charter debate

Tennessee NAACP backs away from national call for charter pause

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
NAACP Tennessee State Conference President Gloria Sweet-Love presents the state's response to the national NAACP board's call for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

Tennessee’s NAACP leaders on Tuesday distanced the state organization from its national board’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, even calling the charter-reliant work of the state-run school district “a progressive spot” in Memphis.

Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the NAACP Tennessee State Conference, said problems associated with charter growth elsewhere in the nation aren’t as prevalent in the Volunteer State, where authorization is restricted to local school districts and the state.

“In Tennessee, we have some of the best oversight laws,” Sweet-Love said at a press conference at First Baptist Church Broad in Memphis, just three weeks after the national board’s vote.

“If the guys here in Memphis don’t do right, you got elected school board members who are part of the (local education agency) that school has to respond to. That is not happening all over the nation,” she said.

The state group’s position, which is supported by the NAACP’s Memphis chapter, represents an about-face from Memphis leaders’ call earlier this year for a moratorium on expanding the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which uses mainly charter operators to turn around chronically struggling schools. That call came in response to a Vanderbilt University study labeling the ASD’s results marginal thus far and suggesting the city’s low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

“I believe we’ll work through this,” Sweet-Love said, referring to ASD oversight and performance. “I believe the ASD is at a progressive spot now. I believe they’re moving to do some things to be more involved with the community.”

Sweet-Love said the state conference will advocate for “tightening” guidelines and legislation on how the state allocates funding for charters, referencing a recent state comptroller’s report citing “insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification” in how local school districts distribute that money.

The NAACP’s national board, which includes three Memphians, has instructed its chapters to advocate for legislation for a “reasoned pause” on the expansion of the charter sector nationwide until those concerns could be addressed. The vote puts Memphis in an unique position as home to both one of the nation’s largest NAACP chapters and a burgeoning charter school sector. The call also coincided with initiatives by Shelby County Schools to strengthen oversight of district-authorized charter schools and to tweak its process for revoking charters after receiving a strong reprimand from Tennessee’s State Board of Education about closing several schools this year.

Sweet-Love, who lives near Memphis in Brownsville, also serves on the NAACP’s national board and has been appointed to a task force examining charter schools. She reiterated the organization’s concerns about racial disparity in student discipline and the impact of limited funds on traditional schools.

Tennessee NAACP press conference from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Tuesday’s press conference was attended by about 35 representatives from student, parent and charter school advocacy groups such as the Tennessee Charter School Center, Stand for Children and Memphis Lift, as well as the ASD. All were invited to stay afterward for a discussion that was closed to news organizations.

To some in attendance, the messaging shift was out of step with the spirit of the national call to stop charter school expansion. To others, the shift was not enough.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway said he mostly supports the national NAACP’s position because he believes charter schools have strayed from their original purpose.

“My original perception of charter schools was here’s a chance to look at and develop best practices,” said Hardaway, founder of one of Tennessee’s first charter schools, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences. “We got away from quality when we took the cap off. … It was an open door for a lot of players not capable of delivering quality education.”

Local education leaders contacted later by Chalkbeat weighed in on the discussion.

Stephanie Love, a school board member for Shelby County Schools, said problems cited by the national NAACP board exist in Tennessee. She gets calls from involved parents at charter schools who have not been informed of charter board meetings or grievance processes, she said.

“Charters should be held to the same standard (as local school districts) because we’re all taking public dollars,” said Love, adding that transparency and accountability issues by locally authorized charters are being addressed by the district’s charter advisory committee. “And if that’s not happening in every charter school, we do have an issue.”

Keith Williams, who leads a leading teachers union in Memphis, echoed Love’s concerns.

Charter schools “may be public, but (their boards) are not elected. There’s no way you can put that up against public scrutiny. … It should not be at the expense of schools in the district,” said Williams, executive director of the Shelby County Education Association.

But Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, praised the position voiced by Sweet-Love and said the national board’s call was too broad.

