed more members to serve.”

Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey announced assignments to the House and Senate education committees on Saturday at the end of the first week of the 109th legislative session. The Senate panel will retain its same structure and number of members as in previous years.

The education committees are the gatekeepers for bills that could change education policy across Tennessee, and education is expected to be a central issue during this year’s session. Bills on the table include proposals that would repeal the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee schools use for math and English, and increase the number of school choice options, such as vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

Harwell said she is finalizing which bills will go to which House committee. Under the new structure, one education panel will focus on instruction and programs and will consider bills related to standards and accountability. The other committee will review administration and planning matters, such as bills that deal with administration, finances and school structure.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), who chaired the House Education Committee last year, will serve on both panels “for the sake of continuity,” Harwell said.

Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), the chair of the Senate Education committee.
Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The committee appointments offer some insights into which bills may reach the floor of their respective legislative chamber.

Much of the leadership are dissatisfied with Common Core, the state-approved standards that students must learn by the end of every school year. Senate Education Chairwoman Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) has introduced a bill calling for standards to replace the Common Core. Rep. John Fogerty (R-Athens), who chairs the House Instruction and Programs Committee, has introduced a similar bill to review and recommend new academic standards. That bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), a member of the Senate Education Committee, as well as three other House education panel members, Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett), David Byrd (R-Waynesboro), and Roger Kane (R-Knoxville).

Other legislative leaders have been more supportive of Common Core. Brooks, who chairs the House Administration and Planning Committee, and Mark White (R-Memphis), who heads the subcommittee on administration and planning, openly supported the standards as recently as last fall.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who chaired the House Education Committee last year, will serve on both House panels on education this year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), a member of the Senate Education Committee, is an outspoken advocate for vouchers and has filed a bill to implement them. Likewise, Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is a charter advocate and last year sponsored a for-profit charter bill that passed the House education panel last year by one vote.

You can find the list of lawmakers appointed the Senate Education Committee here, the House Education Administration and Planning Committee here, and the House Education Instruction and Programs Committee here.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.