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.

Looking to the future

Why this standalone Denver charter school is considering joining forces with a network

PHOTO: Courtesy Roots Elementary
A student at Roots Elementary in Denver.

A tiny charter school in northeast Denver faces a big decision after the departure of its founder.

Roots Elementary is searching for a new leader who can continue improving upon the school’s shaky academic start. But the standalone charter is also considering an unusual alternative: canceling its search and becoming part of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter network, which has stellar test scores and experience absorbing other schools.

Which route the school takes will largely depend on feedback from students’ families, said Eric Sondermann, the chair of the Roots board of directors. Families first heard about the Rocky Mountain Prep option last month, and many are still weighing the pros and cons. But TaHana McClinton, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at Roots this fall, sees mostly positives.

“From what I’m hearing, they’re the best,” McClinton said of Rocky Mountain Prep. “They have the best teachers and their curriculum is really good. I really do think it’ll be a wonderful merger.”

The Roots board is likely to vote in the fall on its path forward, Sondermann said. If it chooses Rocky Mountain Prep, the process of joining the network would probably take a year or two.

Roots’ situation highlights the challenges of going it alone as a single-site charter. The potential merger is also illustrative of an expansion strategy that, in the face of declining enrollment and scarce real estate in Denver, is becoming one of the only viable options for charter networks.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run, which means they don’t benefit from the same centralized support as traditional district-run schools. It can be difficult for standalone charters to find a leader with expertise in academics as well as the business of running a school.

And money is often tight, in part because single-site charters also don’t benefit from the economies of scale that districts and networks do. For instance, Roots owns its own modern, two-story building in the heart of a historically low-income community that, like much of the city, is rapidly gentrifying. Owning its own building is both a blessing and a curse: Many charter schools struggle to find space, yet Roots has what Sondermann called “a significant mortgage.”

Much of the recent charter growth in Denver has come from the expansion of homegrown networks rather than from new standalone charters. The networks are eager to grow, and the district has approved them to open more schools. But a declining student population citywide and a more cautious approach to closing low-performing schools, driven in part by backlash from the community and opposition to charters, are limiting opportunities to expand.

Some networks have found a way. This fall, Rocky Mountain Prep will open a new campus in northwest Denver at the site of the former Cesar Chavez Academy, a standalone charter that closed last month after years of lagging test scores. The arrangement wasn’t imposed by the district; rather, Rocky Mountain Prep and Cesar Chavez worked together on the plan.

If the merger with Roots happens, it would be the third time Rocky Mountain Prep has added a previously existing school to its roster. (It is also in the process of replacing a low-performing elementary school in the neighboring city of Aurora.) Because Denver Public Schools already authorized the network to open two more schools, the deal wouldn’t need district approval.

Rocky Mountain Prep founder James Cryan said the network is excited about expanding. He noted that Denver Public Schools isn’t serving students of color and students from low-income families as well as it’s serving white and affluent students, as measured by test scores. To the extent Rocky Mountain Prep can change that, Cryan said he’s eager to do so.

“We know there’s important work to do,” he said, “and we’re energized to be part of a solution.”

Besides the schools Rocky Mountain Prep has added, it runs two elementary schools in Denver it opened from scratch. Both serve mostly poor students, and both are highly rated on a scale largely based on state test scores. Its flagship school, opened in 2012, is one of only 10 elementary schools in the entire 92,600-student district to earn the district’s top rating, “blue.”

Roots, meanwhile, is rated “yellow,” which is in the middle of the district’s color-coded scale. It’s also an improvement from the first rating the school received. In 2016, a year after Roots opened with students in kindergarten and first grade and a plan to add a grade every year, its scores resulted in a dead-last “red” rating, which put the school at risk for closure.

Interim executive director Steph Itelman, a former Roots board member who is temporarily running the school while the current board decides its future, admitted the school didn’t focus as much as it should have on what students needed to know to do well on the tests.

Students also struggled with Roots’ original academic model of intensely personalized lessons delivered via iPads, with teachers coaching them along the way. The school now uses a more traditional classroom structure – and test scores have improved. One thing that hasn’t changed is Roots’ emphasis on what educators call “social and emotional learning”: teaching students how to regulate their emotions, form healthy relationships, and the like.

That’s especially important at Roots, where many of the students are living in poverty and have experienced trauma. Though the percentage of low-income students is decreasing as the neighborhood gentrifies, Itelman said the needs of the students are not. In fact, she said, perhaps because of the instability and doubling-up of families that often comes with rising rents, some students are showing up with more intense needs than before.

Itelman and others see evidence that Roots’ focus on building students’ emotional skills is working. She offered an example: During a field day that took place in the last week of school, a kindergartener who wasn’t being a good sport was pulled from his activity by a teacher. At first, she said, the boy was upset to be missing out. But his frustration didn’t last long.

