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.

The New Chancellor

Tell us: What should the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, know about New York City schools?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A student at P.S. 69 Journey Prep in the Bronx paints a picture. The school uses a Reggio Emilia approach and is in the city's Showcase Schools program.

In a few short weeks, Richard Carranza will take over the nation’s largest school system as chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

Carranza, who has never before worked east of the Mississippi, will have to get up to speed quickly on a new city with unfamiliar challenges. The best people to guide him in this endeavor: New Yorkers who understand the city in its complexity.

So we want to hear from you: What does Carranza need to know about the city, its schools, and you to help him as he gets started April 2. Please fill out the survey below; we’ll collect your responses and share them with our readers and Carranza himself.

The deadline is March 23.

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”