Making the grade

Haslam signs bill to assign A-F letter grades to Tennessee schools

Tennessee schools eventually will receive letter grades on their state report cards — similar to what their students receive — instead of the current system of rating them on a scale of one to five.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed legislation into law last week after the proposed change passed the House and Senate with little debate.

The new grading system will be implemented before the start of the 2017-18 academic year and will be developed by the State Department of Education. The grades will be based on a combination of data, including student growth and proficiency rates.

Supporters consider the law a common-sense aid to parents trying to navigate an increasingly complex school choice system.

“This new law represents a great step forward in our state’s ongoing effort to give parents across Tennessee better access to clear and transparent data about their children’s schools,” said Brent Easley, state director for Students First Tennessee, a group advocating to expand school choice options to include private school vouchers. 

But critics charge that letter grades lack nuance, oversimplifying the link between poverty and low test scores, and could stigmatize low-performing schools that receive Fs, as well as students who attend the schools.

“Publicly shaming schools that serve high-poverty students — including those that elicit greater academic growth than schools with affluent populations — is a terrible strategy to improve outcomes for the children who need high-quality schools most,” wrote one Arkansas teacher after similar legislation was enacted there in 2013.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last December by President Obama, encourages states to consider a wide array of factors in addition to test scores in their accountability systems. Florida was the first state to assign letter grades to schools. Now, almost half of states have similar systems.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

legislative update

GOP plan to appoint Indiana’s schools chief claws its way back to a win in Senate panel

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

Indiana Republicans are pulling out all the stops to make sure the state schools chief would be appointed, not elected, in the future.

The Senate Rules Committee passed and amended a bill on Monday that would change how the state’s top education official is selected, giving new life to a measure that GOP leaders say has been debated in Indiana for 45 years — and is one of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2017 legislative priorities.

“It’s been advocated by every governor since 1985,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author. “It’s been advocated by both parties, in fact.”

Supporters of the measure say it’s finally time to align efforts between the state’s top executive and education official, reducing the possibility for political squabbles that have marred previous administrations. Opponents argue the change disenfranchises voters, taking away their chance to have a voice in the direction of the state’s education policy.

The amended House Bill 1005 includes two major changes from an earlier version debated last month. It would allow the governor to appoint a “secretary of education” beginning in 2025, a change from the originally proposed 2021 start date.

That seemingly small change could be a point of contention as the bill moves forward. With the 2021 start date, Holcomb, a Republican, would make the appointment if elected to a second term. Pushing it four years farther puts the first appointment out of Holcomb’s — and potentially GOP — control.

Additionally, a 2025 start date would allow current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, also a Republican, to run for a second term in 2020 before a possible replacement would be appointed.

Read: She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

The new bill also introduces qualifications for the position. In addition to living in Indiana for at least two years prior to an appointment, the secretary of education candidate would also be required to:

  • Demonstrate “personal and professional leadership success, preferably in the administration of public education.”
  • Have an advanced degree, preferably in education or educational administration.
  • Hold, or have previously held, a license to be a teacher, principal of superintendent, or otherwise be employed as such for at least five years before taking office.
  • Have five years of working experience as an executive in the education field.

Senate President David Long, chairman of the committee, said these changes to the bill make it “substantially” different from Senate Bill 179, a similar proposal that was defeated by the Senate 26-23 last month. According to Senate rules, another bill with the same language could not be considered unless significant changes were made.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he believed the Senate violated its own rules by even having a hearing on the House bill. Senate rules state that if a bill has had a majority of senators vote against it, it is “decisively defeated,” and similar language cannot be considered again that year.

“It does not say it shall not be voted on, it says it shall not be considered,” Lanane said. “It pays respect to the idea in the Indiana Senate that we don’t do do-overs.”

But Republicans on the committee disagreed, and said their amendment means the bill can proceed.

Now, a few concerns remain as the bill heads to the full Senate.

First, Indiana’s constitution says that there “shall be a State Superintendent of Public Instruction,” not a secretary of education. Bosma said he doesn’t think that’s a problem because the bill’s language allows for the change.

And second, if the Senate passes the bill, it heads to conference committee, where lawmakers come together to try to reconcile differences over bills. Democrats on the rules committee said they were worried that parts of the original bill — no specific qualifications for candidates, a 2021 start date — might resurface at that point.

Long reassured the committee that only minor changes could be made. But Bosma was less decisive on that point, which might indicate that the closed-door dealings on this bill could be particularly contentious.

Bosma has said all along that he’s waited years for this proposal to become a reality, and he sees no point in waiting any longer.

“Maybe we should wait another 40 years from when this was first proposed,” he joked. “The time is right.”