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.

FAQ

Goodbye, focus and priority schools: Hello, new ways of supporting Indiana’s struggling students, whether their school is an A or an F.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at Phalen Leadership Academy at IPS School 103. The school was on the priority school list for 2016.

Under new federal law, Indiana officials will no longer only have a responsibility to step in to help the state’s worst-performing schools — they’ll be responsible for rooting out problems in high-achieving districts as well.

Currently, Indiana education officials siphon off the state’s most-struggling schools each year for more support or other kinds of state intervention, based on their A-to-F grades. Schools that receive Fs or have graduation rates below 65 percent are called “priority schools,” and schools that receive Ds are called “focus schools.”

The categories serve as a watch-list for both federal and state accountability. Only D- and F-schools that receive federal poverty aid, known as Title I funding, are be eligible to go on the lists.

But going forward, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act makes some pretty big changes to this system. The law replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, and the state is currently overhauling its education policy plan to meet the new requirements. The plan is due to the federal government for approval in September.

Below, we break down the new rules and answer some questions.

So what will happen to focus and priority schools?

Those categories will go away, and two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

Targeted support schools are ones where certain group of students are doing poorly on state tests. It’s a distinction that’s focused on trying to close test score gaps between students from different backgrounds, a key aspect of what ESSA was designed to do.

Civil Rights advocates and educators have praised this part of the new law, which they hope will highlight inequities within schools and no longer allow “good” schools to overlook small groups of students who need more help.

“There needs to be a focus on these subgroups specifically because sometimes, when you’re looking at these schools as a whole, it can mask subgroup performance,” said Maggie Paino, director of accountability for the Indiana Department of Education.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools.

Which schools would qualify?

Targeted support schools would be ones where groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Technically, schools that have high overall grades could still fall into the targeted support category.

Schools that require comprehensive support include those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

There’s also a way that schools could transition from targeted to comprehensive support: If a subgroup remains in bottom 5 percent for longer than the state deems appropriate (based on a timeline it gets to create) they will be considered as needing comprehensive support as well.

When do the new categories go into effect?

Beginning in 2018-19, using test results from 2017-18, the state will identify the schools that fall into the two categories, with one exception: Schools requiring comprehensive support based on how subgroups perform wouldn’t be identified for the first time until 2020-21.

The initial identification will happen in the fall, and then schools have the rest of the school year to plan. The state will also publish a list each of year of “at-risk” schools that are in the bottom 6 percent to 10 percent and high schools with graduation rates 70 percent or lower.

How can schools shake off the new labels?

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support.

For schools in targeted support, they have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Both types of schools must also create a “strong plan” for how they will maintain their progress and how funding and other resources might change after they no longer need state support.

Do these schools get any extra money from the state to make their plans happen?

They do — multiple grants will be available.

Comprehensive support schools qualify for one to two years of extra Title I dollars to support their work improving their school. The money will be distributed by the state during the schools’ planning year after they are first identified.

Districts with four or more schools in comprehensive support can apply for additional grants to help them put in place bigger turnaround projects, such as transformation zones or innovation network schools.

How long can a school be labeled as comprehensive support?

Four years — the same as the state’s current accountability limit for F grades. After that, more serious consequences come into play.

At that point, Indiana State Board of Education can:

  • Merge the school with a nearby, higher-performing school.
  • Assign a special management team to run all or part of the school.
  • Allow the school to become part of a transformation zone.
  • Allow the school to become an innovation network school.
  • Accept recommendations from the Indiana Department of Education.
  • Delay action for another year if it thinks the majority of students are improving.
  • Close the school.
  • Employ other options as it sees fit.

The state board will continue discussing Indiana’s ESSA plan at its meeting next week.

You can find the state’s entire ESSA plan here and Chalkbeat’s ESSA coverage here.

