From the Statehouse

Mascot bill likely to raise hackles

Wednesday roundup
– Banner bill OK’d
– Tax study advances

A bill introduced Wednesday would require public and charter high schools to get state approval to use Native American-themed nicknames.

Basically, Senate Bill 10-107 would mandate that any public or charter high school “that uses an American Indian mascot to either cease using the American Indian mascot or obtain approval for the continued use of the American Indian mascot or another American Indian mascot from the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.”

The deadline for doing that would be July 31, 2013, and any school that ignored the law after that date would be fined $1,000 a month.

Lamar High School mascot logo
Lamar High School Savages logo

No count was immediately available on how many schools have such mascots. Colorado does have several teams named the Indians. La Veta High School’s teams are named the Redskins, and Lamar High School uses Savages.

Brace yourself for lively committee and floor debates about cultural sensitivity, political correctness, legislative meddling, local control and school traditions.

The measure is sponsored by Sen. Suzanne Williams and Rep. Nancy Todd, both Aurora Democrats, along with nine Democratic cosponsors in both houses.

Wednesday was a lively day for introduction of education-related bills. Here’s a rundown:

• Senate Bill 10-108: This expected proposal by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, would allow non-public colleges and universities to participate in the state system of common core courses, which are transferable among institutions. Higher education interests are expected to oppose this strongly.

• Senate Bill 10-101: The measure would allow Colorado Mountain College to offer bachelor’s degrees “in areas that meet the needs of the communities within its service area.” CMC receives some state support and is a local district college with several campuses in the central mountains. It currently offers two-year degrees. The bill has broad bipartisan sponsorship, led by Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs.

• Senate Bill 10-091: This is the Republican version of a proposal to require school districts to post their financial information online. Sponsors are Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, and Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument. A Democratic version, House Bill 10-1036, is already in the hopper. It’s backed by school districts, whose lobbying helped kill a GOP version of the idea in 2009.

• Senate Bill 10-089: Rep. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, is proposing that the State Board of Education be required to issue a “religious bill of rights” protecting the religious expression of students, parents and school employees. School districts would be required to follow the document, would have to allow religious opt-outs of classes and course materials and school board members could be individually sued if they didn’t follow the law. The conservative Schultheis has an unsuccessful track record with these kinds of bills in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

• Senate Bill 10-088: The measure would allow community college students to choose majors when pursuing their associate degrees. It’s seen as a way to help ease course transferability between community and four-year colleges. Sponsors are Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Massey. The community college system is behind this bill.

• House Bill 10-1157: This measure would allow counties, with voter approval, to levy sales or property taxes to help support a state four-year or community college located within the county. Sponsored by Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, the bill is the 2010 version of an idea floated late in the 2009 session but which died when a larger bill was defeated.

• House Bill 10-1153: Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, is proposing  changing the composition of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association board so that a majority are not PERA members (beneficiaries). For instance, there would be two members from the School Division instead of the current four. Such a big change proposed by a solo member of the minority party has little chance. The bipartisan PERA overhaul, Senate Bill 10-001, wouldn’t make any changes in the board.

A couple of new education bills popped up Tuesday. House Bill 10-1136 by Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, would require schools to hold two “safety protocol” drills a year, in addition to plain old fire drills. (King earlier introduced House Bill 10-1054, which would impose safety training requirements on colleges.) A King safety proposal failed last year in the face of complaints about cost.

Scanlan (and a host of other lawmakers) introduced House Bill 10-1131, which would set up grants in the Department of Natural Resources for programs designed to get kids outdoors. This one reportedly is a project of Lt. Gov. O’Brien. Funding? You guessed it – “gifts, grants and donations.”

The lieutenant governor and sponsors will tout the bill at an 11:15 a.m. news conference Thursday on the Capitol’s west steps, or inside the west doors if the weather’s bad.

Get the easy ones out of the way first

The Senate Education Committee Wednesday quickly gave 8-0 approval to Senate Bill 10-018, which would set up a fund to buy banners and trophies for schools that are recognized by the state’s three school awards programs.

“I think history is being made today by the sponsors of this bill. I don’t believe I’ve ever sponsored a bill with Rep. Merrifield,” said King, the Senate prime sponsor. The House sponsor is Rep. Mike Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat. King is a staunch supporter of charter schools; former teacher Merrifield is a vigorous defender of traditional public education.

Since the state has no spare cash these days, the program would be funded by the usual “gifts, grants and donations.” King said, “Rep Merrifield and I will help out and go out annually and raise the money.” Estimated annual cost of the awards is $4,200.

Tax study resolution moves to House

A resolution that would commission the University of Denver to conduct a comprehensive study of state and local tax structures won final Senate approval on a 34-1 vote.

The cost, estimated at about $750,000, would be covered by private donations.

“We have not looked at the tax structure of this state since 1958,” noted sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. That’s when DU and CU-Boulder did a joint study. The legislature was still considering some of those recommendations into the 1980s.

“We live in a completely different world now,” noted Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

The only no vote on Senate Joint Resolution 10-002 was cast by Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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.