Future of Schools

What you need to know on education as the 2016 legislature begins

PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Following a year when the Tennessee legislature tackled Common Core and increased state funding for teacher pay, its 2016 legislative session has the potential to be equally transformative for public schools.

When the General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 12 for the second half of its 109th session, legislators are expected to grapple with two powerful perennial questions — whether the state should overhaul its school funding system, and whether it should allow public money to follow students to private schools through a voucher system.

Either measure would drastically change education across the state, while a number of other issues also have the potential to impact Tennessee schools and classrooms.

Here’s what you need to know as the opening gavel falls:

This could be the year when vouchers become a reality in Tennessee.

For six years running, vouchers have been on the table — passing the Senate three of those years, only to be stymied in the House. Some observers believe that 2016 will yield a different outcome amid increasing calls for school choice by advocates who favor letting low-income students use public school funding for a private school education.

Known as “The Opportunity Scholarship Act,” the bill would make vouchers available to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of public schools. Since the measure passed the Senate last spring, all it has to do is clear the House finance committee and the full House this spring. Gov. Bill Haslam has indicated he would sign voucher legislation into law.

Brent Easley, director of the pro-vouchers advocacy group StudentsFirst Tennessee, notes that the chairpersons of the House finance subcommittee, where the vouchers proposal currently sits, are co-sponsors of the bill — along with more than 30 other legislators, surpassing the number of sponsors in years past. “We’re energized by the momentum we have this year,” he said.

But voucher opponents say not so fast.

“Our schools are being lauded as the fastest improving in the nation,” said Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a public school teacher and Democrat from Rock Island. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to be putting investments into our public school, and then pulling out millions (for vouchers).”

Another voucher-related proposal is championed by The Beacon Center, a conservative think tank, that would allow public school students to use some state money to pay for individual courses at nearby public schools, private schools or online. The proposal is essentially a voucher system — only for a course at a time.

“We want to give kids the flexibility, the opportunity, to thrive in their public school, but also make sure that they’re given the option to expand educational horizons,” said Lindsay Boyd, Beacon’s policy director.

Local school districts mounting charges of inadequate state funding for K-12 education will generate discussion — if not legislation.

Last year, eight school systems filed two lawsuits against the state, charging that state funding for schools is inadequate. The last time the legislature updated the state’s school funding plan — called the Basic Education Program, or BEP — was in 2007, under the leadership of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. School district leaders say that formula is now outdated too, particularly when it comes to serving growing populations of high-needs students, like those learning English. The state’s BEP review committee, which includes local and state education officials and elected representatives, repeatedly has urged the legislature to update the BEP formula to help equalize teacher pay across the state and funnel more money to high-needs schools.

Last year, Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Jason Powell, both Nashville Democrats, introduced a bill that would alter the formula, allocating enough money to districts so that all teachers could be paid at least $50,000. The bill didn’t make it out of subcommittee and was instead tabled for study last summer. There, lawmakers tried to understand the BEP, a complex formula that uses 45 components to determine how state education dollars are generated and distributed to schools. However, there was little talk of dramatically altering the formula until the lawsuits run their course.

Even so, lawmakers voted last year to increase education funding to pay for 11 months of teachers’ health insurance, versus only 10 months in years past.

The governor said recently that he hopes to boost state allocations for teacher pay for a second year in a row, and that his proposed budget likely will include an increase in education spending.

New research on the Achievement School District and pre-kindergarten will inform debates on the floor.

Two reports issued last year by researchers at Vanderbilt University have given new ammunition to critics of the state’s school turnaround district and pre-kindergarten program.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District already has been under fire in the legislature — the target of 22 bills last year aimed at eliminating or curtailing the state’s initiative for improving low-performing schools. Known as the ASD, the district survived the legislative barrage virtually unscathed as then-superintendent Chris Barbic pleaded for patience and time for the district to prove its worth. But following its third year of operation, test scores from the district’s first cohort of schools in Memphis were generally mixed. And in December, a Vanderbilt report suggested that the ASD was less effective at school turnaround work than innovation zones operated by local districts — although researchers cautioned against scrapping the state-run district altogether.

Now members of the legislature’s black caucus are taking concerns about the ASD’s continued expansion to the state Capitol. Following a vote from the Shelby County school board calling for a moratorium on ASD expansion until its results improve, caucus members say they stand ready to pick up that cause if necessary.

“I hope this doesn’t have to be resolved legislatively,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis. “The best scenario would be for the ASD to voluntarily hit the pause button and reevaluate and work on the schools they already have.”

Expect robust legislative debates as well about Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program based on the surprising results of a Vanderbilt study that calls into question the power of pre-K. The five-year study of Tennessee’s public pre-K program showed that while economically disadvantaged participants fared better at first than their non-participating counterparts, their performance faded out in early elementary grades, eventually even being outperformed by those same peers.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, has attempted to cut the state’s pre-K program for years, and now has more evidence than ever to back his stance that it’s not worth the money. But the state Department of Education is more committed to early learning than ever, urging that existing programs be improved rather than scrapped.

Concerns about over-testing will resurface.

Standardized testing has become a dominant topic in education conversations in Tennessee and across the nation. While those conversations have reached a boiling point in many states, especially related to concerns about over-testing, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has tried to stay ahead of the controversy, creating a testing task force that recommended moves to limit tests administered by districts.

But will it be enough?

“I know members (of the legislature) are hearing from constituents regarding testing policies, so that could be something that is also at the forefront,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said this week.

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Some of the task force’s recommendations aim to increase testing transparency — such as allowing test questions from past state achievement tests to be released to the public — which would require legislative action and additional funding to pay for the development of new questions.

The new U.S. education law replacing the No Child Left Behind Act also allows states to set their own opt-out policies to allow students to choose not to take their end-of-year tests. Several states already have laws allowing parents to opt their children out of tests, and some parents have called for a similar measure in Tennessee.

Vouchers won’t be the only bill to make a comeback.

Last year, a bill that would require the state Department of Education to assign letter grades to schools unanimously passed the Senate, but was held up in the House finance subcommittee. Its proponents — most of whom also support vouchers and other “school choice” measures that make it easier for students to go to charter or private schools — think this year it will pass the House. However, opponents contend that such grades would lack nuance and could further stigmatize struggling schools.

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.