TNLEG 2017

Here are four education issues to watch as Tennessee’s legislature kicks off

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

With Republican supermajorities in both chambers, Tennessee lawmakers expect to revisit two perennial questions when the 110th General Assembly convenes on Tuesday: How much money the state should spend on schools, especially when it’s flush with a multimillion-dollar surplus; and whether Tennessee should approve tuition vouchers to allow public money to follow students to private schools.

They’ll also take another look at the state’s Achievement School District, created by the legislature in 2010 in an effort to improve the state’s lowest-performing schools. Up for debate is whether the ASD, now in its fifth year of operation, has fulfilled that mission, as well as how it should be regulated.

The real action won’t begin until Jan. 30, when lawmakers return from a two-week recess to hear Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address. In his penultimate year in office, Haslam, who has said he wants to be known as Tennessee’s “education governor,” will use that platform to lay out his vision for public schools and the state.

Here are education issues likely to make a splash:

Funding

Likely this year’s No. 1 issue, education funding will help set the stage for other debates about tuition vouchers, school turnaround work and transportation safety, just to name a few.

A fatal school bus accident in Chattanooga in November led Rep. Gerald McCormick, a former majority leader, to promise a push to retrofit buses with seatbelts. The proposal gained little traction in previous years due to the expense, but the tragedy may give lawmakers a greater sense of urgency in 2017.

Last year, the legislature updated the state’s school funding plan called the Basic Education Program, or BEP, for the first time since 2007, and increased spending for technology, English language learners and teacher pay. But Tennessee still trails other states in school funding — a shortcoming that contributed to lawsuits against the state by three of its four largest districts during the last two years.

Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who chaired one education committee last session, predicts a push for more money to pay for additional school counselors and for more teachers of English language learners. “I see those as financial improvements that will be a focal point,” he said Monday.

Vouchers

This will mark Tennessee’s seventh year of legislative debate over vouchers, and proponents are optimistic that this year’s bill will pass. But then, advocates said that of the proposal last year as well.

The chances for passage might have improved following last fall’s elections, with some voucher opponents losing their seats. And Congress might move quickly on federal incentives for school vouchers under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Hearings to approve voucher advocate Betsy DeVos for U.S. secretary of education are scheduled to begin next week.

The proposal that has gained the most traction in recent years would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, most of whom are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. The program, if approved, would impact 5,000 students in its first year and reach 20,000 students annually in two years.

Last year, the bill reached the House floor for the first time but was pulled before coming to a vote when Rep. Bill Dunn, the lead sponsor, estimated that he was two votes short. Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, is anxious to try again. “I know we came close last year and I hope (this year) we have a clear signal to go forward,” he said.

Achievement School District

As the state-run district stares down the possibility of its first school closure and a shortage of charter operators interested in running its schools, the State Department of Education and lawmakers are reevaluating its role in school turnaround work. Originally, ASD leaders set a goal of taking its schools from the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years. Though the ASD’s first schools don’t have five years of data due to last year’s test cancellation for grades 3-8, none have come close to hitting the mark, leaving lawmakers asking what changes need to be made. “The pace of change is a lot slower than anyone wants,” Dunn said. “We realize that children only have one shot. We don’t have 10 years to turn something around.”

State leaders say they remain committed to the ASD, but are considering ways to curb the district’s growth and increase transparency. In a plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, state officials propose limiting the number of schools eligible for state takeover and giving districts more autonomy in improving struggling schools. And in a legislative hearing last summer, local district officials asked for clear answers about when schools will be returned to local districts. “I think everyone, whether they are teacher, parent or a student, needs to know what’s in store for the future so they can plan,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat whose district in Memphis includes several ASD schools.

Brooks predicts that some changes in the ASD’s operation will be codified into law, but doesn’t expect a major overhaul. “I don’t think it will change the philosophy or what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

Testing

Testing dominated education outside of the legislature last year when Education Commissioner Candice McQueen canceled the state’s new TNReady assessment after a series of technical and logistical setbacks. Accordingly, both lawmakers and Haslam’s administration likely will file bills to address the test’s role in students’ grades and evaluations as students and teachers acclimate over the next few years.

For the second year, McQueen spearheaded a testing task force that dug into issues around standardized testing. Many ideas from the first task force, like axing ACT-designed tests for eighth- and 10th-grade students, ended up in legislation. Further testing reductions floated by the second task force include cutting state standardized tests for eleventh-graders, and replacing it with the ACT, as well as eliminating science and social studies tests for third- and fourth-graders.

a unifying force

Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park (Andy Cross, The Denver Post).

