From the Statehouse

Is Round 2 Colorado’s best shot?

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien Wednesday continued to sound cautious about Colorado’s chances in the Race to the Top, telling legislators the state may have a better chance in the second round of competition for a share of $4 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

Dwight Jones and Barbara O'BriendColorado Tuesday filed its first-round application, asking for $377 million. (See detailed story.)

“I’ve been trying to manage expectations a bit about phase 1 because they may select only two or three states, and there are states that are ahead of Colorado,” O’Brien told members of the House and Senate education committees and other lawmakers during an early-morning meeting Wednesday.

“There are states that are ahead of just because of their ability to invest … [but] we continue to be optimistic about chances” in the second round, O’Brien said.

When they unveiled the plan on Tuesday, O’Brien, Gov. Bill Ritter and education Commissioner Dwight Jones all were careful to note that the competition is stiff and that Colorado might not win a grant but still had created a good blueprint for future education reform with its R2T plan.

“It’s not perfect, but we think it’s a really solid plan for Colorado. … It’s a really good plan for Colorado no matter what,” O’Brien said Wednesday.

Jones also spoke to legislators Wednesday, and he defended the Ritter administration’s decision to put development of a new educator evaluation system in the hands of an appointed commission that won’t report back to the legislature until September 2011.

“I know we continue to get criticism in this area, and frankly I don’t agree with the criticism,” Jones said. He said the commission process is “an opportunity to get to a place we all want to get to.”

Many state R2T applications seem to fall into one of two models – collaborative or top-down – and in the last two days Colorado officials have clearly said they chose the collaborative model because they believe it will make reform more achievable. (For more background on the issue, see this EdNews analysis.)

“We have taken a collaborative approach; the governor demanded it,” Jones said. “Hopefully the folks who are scoring our application will take note.”

Jones added later, “’Some may not think it is bold enough, but I think we will be one of the few states that will get it done.”

The Colorado plan proposes to significantly increase math and reading proficiency among Colorado students by 2014 and to trim achievement gaps, which now are about 30 percent, to 10 percent, Jones noted.

Several legislators used the meeting to raise concerns about favorite issues.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, lamented that the state’s application doesn’t say enough about the role of parents. “I would encourage you to think a little more broadly about parent involvement,” she told Jones.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and chair of House Education, agreed with that and also complained that the R2T program doesn’t place enough emphasis on “a well-rounded curriculum” or the arts. (Merrifield is a retired music teacher.)

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and House Ed vice chair, in turn agreed with Merrifield and also was concerned that R2T doesn’t seem to place much emphasis on the importance of early childhood education.

O’Brien said the federal government is expected to roll out a separate early childhood grant program in the spring, and “We are going to be applying for that.”

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and a charter school administrator, asked what the department was doing to ensure charters get a fair shot at R2T money. The program will split grants equally between the state and local school districts. King said his heard complaints that some charters have been shut out of Title I grants, a separate part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Jones said, “I’m not sure I would say charter schools have been excluded” and that “the department does have an obligation to intervene” if that’s the case.

O’Brien and Jones explained that if Colorado passes an initial review, state officials will be invited to Washington in March to make the case for their bid.

That caught the attention of Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, who asked, “So that’s an appropriate place to report on progress we’ve made since Jan. 19?”

Johnston’s planned teacher evaluation and tenure bill has been somewhat sidelined by Ritter’s commission plan, and the senator is now considering what kind of legislation to introduce instead.

Do your homework

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.