From the Statehouse

School finance done despite Senate feud

The Senate Tuesday evening approved yet another version of the 2009-10 school finance act, but not before Republicans lambasted the Democratic majority for supporting an “irresponsible” bill. The House approved the compromise with less fuss, making the bill a done deal.

The latest chapter in the saga of Senate Bill 09-256 started Monday morning, when the Senate rejected the first conference committee report on Senate Bill 09-256, forcing House and Senate negotiators back to the table.

A few hours later, the conference committee approved a tweaked proposal for consideration by the two houses.

The key issue with the bill has been whether there should be a $110 million reduction in the overall increase in state aid to K-12 schools next year. The Senate proposed a $150 million cut, to help temporarily preserve the solvency of the State Education Fund. An early House version proposed a $110 million cut, but that was stripped on the floor.

The conference committee initially proposed giving school districts the $110 million – but to tell them it can’t be spent until Jan. 6, 2010, after the Joint Budget Committee has reviewed December revenue forecasts and decides if further state budget cuts are needed.

The revised proposal approved 4-2 by the committee Tuesday afternoon puts that date back to Jan. 29, 2009, and would designate the full legislature, not the JBC, as the body to decide whether the money should be held back.

The Senate spent half an hour Tuesday evening squabbling over the latest plan.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said, “Members, we changed nothing. All we did was move the date.”

King, who warned that not trimming the K-12 increases would lead to serious higher education cuts in 2010-11, moved to stick to the original Senate version but lost that motion.

Other Republicans picked up King’s song, but to no avail. The Senate voted 20-15 to adopt the second conference committee report, and then 21-14 to readopt the bill. Lame-duck Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, voted against the committee report but for the bill. He then asked his name be removed as a cosponsor. Several reform-oriented aspects of the original bill had Groff’s backing, but most didn’t survive once the bill reached this House.

As it settled out, the bill is pretty much the House’s creation, and representatives approved the second conference committee report.

Representatives had voted 65-0 Monday evening to repass the original compromise.

The committee proposal still includes funding for a boarding school for at-risk students – if a Department of Education study decides it’s a workable idea and comes up with a plan – and gives charter schools a small victory on facilities funding. The proposal accepts the House’s modest proposal for at-risk incentive funding (in contrast to the Senate’s original, expansive plan) and wouldn’t tinker with school funding formulas, which the original Senate version did, to the advantage of some school districts and the disadvantage of others.

The “escrow” proposal for the $110 million has a number of attractions for the legislature and advocacy groups interested in the debate.

– It lets the legislature avoid for now the issue of possibly violating Amendment 23 by trimming the increase in overall education spending. But, it also gives the legislature the option of taking back the money later – before it’s been spent – if the state’s revenue situation deteriorates further.

– It gives school districts the full amount of funding they feel A23 calls for – but allows them to keep that money off the table when setting or negotiating salaries for next school year. (Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver and conference committee chair, made clear during the conference committee meeting, “Districts should be on warning … districts should not put this in employment contracts.”

The committee proposal also includes a provision that would require the $5 million in charter school facilities funding be paid in 12 installments. There’s been endless debate over that issue since the $10 million in charter facilities funding originally in the 2008-09 budget was cut earlier this session.

The legislature could have to face further cuts, perhaps including in school spending, well before next January. The next formal state revenue forecast will be issued in late May, and it’s widely felt that bad numbers could trigger the need for a special legislative session this summer to cut the budget further.

legal opinion

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

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.