Upset about the election result and wanting to act, Cheetah McClellan was excited to learn that women from across the country were planning to march on Washington, D.C., the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Then she checked out prices on flights and hotel rooms, and remembered she was earning a beginning teacher’s salary.

Maybe, she thought, Denver ought to have its own women’s march. After searching fruitlessly online for anyone planning such a thing, McClellan created a Facebook event page, shared it with some left-leaning social media sites and waited.

By the next morning, 800 people had signed up for an event that was more of an idea at that point.

Not long after, McClellan connected with a couple of similarly inspired local women — Karen Hinkel and Jessica Rogers — and plans for the Women’s March on Denver began to take shape.

PHOTO: Stan Obert
Cheetah McClellan

On Saturday, a larger-than-anticipated crowd of more than 100,000 filled Denver streets and Civic Center Park in a display of what organizers described as a united front for equality and women’s rights after Trump’s ascension to the White House.

McClellan, 42, came to teaching later in life after working as a bartender, waitress and astrologer who did readings and wrote a column about astrology, she said. McClellan completed her teacher licensure through a University of Colorado Denver residency program, and is now pursuing a master’s in culturally and linguistically diverse education.

This school year, McClellan is doing math intervention work on a one-year contract at Colfax Elementary School in Denver, which has a large number of Latino students living in poverty.

We caught up with McClellan after the march she helped lead. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What led you to become a teacher?

Life just kind of pulled me in that direction. I was volunteering at my kids’ school, doing writing groups with kids. The school secretary said, “Do you want a job?” So I became a paraprofessional. Then I decided I wanted to be a teacher.

There is something so beautiful about a child’s mind that is just so wide open and eager to learn. There is nothing more fulfilling to me that hearing, “Miss, I get it.”

Why did you invest so much energy in the organization of this march? What motivated you?

I have always considered myself to be politically aware and informed. I’ve always voted, I try to be vocal and have conversations with people. But I never was super-active. Last year, I was doing student teaching for my residency. Even before Trump was the (Republican) nominee, kids were scared. I was working with fourth graders, and literally every single day a student would ask me a question about Trump that revolved around fear. “Will they really deport us? Will my mom and dad have to go back to Mexico?” While we want students to be aware of politics, they were not just aware of it, they were emotionally affected by it. They were scared. That just really bothered me. The day after the election, the whole fifth-grade class was sobbing.

My son has Asperger Syndrome. So when Trump mocks a disabled person, it irks you. My daughter identifies with the LGBT community. She said she was so scared. All this got me mad.

Have you brought any of your work organizing the march into the classroom, used it in your teaching in any way?

Some of the kids know what I’ve been doing. But it’s not something I have been able to discuss in more of an academic way. Moving forward, I am actively looking for a teaching position next year and I’m definitely excited to bring this into the classroom — especially in Colorado, where we have such a rich history of the women’s movement. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Continuing to empower girls at the same time educating boys that empowered girls are not a threat: That’s how I’d like to incorporate it into the classroom. This is definitely something that is not ending.

So what does come next?

We are working to create a nonprofit organization out of this. We want to move forward with it but we’re not sure exactly how it’s going to look like at this point. I am hoping it becomes a platform for community networking and — as I have called it — legislative meddling. We want to make sure we have an impact on laws and the legislative process as citizens.

Beyond that, on a broader level what do you hope will come out of the energy and enthusiasm?

I hope to see people just continue to be active in their community. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of hiding behind our keyboard, hiding behind social media. We have tensions in our communities. We still have a lot of racial tensions in our communities. What you saw Saturday was all these different people coming out because they care about a central issue. We have to continue that — to try to find opportunities for people to sit in the same room together and work together on issues they care about.

The march was a sea of signs. Did you have a favorite?

That is a hard question. I loved them all. One of my favorites was a small sign by a man that said, “Gay, Muslim and fifth-generation Coloradan.” I just felt, “Wow.” It was the simplicity of it, and him just saying, “This is who I am.”

What do you say to those who think the marches are sour grapes about a lost election, and that this ultimately won’t make any difference? 

I would say, look at the history books. Take a class on civics. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, that inspired John F. Kennedy to take a different approach to the civil rights movement.On Saturday, we had numerous state legislators marching with us and on stage. It sends a strong message to those in power. And it also unites the community.

