Another layer

Tennessee already has one state-run school district. It’s about to get another.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students participate in math class at KIPP Academy Nashville. KIPP's next two schools will be in the new Tennessee State Board of Education school district.

Last fall, the Tennessee State Board of Education overruled school leaders in Memphis to approve a new charter school there, one year after making a similar ruling in a charter school appeal in Nashville.

Now it’s about to become one of only two state boards in the nation to double as a local school district.

The state board’s first school is set to open in Memphis this fall under the management of Green Dot Public Schools. Its next school, KIPP Nashville Primary, will open in 2018, followed by a KIPP middle school in Nashville in 2019.

Hawaii is the only state that currently has a state board of education that also serves as a school district.

“It’s fairly unique situation,” said Kris Amundsen, CEO of the National Association for State Boards of Education. “(School districts) focus on details like how will kids get lunch. That’s not typically the sort of thing state boards do.”

And few, if any, states have two state-run school districts. Local districts in Memphis and Nashville already share turf — and hotly contested funding — with Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The ASD now operates 33 schools, most of which were taken over from Shelby County Schools in Memphis.

The state board has been inching toward school-district status.

In 2014, Tennessee lawmakers voted to let the State Board of Education authorize charter schools in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies an application, the charter organization can appeal to the state board. If the state board overturns the local board, the local board can opt to authorize the school after all — or leave it to the state to authorize.

With both Green Dot and KIPP, school boards in Memphis and Nashville opted for the latter.

But there’s a twist to Tennessee’s state board authorizing the schools. Under state law, the entity that authorizes a school automatically becomes its school district, in charge of funding allocations and many of the school’s day-to-day operations. That’s different from the rest of the nation, where about half of state boards can authorize charter schools.

Now, Tennessee’s state board is starting from scratch to develop local district policy, a topic to be discussed Thursday during a work session in Nashville.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sara Heyburn Morrison will double as executive director and superintendent of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

“It’s different than the ASD obviously, and it’s different than the (State) Department of Education,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, who is now superintendent as well as executive director of the state board. “We’re really trying to do our homework and reach out (to local districts) early and often and look nationally as well, so we can be prepared to set up students and schools for success.”

She’s aware of the challenges facing established districts in Nashville and in Memphis, where underenrollment, and the accompanying lack of funding, have sunk several schools. Two charter operators have announced intentions to pull out of three ASD schools this spring in Memphis, leading to at least one school closure. Green Dot’s charter school agreement, which is scheduled for a state board vote on Friday, projects an eventual enrollment of 616 students.

“(Enrollment) is something that we will keep a very close eye on from a financial stability standpoint,” Morrison said. “If you’re significantly under-enrolled, are your providing the academic program you were approved for?”

Morrison said the state board hopes to work closely with local school leaders in Nashville and Memphis, and is working on a memorandum of understanding that lays out expectations.

“We really see it as a partnership,” she said. “We’re trying to be proactive and create a seamless experience for students coming in and out of (Shelby County Schools) for a school that we may be operating.”

But there are some differences in how local and state-run districts operate. Like the ASD, the state board is allowed to charge charter operators an annual fee. For the state board, the fee is up to 4 percent of a school’s funding for the first two years, and up to 3 percent in the years following. Any money the board does not use will be returned to the school.

Another difference: The state board doesn’t know how much it will expand in the coming years, since its growth depends on local school boards rejecting charter school applications, and charter schools winning their appeals.

Not everyone is happy about the state board’s new role, especially since it will only oversee schools that local districts turned down.

“Now we have two state-run school districts,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, at a recent school board meeting in Memphis. “The problem is — where is the oversight?”

Absent local school board meetings, staff for the state board are working to draft a policy addressing parents’ grievances and concerns, said Tess Stovall, director of charter school policy and accountability.

“We want it to be very clear on how to address concerns throughout the community,” she said.

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.