Future of Schools

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

PHOTO: TN.Gov
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.
PHOTO: TN.Gov
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.

Harry
PHOTO: TN.Gov
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.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.