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.

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.”

Politics & Policy

Indiana ranked no. 1 for charter-friendly environment by national advocacy group

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A national group that pushes for charter schools to operate freely says Indiana is doing almost everything right.

But the group, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, dinged Indy’s lack of regulation for online charter schools in its newest report ranking states on charter school regulation. A recent Chalkbeat series documented the persistently low test scores at the schools — which educate more than 11,442 students.

The nonprofit National Alliance for Public Charter Schools pushes for greater funding and flexibility for charter schools across the nation.

Its report highlights Indiana because the state does not have cap on the number of charter schools that can open. Multiple organizations also have the authority to authorize schools (including private universities and state organizations). And Indiana charter schools have significant autonomy from the strictures of district unions and many of the state regulations that cover traditional districts. But they can be closed for persistently low test scores.

Indiana has a large ecosystem of charter schools that serve more than 43,000 students — exceeding any district in the state. It’s one piece of a statewide embrace of school choice that features many of the programs U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Trump support — including one of the largest voucher programs in the nation, open enrollment across district boundaries, and district-run choice programs.