The Homestretch

It’s past the halfway point at the Tennessee legislature. Here are proposals that still could change the state’s schools.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Though behind the Senate, the Tennessee House of Representatives is wrapping up committees as this year's session nears conclusion.

Only time will tell which bills passed by the Tennessee legislature will end up altering the lives of the state’s students and teachers.

Sometimes, like in the case of a bill requiring more recess last year, the impact is accidental, and lawmakers have to rush back to undo what they did the year before. And other times, bills end up barely making ripples, like a 2015 law that created a voucher-like program with special education students — that as of now, has only 35 participants.

After nearly three months of meetings, less than half of the more than 150 separate education proposals originally filed with the Tennessee General Assembly are still standing. They touch on issues ranging from school discipline to the Achievement School District.

And 10 measures have already passed both chambers. Of those, four have received Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature, making them law.

Here are some of the topics we’ve been watching, and where they stand.

School vouchers still face cost questions

The biggest decision legislators will likely face in the next few weeks is whether to widen the door for school vouchers by creating a Memphis pilot program. The committees in charge of keeping state spending in check still have to approve the program before it’s considered by the full House and Senate, and opponents won’t let the proposal through without a fight. The proposal would cost the state $300,000 a year — and potentially up to $18 million a year for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, whose students would be the only ones eligible to use the public funds used on them to pay private school tuition. Still, more expensive voucher programs have made it through the finance committees in years past, and limiting the program to Memphis has also limited the overall cost.

A bill to expand Tennessee’s special education voucher program is also still alive. The proposal from Rep. Roger Kane, a Republican from Knoxville, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican, also awaits votes in the House Finance committees. The fiscal review committee has not yet posted the potential cost to the state.

The state is changing its approach to low-performing schools

A bill to change the way the state intervenes in low-performing schools has already passed both chambers, and the governor’s signature on it is a foregone conclusion. The proposal from the Tennessee Department of Education came out of its plan to comply with the new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, and significantly curbs the authority of the Achievement School District, the state’s turnaround district.

The weight of test scores in teacher evaluations is (temporarily) going down (again)

Due to the rockier-than-expected transition to Tennessee’s new state test, TNReady, the Department of Education went to lawmakers with another proposal to temporarily tweak how much students’ improvement on standardized tests counts in teacher evaluations. Under the measure, which has already passed both chambers, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores this year and 20 percent next year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how often kids should be playing at school

Haslam has signed a law that rolls back a year-old recess requirement for multiple sessions of “unstructured” play a day. Now Tennessee teachers will have weekly requirements, instead of daily ones: 130 minutes of physical activity per week for elementary schools, and 90 minutes for middle and high schools. Meanwhile, a bill to require elementary school students have physical education instruction at least twice a week still awaits votes in finance committees.

The state wants to strike a compromise between school districts and charter schools

The fight over Haslam’s proposed gas tax has continually delayed the House Finance Committee’s vote on the High-Quality Charter Act, a wide-ranging bill written by the State Department of Education in an attempt to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. It’s also almost through the Senate, where it’s awaiting placement on the calendar. 

Are schools about to get a $250 million bonus from the state?

A bill to increase school spending by $250 million sounds almost outlandish, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Democrats, are receiving a surprising amount of traction for their K-12 Block Grant Act, which reallocates excess tax revenue to the state’s public schools. The money wouldn’t be able to cover salaries or other recurring expenditures. Instead, it would go to the extra school improvement projects that the state’s education funding formula, called the Basic Education Program, doesn’t cover. The bill awaits a vote in the House and Senate finance committees. It doesn’t yet have Haslam’s support, but Fitzhugh says he’s in talks with the governor.

charter law 2.0

Sweeping charter school bill passes Tennessee legislature

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students learn at Memphis Delta Preparatory, one of more than 100 charter schools in Tennessee.

Tennessee is close to overhauling the way it oversees charter schools.