“The little guy said, ‘I know I’m hurting my class. I have a really good heart. I’m just not using it right now,’” Itelman said. When she heard the boy tell the teacher he needed to go apologize to his classmates, Itelman said it brought tears to her eyes.

Another place where Roots has excelled, parents and leaders said, is in its embrace of project-based learning. Every day, students have a class called Project Wonder. The endeavors they undertake vary by grade, but one infamous example is the time a couple of third-grade boys became fascinated by mummification during a unit on ancient Egypt. With some adult help, they tried it themselves by mummifying a cornish game hen.

Leaders from both Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep see a potential merger as mutually beneficial. Cryan said the network would possibly look to incorporate Project Wonder and other successful practices into the rest of its schools. Roots, meanwhile, would hope to benefit from Rocky Mountain Prep’s academic success, especially with black students.

Black students make up just 13 percent of students in Denver, but they account for 60 percent at Roots. Rocky Mountain Prep also educates a significant number of black students – and those students far outperform district averages. Whereas only 25 percent of black elementary students districtwide met expectations on the state literacy test last year, 54 percent at Rocky Mountain Prep did, according to data provided by the network.

In addition, Roots and Rocky Mountain Prep already have a connection. Roots founder Jon Hanover started his career in education as a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep. In developing Roots, he borrowed practices and curriculum from successful charters across the country. While such schools often face criticism for having rigid schedules and harsh discipline structures, Hanover said neither Roots nor Rocky Mountain Prep fit that bill.

“Rocky Mountain Prep is one of the unique schools that have incredible academic results and a really warm and loving school culture,” he said.

Hanover left Roots last month to take a position at Hop Skip Drive, a new ride-sharing service for children that’s trying to break into the Denver market. He said in an interview that after working to bring the school to fruition for four years, and running it for three, he was ready for a new challenge. He’ll stay involved, though, as a member of the Roots board of directors – which means he’ll have a say in the school’s future.

Parent Sarah Booth, who lives in the neighborhood and whose son will be in second grade at Roots this fall, said she’s not sure yet what to think of the potential merger. But no matter what happens, she hopes Roots hangs on to what makes it special.

“We like the innovative things they’re trying,” she said.

Future of Schools

The future of education reform in Indiana is pushing career-readiness to the forefront

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

After decades of blockbuster education policy changes that have catapulted charter schools, vouchers, and school choice into the national spotlight, the so-called education reform movement is in the midst of a change in identity.

A sector of influential education advocates is shifting its focus solely from the classroom to also emphasize career readiness, a less splashy type of education change than school choice — but one supporters say has the potential for broad and powerful impact.

And reform-minded Indiana, unsurprisingly, could be the proving ground for this national trend.

The state has recently put a laser focus on connecting education and workforce development. Instead of emphasizing college as the only post-secondary option, the state is encouraging schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers, take technical and science-based classes, and pursue internships. The goal is set up non-college-bound students for gainful employment in high-demand areas.

“It has a far greater impact than just focusing on one subset of education reform that is school choice, and it doesn’t divide people as much either,” said P.J. McGrew, who spoke with Chalkbeat when he was the senior education advisor to Gov. Eric Holcomb. “I think it’s something that everyone can rally around.”

The issue of career and technical education is bridging some of the political divides that the past couple of decades of school-choice-focused policy have wrought. But even with that consensus, meaningful career readiness policies still face an uphill battle, and the approach is not without its skeptics. It’s hard to start a movement around policies that require major institutional shifts, lots of planning, and take years to show they’re working.

During this year’s legislative session, workforce development bills were front and center, including initiatives like helping adults complete diplomas or certificates, encouraging internships and school-employer partnerships, and requiring schools to include more “employability skills” into their curriculums.

Funding has also been increased over the years to expand school career and technical education course offerings and incentivize the hiring of teachers transitioning from the workforce — all to fill a “skills gap” Indiana employers say is preventing them from finding the workers they need.

According to a 2015 report from the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for training workers to meet employer needs, 58 percent of Indiana’s labor market is made up of jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year-degree. Yet only about 47 percent of workers are trained enough to fill them.

The bipartisan support for workforce initiatives in education mirrors how broadly the issue resonates with Hoosiers. Many Republicans see career development as an extension of school choice policies, designed to allow families to find the school or program that is the “best fit” for their children. Democrats and Republicans alike see economic benefits for their constituents, whether they’re from urban centers trying to find higher-wage jobs or rural communities working to attract employees and keep industry in their region.

Ultimately, even fierce political opponents agree that students need options so they can be successful after high school.