“She gets it and she knows what’s good about charter schools,” he said. “A few bad actors in a few bad places can make a stereotypical view of charter schools and how they operate. … The dynamics that led to this wide-ranging thought just don’t exist in Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s NAACP conference plans to conduct community meetings to take feedback to the national organization’s task force.

Teresena Wright, who works for Memphis Lift, said involving parents in the discussion is paramount. Her parent advocacy organization disrupted the national board meeting in Cincinnati over the organization’s stance, which Wright said has caused a rift between charter parents and the NAACP.

“That national issue is not a Tennessee issue, but it became a Tennessee issue because it had been nationally voted on,” she said.

legislative look-back

Holcomb pulls off a near-perfect education record in his first session as Indiana governor, and with far less drama than in years past

PHOTO: AP Photo/Darron Cummings, Pool
Gov. Eric Holcomb, right, responds to a question during a debate for Indiana Governor.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb managed a rare feat in his first year on the job — to check nearly every box on his education agenda for 2017.

At the beginning of the year, Holcomb set four specific goals for K-12 education: making the state superintendent appointed by 2021; doubling state funding for preschool; adding funding  for school internet access; and better coordinating science, technology, engineering and math initiatives across the state.

It wasn’t always clear whether those proposals would pass. But Holcomb was ultimately able to get what he wanted with fairly little drama — unlike his predecessor, Vice President Mike Pence.

“The legislature over-delivered,” Holcomb said Tuesday. “Now it’s time for us to take these tools and new resources and put them to work.”

Holcomb’s success likely hinged both on his collaborative approach to working with lawmakers — in contrast to the more ideological and aggressive approaches, respectively, of former Gov. Pence and his predecessor, Gov. Mitch Daniels — and the less controversial makeup of his education priorities.

Pence failed to make much progress when he tried to break new ground in some way — like with plans to re-imagine teachers’ roles in schools — or when he faced vehement opposition, like his attempts to further reduce union negotiating power. Holcomb’s priorities, for the most part, were harder to argue with: a need for more preschool for poor children, better school internet access or more opportunities to prepare kids for the workforce and science- and math-related fields.

Although Pence was ultimately able to push through many of his education priorities, such as establishing a preschool program, driving up career and technical education funding, and increasing support for charter schools and vouchers, his efforts brought more opposition from lawmakers, even those in his own party.

Take preschool.

When Pence put out the call for a state-funded pilot program after years of debate, senators were extremely skeptical. In the waning days of the 2014 session, they stripped any meaningful investment from the bill, turning it instead into a suggestion to study the issue over the summer. At the last minute, after Pence himself testified before lawmakers, the funding was restored, and the program became a reality.

This year, the same last-ditch attempts to kill the proposal were absent. After the Senate proposed only increasing preschool spending by $4 million, lawmakers came back with a $20 million-per-year plan in line with Holcomb’s initial ask.

Holcomb also had the benefit of not having to go head-to-head with the state schools chief.

Pence’s frequent battles with then-state Superintendent Glenda Ritz were a notable part of his administration. Current Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, on the other hand, was fairly aligned with Holcomb’s goals from the beginning — even signing on to support his call to make her position appointed, rather than elected, in the future.

That’s the one area in his education policy agenda where Holcomb didn’t eke out a full win — but it was arguably also the most controversial part of his agenda, with many educators and some lawmakers asserting that the move takes away an independent education voice at the Statehouse. The proposal has been debated in some way for more than 30 years.

Holcomb originally supported a 2021 start date for the appointment, which would allow him to make the appointment if elected to a second term. Instead, this year’s legislation would have it begin in 2025, meaning McCormick could seek a second term and Holcomb wouldn’t be the executive empowered to make the first secretary of education pick.

Holcomb said Tuesday that he has no desire to revisit that legislation in order to change the effective date.

He reiterated his goal of collaboration Tuesday when addressing reporters during a press conference, pointing to his relationship with McCormick.

