It's here!

Tennessee’s completed schools plan is finally out. Here’s what insiders are saying.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen oversees the department that drafted the state's new education plan in response to a new federal law.

After weeks of teasers, Tennessee on Tuesday released the first draft of its K-12 education plan with the potential to reshape the state’s 1,800 public schools.

The 286-page plan, issued in response to a sweeping new federal education law, includes detailed proposals to alter the way schools are evaluated and the role of the state’s school turnaround district in intervening in struggling schools. It also touches on teacher preparation, arts funding, school counselors, and a multitude of other factors involved in the day-to-day operation of public schools.

The State Department of Education will collect feedback until Jan. 31 on its proposal to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA, and plans to submit its final draft to U.S. Department of Education by April.

“The feedback you share with us during this window is critical,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in a blog post. “You are helping to build the strategies and strengthen the momentum for the work ahead, and your input will make us better able to serve all of Tennessee’s 1 million students.”

Read our preview of Tennessee’s ESSA plan and our story about how the state-run Achievement School District may lose power under its proposals.

Education leaders who have been waiting for the complete plan, many of whom contributed to it, were generally positive about the proposal as they read through it on Tuesday, though some already see room for edits.

“The Tennessee Department of Education has taken a thoughtful, inclusive approach to writing the draft plan, engaging thousands of Tennesseans in the development process,” said a statement from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

SCORE leaders promised to be student-focused in scrutinizing the proposal. “Our review will pay particular attention to school accountability, school improvement, and delivering excellent and equitable outcomes for students of all backgrounds because of the impact these issues can have on student achievement,” the group’s statement said.

A major theme of the plan is how the state should determine school quality. The draft proposal incorporates a variety of factors, including student test scores, course offerings and growth in the academic performance of students.

“That’s something important, especially for schools serving populations that have struggled in the past,” said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee School Charter School Center. “Those schools are working toward proficiency, but they also need to celebrate growth.”

Bugg hopes the plan will lead to increased focus and support for historically disadvantaged groups, such as students of color and English learners, by making their test scores a significant part of schools’ final ratings.

Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray was cautiously optimistic but wants to review the plan with an eye toward reducing the role of testing. Right now, she said, standardized tests play an outsized role in the state’s schools.

She urged educators and other Tennesseans to offer feedback to the state by the Jan. 31 deadline. “It’s important for teachers to give input on this plan because, if we don’t, nothing will ever change,” she said.

The State Department of Education began collecting public feedback around ESSA in May, and convened working groups to help write the draft in June. In recent weeks, state officials have presented previews at town halls in Knoxville, Jackson, Memphis and Nashville. They plan to conduct two more in January, in Chattanooga and Bristol.

Gini Pupo-Walker is among advocates for Tennessee’s immigrant population who have contributed ideas to the plan’s authors about support for English learners. She said Tuesday that she’s been pleased with the process, although she sees room for further revision, especially around accountability for serving students of color.

“We feel our voices were heard in a lot of ways,” said Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy for Conexión Américas and leader the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

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.”