Feedback loop

Colorado’s education plan earns cheers, jeers from national reform groups

Miguel Rosales, 8, middle, does as many push ups as he can while friends David Perez, 8, left, and Julio Rivera, 9, right, watch during PE class taught by Chris Strater at Lyn Knoll Elementary School on December 14, 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Reviews of Colorado’s federally required education plan are beginning to trickle in from national observers. And they’re mixed.

What’s there to love, according to national education think-tanks? Colorado is taking seriously new requirements to include more information about how students are succeeding in school.

What’s there to gripe about? The state’s plan is not very detailed and lacks strong goals for student achievement, which critics say raises questions about how it plans to improve schools.

Colorado was one of the first states earlier this year to submit its plan to comply with updated federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to the U.S. Department of Education. The State Board of Education and state education department officials spent more than a year developing the plan with scores of teachers, advocates, parents and business leaders.

While state officials wait for an official response from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — who must approve the plan to keep federal dollars flowing to the state’s schools — there’s no shortage of commentary from the education reform class.

Here’s what you need to know about three reports released this summer on Colorado’s education plan:

The Collaborative for Student Success has the most detailed look at the state’s plan — and is the most critical.

While this organization, which worked with Bellwether Education Partners, praised Colorado for its commitment to rigorous academic standards and data reporting, it raised several red flags that are consistent with some early criticism that the federal education department has shared with other states.

Chiefly: Colorado’s long-term academic goals are based on a confusing percentile system and make no sense.

Instead of setting a goal to increase the number of students reaching proficiency on state exams, the state wants to increase its average test scores during the next six years.

While that sounds simple enough, the goals are muddled because the state has set the same goal for different student populations. Students with disabilities who historically earn the lowest test scores are expected to raise their achievement to meet the state average. Meanwhile, Asian students who historically outperform the state would need to lose ground in order for the state to meet its goals.

The goals, the organization says, are “difficult for parents, educators and the public to understand, (do) not set strong expectations for all schools and all groups of students to improve, and may not be ambitious” enough.

The group also raised serious concerns about the state’s lack of detail in several areas, including how the state would weigh different factors that determine school quality.

Throughout the development of the plan, Colorado officials repeatedly said that they intended to provide limited responses to the federal education department’s questionnaire, which guided the plan’s development.

That’s because they believed the new education law’s intent was to provide states with greater flexibility and less federal oversight. Therefore, Colorado officials reasoned, the federal education department didn’t need an excessive level of detail.

What’s more, the federal law does give states the opportunity to continually update and amend their plans. That’s something Colorado plans to do as it receives guidance from the federal government and the state legislature.

Colorado’s plan continues to garner praise from the center-right Fordham Institute.

The folks at the Fordham Institute can’t say enough good things about Colorado’s plan. The Washington D.C.-based nonprofit came out early with an editorial praising the plan’s development. Now they are giving Colorado strong marks across the board.

Fordham graded state plans in three areas regarding school quality ratings: were they clear, focused on all students and fair to schools that serve mostly poor students?

What really gets Fordham revved up is Colorado’s switch to a normative approach of rating schools. Most states rate schools based on how many students meet or exceed a certain proficiency standard on annual English and math tests. Colorado rates schools based on a school’s average score on those tests. The closer the school is to the overall state average, the better the quality score.

Fordham and state officials believe this move requires schools to focus on the performance of all students, not just those who are near the proficiency line. Critics argue that the measure can be misleading.

Colorado is one of eight states to include a variety of “promising practices.” But it’s not the leading the pack.

A third group, Results for America, took a slightly different approach in critiquing the first batch of state plans. Working with the Council of Chief State School Officers, Results for America identified 13 strategies states could use in their plans as ways to improve student learning.

Strategies include giving federal tax dollars only to schools that are using proven reform methods and creating a state system to support school turnaround efforts.

Colorado’s plan included four of the 13 strategies. Meanwhile, New Mexico is using nine and Tennessee is using seven.

Colorado’s plan was recognized for requiring schools to create annual improvement plans that are based on proven techniques and consolidating multiple grant applications for school improvement work into one.