Funding fight

Does Tennessee have to follow its own school spending plan? Court prepares to weigh in

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
A first grader does his work while sitting on a bilingual rug at Enlace Academy, Tuesday, April 14, 2014. The charter school, with 55 percent English-language learners, uses a blended language learning approach.

Tennessee lawmakers voted this year to give local school districts more funding for the state’s growing population of English language learners.

Now, the state’s lawyers say Tennessee doesn’t have to follow through on its own plan.

At a hearing Friday at the Davidson County Chancery Court, attorneys for the state and Metropolitan Nashville government faced off on the issue, the latest development in a series of legal challenges by local districts over education dollars from the state.

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves about a third of the state’s ELL population, is seeking a court order demanding that the state provide the district with funds promised under its recently revised funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

State lawmakers voted this year to increase ELL funding based on a 1:20 student-teacher ratio instead of the previous 1:30 ration, but only provided Nashville with money for a 1:25 ratio. That’s about $4 million short of what was promised this school year, say Nashville school leaders.

Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman is scheduled on Sept. 26 to decide the matter. She can issue the order, deny the city’s petition, or instruct Nashville to refile its challenge as a declaratory suit, as two of Tennessee’s other large school districts have done. Should she side with Nashville, she’d likely give the state a long deadline that allows the legislature to appropriate the additional funds at its session next year.

The state says Tennessee isn’t legally required to follow the BEP, and that it provided Nashville with enough money for now, with intentions to phase in more funding eventually to meet the new BEP ratio. It says Nashville cannot prove it has a right to the additional funding, and that the courts cannot compel the legislature to appropriate more money.

Nashville’s Sept. 1 petition differs from the lawsuits spearheaded last year by Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, because it directly demands the state to pay based on the BEP formula. The other districts’ lawsuits charge that the state isn’t adequately funding public education in Tennessee and ask the court to decide what districts have a right to receive, potentially impacting districts statewide.

In its response to Nashville’s petition, the state says Nashville should follow the other districts in asking the court to address their right to education funding, rather than for a direct order to pay more money. “(Nashville) seeks a writ of mandamus that would require the General Assembly to provide funding to ELL teachers and translators in the ratios provided in (Tennessee Code),” the response reads. “… However, (Nashville) is not entitled to that writ.”

Nashville’s lawyers countered that a court order is appropriate, and that its funding case is different from those of the other large districts.

At the heart of the other lawsuits is the question of the BEP’s adequacy. Nashville’s lawyers say they’re willing to maintain for now that the state’s current funding plan is adequate; they’re just demanding that the state comply with it.

“What (the state’s lawyers) fail to understand is that (Nashville) accepts, for purposes of this lawsuit, the BEP in its current form — but demands (the state) live up to the Supreme Court’s directive that the BEP is fully funded,” Nashville attorneys wrote in their response to the state’s objection filed this week.

A 1995 Tennessee Supreme Court decision declared that the state must fund the BEP regardless of revenue.

Shelby County Schools’ case against the state is currently in discovery, meaning both sides are gathering evidence and building their cases for trial. Hamilton County’s case is also continuing since Bonnyman denied the state’s request for dismissal.

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”