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.

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.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.