“We’ll continue to meet and collaborate and work on issues that we both know are of the utmost importance,” Holcomb said. “And we’ll get there together. I look forward to it.”

As far as bills that weren’t on his agenda, Holcomb today said he plans to sign into law Senate Bill 567, which would appoint emergency financial managers in the Gary and Muncie school districts. He also indicated support for House Bill 1003, which would replace the state’s ISTEP test with a new program to be called “ILEARN” in 2019.

You can find other education bills that moved ahead this session here in our legislative wrap-up.

social studies

Tennessee’s long journey to new social studies standards nears its finish line

Tennessee is one step closer to having new social studies standards after almost 1½ years of unprecedented public scrutiny and feedback.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously on Friday to move ahead with a revision that was begun partly out of concern over how Islam is being taught in seventh-grade world history.

Now receiving attention is the question of whether too much Tennessee history is being removed from standards that most everyone agrees were over-laden with material.

The proposed draft, which will undergo a final vote in July, reduces the number of standards overall by 14 percent — but at the expense of some Tennessee history such as the Chickamauga Indians, “Roots” author Alex Haley, and the New Madrid earthquakes.

Members of the Standards Recommendation Committee have presented the proposal as striking the right balance.

“There’s an infinite number of people and facts that are significant, and we can’t include them all,” said Todd Wigginton, who led the teacher review and is director of instruction for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

But Bill Carey, one of the panel’s nine members, offered a dissenting opinion to the section for grades 1-5.

“In these standards, the Plateau of Tibet is mentioned twice but the Cumberland Plateau is never mentioned,” said Carey, who is executive director of the nonprofit Tennessee History for Kids. “… I think a case can be made that there’s too much of Tennessee missing.”

Wigginton said the idea behind the final draft is that teachers should have more flexibility, and focus more on important concepts.

He said Tennessee’s new standards asked students to consider, for example, the significance of civil disobedience in the civil rights movement, rather than memorize a list of people and dates.

The state spearheaded a laborious review for social studies beginning in January 2016 after critics charged that seventh-grade standards addressing the Five Pillars of Islam amounted to “proselytizing.” Members of the recommendation committee say all religions would be taught in a uniform way under the new standards.

The draft reflects tens of thousands comments from hundreds of Tennessee residents over the course of two public reviews, as well as nearly 100 hours of meetings by the committee. That panel, along with a team of educators who reviewed public feedback last summer, created standards that they say allows teachers flexibility and the freedom to go in-depth, while also covering key topics.

Unlike many other states, Tennessee hasn’t cordoned off Tennessee history to specific units for nearly two decades, choosing instead to “embed” state-specific facts across all grades. Carey said he’s made a career out of helping teachers incorporate Tennessee material into their history classes. He noted that several state historical associations and museums have raised concerns too about the final draft.

“In my opinion, for embedding to work, Tennessee topics have to be clearly spelled out in the standards,” said Carey, who submitted a minority report to share his concerns. “If they’re not, teachers won’t get the message that they have to cover Tennessee history.”

Jason Roach, a former social studies teacher and now principal of Mooresburg Elementary School in Hawkins County, said those terms could be incorporated into curriculum, even if they aren’t explicitly spelled out in the standards.

Standards lay out what students should know at each grade level, while curriculum includes the lessons and activities that students study and do throughout the school year.

“Tennessee history needs to be taught in Tennessee schools. I believe that,” Roach said. But, he continued, teachers should decide how to build curriculum on a local level, rather than the state over-prescribing what should be covered through the standards.

During a discussion Thursday about the final draft, board members offered praise about both the process and the results.

“You did an incredible job,” said Lillian Hartgrove, who represents part of Middle Tennessee. “I know it’s not exactly what everyone wanted … but what you have accomplished is truly incredible.”

Tennessee’s academic standards in all four core subject areas have been overhauled over the last three years, and social studies standards are the only ones still in the works.

If approved, the new Tennessee Academic Standards for Social Studies will reach the state’s classrooms in the 2019-2020 school year.