The state Senate voted 25-1 on Wednesday to approve the so-called High Quality Charter Act, which now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature. The proposal overwhelmingly passed the House last week.

The bill would replace Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law.

“This law will ensure Tennessee authorizes high-quality charter schools for years to come,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, one of the sponsors.

The measure was developed by the State Department of Education in an effort to address the often rocky relationships between Tennessee’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. The overhaul clarifies rules on everything from applications to closure.

Local districts will be able to charge an authorizer fee to cover the cost of charter oversight — something that school systems have sought since the first charter schools opened in the state in 2003.

The bill also establishes a fund of up to $6 million for facilities. That’s a boon to charter organizations that are too cash-strapped to pay rent and maintain their school buildings, said Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

“It’s really an equity issue,” Bugg said of the facilities issue. “You have charter schools serving a majority of students of color, low-income, and for them to have this gap in funding, it takes dollars away from those students.”

The proposal had widespread support from the charter sector and from officials with Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest authorizer of charter schools, which has been sorting out many of the issues addressed in the revisions.

“Future school board decisions on whether to authorize a charter school will be based on best practices, and charter schools that fail to meet performance standards will be shut down,” said Kelsey, a Germantown Republican. “I am glad that the governor reached agreement between local school districts and charter school operators over how much charter schools should pay for an administration fee.”

Creative funding

Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus. Here’s a new idea to invest more in schools.

With about $2 billion in extra revenue this year, Tennessee is flush with cash.

But it may not last, which is why Gov. Bill Haslam is reticent to invest too much of the state’s surplus in public schools in need ongoing funding.

Now two state lawmakers have an idea that could both benefit public education and satisfy fiscal conservatives.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley and Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville propose using $250 million of this year’s surplus to create a public education fund akin to a college endowment. Money that grows out of the one-time investment could be used to help schools with extras that aren’t already covered by the state’s school funding formula.

In the first year alone, the fund could produce about $10 million in revenue for Tennessee schools, according to Fitzhugh’s estimate. Then, in other boom times, the state could add money to the fund if lawmakers see fit.

The idea was inspired by Tennessee Promise, which invests state lottery money in a separate fund used to cover students’ tuition to community college.

Why not use a similar approach for K-12 education? ask Fitzhugh and Yarbro, both Democrats.

“Tennessee is doing pretty well,” Fitzhugh said. “We could come up with a sizeable fund to put up in a separate fund, a separate endowment for primary and secondary education. This year is unique to do that.”

The level of funding for public schools has been the source of several lawsuits against the state by local districts that say Tennessee isn’t fulfilling its obligation to provide all students with an adequate education.

The Fitzhugh-Yarbro bill would help address that concern by allocating the fund’s additional revenue to districts based on student enrollment. Districts couldn’t use the money to cover basic necessities like teacher salaries — just extras that aren’t covered by Tennessee’s Basic Education Program.

“We had in mind reading courses, some additional money for dual enrollment — things that would get students ready to take on the Tennessee Promise,” Fitzhugh said.

The fund also could provide a buffer during lean times.

“These good times are probably not going to last forever,” Fitzhugh said. “If we needed some operating money to make it through the year, the legislature could authorize that some of this fund could be used for that purpose.”

While proposed by two Democrats in a state with a Republican supermajority, the bill is getting a serious look from lawmakers. The measure sailed through education committees in both chambers.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam leads a 2015 budget hearing.

But it may be a tougher sell beginning this week in legislative finance committees, which also are looking at Haslam’s proposed budget. Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the bill has a “fiscal flag” because it’s price tag is not reflected in the governor’s spending plan, which already includes a $230 million increase for schools. Haslam wants to use part of the surplus to boost Tennessee’s “rainy day” fund to about $800 million.

“It’s sort of in his court right now,” Fitzhugh said of the governor. “It’s not a partisan bill. It’s totally something that could benefit the No. 1 thing, which is education.”