Extension please

Sponsor of Tennessee’s A-F school grading law wants launch postponed

Last year, Rep. Glen Casada proposed that all Tennessee schools be assigned a single A-F grade starting in the 2017-18 school year. His bill became law — but now he wants it delayed.

The Williamson County Republican and House majority leader says the state should hold off because this is the first year that elementary and middle school students will take its new test.

Last spring, the state canceled TNReady for grades 3-8, prolonging the transition to an assessment that is supposed to be more rigorous. The cancellation came just a month after Gov. Bill Haslam signed the law requiring the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a school grading system by this fall. Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“I’m a big believer in transparency,” Casada said this week, “but this year’s data is not up to standard.”

Casada said that Department of Education officials are moving ahead with the grading system, which is now built into the state’s plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, but are listening to feedback.

Officials from Williamson County Schools, the system in Casada’s district, are among school leaders with a separate set of concerns. They worry that under the new A-F grading system schools with high test scores will post lower grades if they don’t show growth. The school board in Collierville, a wealthy Memphis suburb, voted this week to lobby against the new grading system for the same reasons.

That’s the inverse of concerns discussed when the bill was snaking through the legislature last year. Then, supporters considered it a common-sense aid to help parents understand school quality. Because test scores often correlate with wealth, critics charged that schools in affluent, high-performing districts like Williamson would always get As, and that schools with more poor students would get lower grades.

The Tennessee Department of Education officials took such concerns into account when they drafted the proposal for the grading system, which was part of their ESSA draft plan. ESSA focuses more on school-level accountability than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. In the draft, both growth and raw achievement would be part of schools’ final grade, with the idea that schools won’t have an edge because of their demographics.

The performance of subgroups such as racial minorities also will be a determining factor in the ratings.

School leaders nationwide are facing the challenge of conveying school quality with a single letter grade as states and cities move to adopt such grading systems. Earlier this week, leaders of high-achieving districts in Texas urged state officials to repeal a new A-F system, but their lieutenant governor said it’s here to stay.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute, says developing a fair and relevant grading system is a balancing act.

“If high-achieving schools end up getting low grades, people won’t trust the grading system,” he said.

But Tennessee officials say that historically high-ranked schools have nothing to worry about under the state’s proposal and that all schools will have the opportunity to make an A.

“… We were intentional about engaging all types of districts across Tennessee because this framework has to be able to work for the variety of schools we have,” said department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

legislative update

GOP plan to appoint Indiana’s schools chief claws its way back to a win in Senate panel

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
House Speaker Brian Bosma presents legislative priorities for Indiana House Republicans at the beginning of the session. Bosma is the author of the bill to appoint the next state superintendent, one of this year's priorities.

Indiana Republicans are pulling out all the stops to make sure the state schools chief would be appointed, not elected, in the future.

The Senate Rules Committee passed and amended a bill on Monday that would change how the state’s top education official is selected, giving new life to a measure that GOP leaders say has been debated in Indiana for 45 years — and is one of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2017 legislative priorities.

“It’s been advocated by every governor since 1985,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill’s author. “It’s been advocated by both parties, in fact.”

Supporters of the measure say it’s finally time to align efforts between the state’s top executive and education official, reducing the possibility for political squabbles that have marred previous administrations. Opponents argue the change disenfranchises voters, taking away their chance to have a voice in the direction of the state’s education policy.

The amended House Bill 1005 includes two major changes from an earlier version debated last month. It would allow the governor to appoint a “secretary of education” beginning in 2025, a change from the originally proposed 2021 start date.

That seemingly small change could be a point of contention as the bill moves forward. With the 2021 start date, Holcomb, a Republican, would make the appointment if elected to a second term. Pushing it four years farther puts the first appointment out of Holcomb’s — and potentially GOP — control.

Additionally, a 2025 start date would allow current state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, also a Republican, to run for a second term in 2020 before a possible replacement would be appointed.

Read: She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

The new bill also introduces qualifications for the position. In addition to living in Indiana for at least two years prior to an appointment, the secretary of education candidate would also be required to:

  • Demonstrate “personal and professional leadership success, preferably in the administration of public education.”
  • Have an advanced degree, preferably in education or educational administration.
  • Hold, or have previously held, a license to be a teacher, principal of superintendent, or otherwise be employed as such for at least five years before taking office.
  • Have five years of working experience as an executive in the education field.

Senate President David Long, chairman of the committee, said these changes to the bill make it “substantially” different from Senate Bill 179, a similar proposal that was defeated by the Senate 26-23 last month. According to Senate rules, another bill with the same language could not be considered unless significant changes were made.

Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said he believed the Senate violated its own rules by even having a hearing on the House bill. Senate rules state that if a bill has had a majority of senators vote against it, it is “decisively defeated,” and similar language cannot be considered again that year.

“It does not say it shall not be voted on, it says it shall not be considered,” Lanane said. “It pays respect to the idea in the Indiana Senate that we don’t do do-overs.”

But Republicans on the committee disagreed, and said their amendment means the bill can proceed.

Now, a few concerns remain as the bill heads to the full Senate.

First, Indiana’s constitution says that there “shall be a State Superintendent of Public Instruction,” not a secretary of education. Bosma said he doesn’t think that’s a problem because the bill’s language allows for the change.

And second, if the Senate passes the bill, it heads to conference committee, where lawmakers come together to try to reconcile differences over bills. Democrats on the rules committee said they were worried that parts of the original bill — no specific qualifications for candidates, a 2021 start date — might resurface at that point.

Long reassured the committee that only minor changes could be made. But Bosma was less decisive on that point, which might indicate that the closed-door dealings on this bill could be particularly contentious.

Bosma has said all along that he’s waited years for this proposal to become a reality, and he sees no point in waiting any longer.

“Maybe we should wait another 40 years from when this was first proposed,” he joked. “The time is right.”