OK, I need to ask. Is “Cheetah” a nickname? Where did that come from?

It’s an old bowling nickname. It has been around for about 25 years. That’s who I am.

Any closing thoughts?

One of the larger messages I’d like to pass along is you don’t have to be someone special or a board member or a politician to impact real change in your community. You just have to be a little bit brave and a little bit crazy.

A welcomed reprieve?

President Trump appears to be backing off repealing protections for undocumented youth. But anxiety is still running high.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Donald Trump campaigned at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, October 29, 2016.

Tania Chairez is not excited about President Donald Trump backing away from a campaign promise to end temporary protections for young undocumented immigrants — even as she benefits from the news.

“I think he’s just continuously playing with our lives,” said the 24-year-old parent organizer in Denver, who is able to work because of those protections. “There’s still a feeling of anxiety in our community.”

Comments made by Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, this weekend that the president wants to work with congressional leaders to find a long-term solution for young undocumented immigrants — hundreds of them teachers, and thousands of them students — was met with skepticism and in some cases hopefulness by undocumented immigrants, advocates and politicians alike.

More than 750,000 young undocumented immigrants got a reprieve from deportation under former President Obama’s executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to repeal that executive order as part of his hard line on immigration.

Leading up to Trump’s inauguration last week, state lawmakers and education officials from Colorado and other states petitioned Trump to reverse his position.  

“While it’s a relief to hear that thousands of people may not be under immediate threat, my request to President Trump remains the same: declare once and for all that the thousands of young people who are able to pursue the American dream through the DACA program will be able to continue to do so while working towards a more permanent solution in Congress,” Colorado’s Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, said in an email.

Duran, the state’s first Latina speaker, and other Colorado Latino Democrats last week sent Trump a letter urging him to rethink his position.

Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college students to teach in schools that educate some of the nation’s poorest students, currently employs 146 teachers with deferred status. Leaders there have created a detailed plan in case DACA’s protections are repealed, but TFA spokesman Dan Griffin said on Monday the organization was hopeful.

“We believe that our ‘DACAmented’ teachers should be able to teach and lead in their communities while pursuing pathways to citizenship,” Griffin said.

School districts across the nation, including those in Denver and New York City, have also employed teachers who are only eligible to work because of DACA.

In May, the New York State Board of Regents made permanent regulations that allow people protected by DACA to apply for teacher certification and professional licenses from the state. Chancellor Carmen Fariña, head of the New York City’s schools, supported the move in a public letter. Though it’s not clear how many teachers have benefitted from DACA, at least 45,000 people statewide have been granted the protection.

Yatziri Tovar, who was born in Mexico City but now lives in New York City, hopes to be one of them. Her dream is to become a bilingual teacher at her old elementary school, P.S. 8 in the Bronx.

Just months away from finishing her degree, losing her status would change everything. For now, Tovar said she’s choosing to keep moving.

“A lot of my friends, they didn’t go to college because they thought, ‘Once I graduate, I can’t do anything with my degree,’” she said. “I plan to still graduate. And even if I can’t do anything with my degree, Trump can take away everything — but he can’t take away my degree.”

Tovar, who was first granted DACA status in 2012, just submitted the paperwork for her second renewal and is gearing up for her student-teaching assignment. But not all advocates agree that young undocumented immigrants should apply or renew now that Trump is in the White House.

“We’ve counseled families to not submit new applications for DACA,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic growth for ‎Conexión Américas, a Nashville-based nonprofit serving Tennessee’s immigrant community. “As of today, we’re not changing our position, which is just don’t submit anything.”

On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer also sidestepped a question about what young people now protected by DACA should know, saying that President Trump’s initial focus will be on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

While advocates remain anxious, a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers introduced legislation earlier this month in the U.S. Senate, known as the BRIDGE Act, that would provide DACA-like protections to young undocumented youth for up to three years.

Among the sponsors of the legislation is Congressman Mike Coffman, a Republican who represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.

“I expect the new administration will look to Congress to help it address the DACA issue,” Coffman said in an email. “I believe my bill, the BRIDGE ACT, will start us on a path to meaningful immigration reform which will help us secure our borders, grow our economy, and keep families together while protecting these youths from the fear of deportation.”  

Chalkbeat reporters Christina Veiga and Grace Tatter contributed reporting from New York City and Nashville.