reversal

Overruling Shelby County Schools, State Board approves new Memphis charter school

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sara Heyburn, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, listens last May to charter appeals by three operators in Memphis.

Over objections from leaders of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s State Board of Education on Friday unanimously approved an appeal by Green Dot Public Schools to open a charter school in Memphis.

Local district leaders in Memphis quickly denounced the decision and stuck by their school board’s unanimous vote in August to deny Green Dot’s application. Shelby County Schools will not reverse course and authorize the new school, they said in a statement.

That means the State Board likely will become Green Dot’s authorizing agent, in accordance with state law that gives a local board 30 days after a reversal to authorize the school before the state steps in. It also means that Green Dot, a California-based network that already operates four Memphis charter schools, will expand its Tennessee footprint next year with a new high school in the city’s Hickory Hill area.

In overruling Shelby County Schools, the State Board followed the recommendations of Executive Director Sara Heyburn and her staff on Green Dot as well as on two other appeals. The board affirmed local board decisions denying the appeals of Pathways in Education and Rocketship to open charter schools in Memphis and Nashville, respectively.

Leaders with Green Dot said they were excited about the board’s decision, while leaders with the Memphis district issued this statement:

“We were surprised to learn today that the State approved the charter application of Green Dot Public Schools. We stand by our Board’s decision to deny Green Dot’s application based on the poor performance of its four local schools. Without proven success in Memphis, we feel this decision sets a difficult precedent and sends a confusing message to parents and the community about the importance of school quality. Though the State now has an opportunity to serve as an authorizer for Green Dot, Shelby County Schools will not be authorizing another Green Dot school for the 2017-18 school year.”

The previous day, State Board members heard from the district in a letter saying that local leaders “vehemently disapproved” of Heyburn’s recommendation.

Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee, and national CEO Marco Petruzzi listen to school board members in Memphis last August.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Megan Quaile, executive director of Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee, and national CEO Marco Petruzzi listen to school board members in Memphis last August.

Heyburn told board members Friday that her staff differed with Shelby County Schools on its assessment of Green Dot’s past academic success. The state’s review committee examined the network’s track record in California, as well as achievement scores for its Memphis schools, and found Green Dot “more than surpassed academic expectations,” she said.

Friday’s vote was the second time in Tennessee’s charter history that the State Board has overruled a local board’s denial of a charter application. Last October, the board unanimously approved the appeals of California-based KIPP to open two charter schools in Nashville, against the objections of the Nashville school board. The State Board became the authorizing agent of those schools as well.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”