And these policy debates haven’t been “as burdened down by blame” as past ones, said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education.

Lubbers and others attribute the lack of friction to Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s demeanor and political approach. Indiana isn’t new to conversations about combining workforce and education, but Holcomb and his administration have made them the state’s central focus.

In trying to address the state’s opioid crisis and concerns from rural areas where industry has declined, Holcomb’s administration has said additional education opportunities for adults and better-prepared high school graduates can make a difference.

Because Holcomb has pursued a more moderate political agenda compared to his very socially conservative predecessor, then-Gov. Mike Pence, other politicians have been more likely to sign on to his workforce vision, even if they had opposing views on other issues.

For instance, he’s found common ground on the workforce issue with Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick, a former public school educator who shared many of her education policy views with her Democrat predecessor Glenda Ritz despite being a Republican.

McCormick has come out strongly in support of more ways students can learn about science, technology, engineering, and math, and set goals to update the state’s career and technical education courses.

And unlike Pence and Ritz, Holcomb and McCormick haven’t clashed as frequently — or as publicly.

The calmer political climate during the past two years has been far more conducive to a reform movement that requires a lot more collaboration between politicians and state agencies.

Prioritizing policies that create political unity not only reduces the spectacle of previous administrations, it primes the state for another controversial move lawmakers finally cemented in 2017 — making the elected state schools chief an appointed position, much like current agency heads for workforce development and higher education.

That cohesion, some believe, is what could lead to the most change.

“If you’re going to try and make a major push in the education and workforce space, you need alignment,” said Betsy Wiley, executive director of the Institute for Quality Education, a group that advocates for school choice. “Having a separately elected official makes that more difficult. We certainly saw that under Gov. Pence.”

It’s a less splashy type of education reform, said former state Superintendent Tony Bennett, who led many of those school choice reforms himself under Gov. Mitch Daniels. But workforce initiatives are still rooted in many of the same principles that drove the choice movement, such as innovation and individualization.

“There is a lot of room for big policy movement in that area,” Bennett said. “I just hope that the traditional reform community sees that as as powerful as we saw the things that we pursued.”

Bennett touches on a potential hurdle that has current Indiana policymakers concerned about this new path: Supporters believe workforce-oriented reform efforts could end up having more impact than their choice-focused predecessors — but they’re harder to create, slower to implement, and take longer to post results.

Creating a sense of urgency around these issues, said McGrew, who in May took a new job as director of policy for the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, could be challenging.

But directing too much attention to work-based learning could have drawbacks, some education advocates say. And because Indiana has barely gone a year without changing some aspect of its education system, there’s fatigue for educators, students, and parents on the ground.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, worries the increased focus on education and workforce is redefining the purpose of education.

“That’s the debate that’s about to happen,” Meredith said. “What is the real role of public education? Is it to create bots to work in plants … or is it to create adults in a functioning society?”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said workforce programs should be careful not to fall into the old traps of traditional career technical education — namely tracking students and pushing them into the programs.

“As long as it’s not old fashioned voc ed,” she said. “This is really giving kids choices and different pathways … it has to be the kind of pathways that are interesting and exciting to kids.”

Even ardent supporters of the state’s career-readiness push, such as Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican lawmaker who has been at the helm of many of Indiana’s biggest education overhauls, want the state to think even bigger.

It’s not enough to increase career and technical education classes and funding, or even to encourage more work-based learning, he said. He wants Indiana to look at other models for education, such as those in Switzerland and other parts of Europe, where apprenticeships and career training are very integrated into K-12 education but it’s still possible to pursue higher learning.

“I think unless you are willing to really dig down to how we deliver education and how we should be innovative and change our system from early childhood to post-secondary and beyond, I think we’re just tweaking at the edges,” Behning said.

It’s likely the state will continue to see workforce issues driving education policy, and the proposals could be even grander with the availability of state funding during the next budget-writing year.

But even as the reform strategies shift, in Indiana and across the nation, the days of more controversial education policy aren’t necessarily over. A new budget also means school funding decisions are on the table, a major factor in heated debates over how school choice is affecting districts across the state.

Newer, more complicated policies like Education Savings Accounts have failed to gain much ground in Indiana, but there are still many advocates pushing for the voucher-like program that could direct more dollars away from the state’s traditional school funding system.

Local education advocates don’t expect the same kind of dramatic 2011-era policies that established the state’s voucher program and expanded charter schools to crop up anytime soon, but there’s still plenty of runway for Indiana to stay in the education reform spotlight on innovation schools and vouchers.

“I don’t see us dragging our feet on anything,” Lubbers said. “It’s certainly true in K-12 with reform, and it’s certainly true in higher education reform, that we are a leading state, not a lagging state.”