From the Statehouse

Highed ed flex bill dies

Senate Bill 09-295, the higher education financial flexibility bill, died in the Colorado Senate Wednesday on the last day of the 2007 legislative session. What killed it was a House provision that would have given community and four-year colleges the ability to seek local property and sales taxes.

The proposal started out in a much more ambitious form that would have given colleges control over their tuition rates and state financial aid for their students, perhaps setting the higher education system on a path toward more expensive tuition for all students but additional financial aid for needy students.

The bill was introduced late in the session, and lawmakers weren’t ready for such a major policy change on such short notice. Gov. Bill Ritter also opposed it. Those sections were quickly dropped from the measure, leaving it only with provisions to give colleges some exemptions from state financial rules, streamline the approval process for construction projects colleges fund with their own money and greater flexibility for enrolling foreign students, who pay higher, non-resident tuition.

The bill got interesting again on Monday, when the House added to SB 09-295 the language of another higher ed financial bill that had been killed in a Senate committee last Friday.

That measure, House Bill 09-1362, was intended to allow community and four-year colleges to partner with local governments and seek voter approval for sales or property taxes that would help support the colleges. (The bill was killed in the Senate because the bill threatened to get way too complicated because other sectors of higher ed were trying to horn in on the action.)

When SB 09-295 came back up in the Senate late Wednesday afternoon, it quickly become clear that House amendment had opposition.

Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village and a former CU regent, moved that the Senate stick with its original version.

“This will not include any of the research institutions,” complained Schwartz, a reliable defender of CU. (Colorado higher education is in such dire financial straits that colleges scrap for every dollar.)

The Senate voted 18-17 to reject House amendments, effectively killing the bill because there was no time on the session’s last day for a conference committee. Schwartz and four other Democrats joined all Republicans to successfully pass her motion.

Senate President Pro Tempore Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood and the bill’s sponsor, tried to change some minds for reconsideration but was unsuccessful.

The House had given 63-2 approval to SB 09-295 Wednesday morning.

The Senate earlier had agreed to House amendments and unanimously repassed Senate Bill 09-290, which contains the same changes in the college construction approval process as SB 09-295 did. Members of the Capital Development Committee intended SB 09-290 as a backup in case SB 09-295 failed, and it turned out they were wise to do that.

Senate Bill 09-226, the food allergy bill, also crossed the legislative finish line on Wednesday. The Senate voted 25-10 for the amended version. The House approved the bill Tuesday.

The original bill would have required the State Board of Education and local school boards to adopt policies on caring for students with food allergies, training of school staff and provision of anti-reaction devices in schools. The bill was much amended, and as it ended up primarily applies existing state law regarding asthmatic children to students with food allergies. As amended, the bill will have the SBE issue guidelines.

Some of the last day’s longest debate in both houses was focused on House Bill 09-1366, which would change state law on taxation of capital gains and raise an estimated $7.1 million this fiscal year and $15.8 million next year.

The House passed it 37-28 and the Senate 21-14.

While the bill doesn’t directly affect education now, it could be the forerunner of similar bills to come in 2010 that might provide revenue for schools and colleges.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, touts this as the first in a series of tax bills the legislature could pass without voter ratification, in keeping with a recent state supreme court decision. Romer estimates there are up to $3 billion in tax breaks that could be ended in order to raise state revenues.

Also Wednesday, a common version of Senate Bill 09-285 finally was passed. This is the measure that would include career and technical education programs in the new statewide dual enrollment bill created by House Bill 09-1319, which passed on Tuesday.

In other action

Even though everyone was anxious to go home, the Senate spent 20 minutes debating Senate Joint Resolution 09-050, which would have required every legislator to attend a certain number of Joint Budget Committee meetings.

There’s been a lot of grousing this year – at least by Republicans – about the JBC. Chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, thinks the rest of the legislature just doesn’t understand what the committee does and that it would be helpful if the other 94 members had to watch the process. The debate mostly picked a lot of old scabs about the JBC.

The resolution failed on a 16-19 vote.

The Senate did approve three other resolutions: HJR 09-1025, creating an interim committee on school safety; SJR 09-044, creating an interim committee to study school safety, and SJR 09-056, the purely ceremonial resolution touting why Colorado’s education reform achievements make the state a good candidate for Race to the Top funds.

Lawmakers did not take up Gov. Bill Ritter’s veto of a footnote in Senate Bill 09-259, the 2009-10 long appropriations bill. The footnote would have allowed state colleges and universities, under a certain combination of financial circumstances, to raise 2009-10 tuition more than 9 percent. As it stands without the footnote, 9 percent is the ceiling for tuition hikes, although community colleges and four-year schools are likely to approve lower increases.

(In case you’re wondering why so much of this story is about the Senate, that’s because the House was much more efficient about it last-day work and spent much of the day in recess waiting for the Senate to catch up.)

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.