From the Statehouse

Superintendent: Waiver best for small district

A tiny Eastern Plains school district is seeking a waiver from one education reform law by invoking the terms of a different reform statute.

The 109-student Kit Carson district wants to be declared an innovation district, allowed under a 2008 law, and as part of that move basically wants to be exempted from the 2010 educator effectiveness law.

Kit Carson School gym
Kit Carson School gym

It’s the first time a district – however small – has requested innovation status, and the application is the first “challenge” to Senate Bill 10-191, the effectiveness measure, a law that isn’t fully in effect and for which regulations haven’t been written.

Because of the unusual nature of the case, the State Board of Education Thursday heard a briefing on the application, even though it won’t be heard formally until next month.

“Today we have an interesting example of competing state and local priorities for all of you to grapple with,” Associate Commissioner Rich Wenning told the board. “The application before you is an important one in terms of the precedent it sets.”

Gerald Keefe, Kit Carson superintendent and a long-time advocate for the special needs of rural districts, pitched his case to the board.

“This is an application that’s rural based … very specific to Kit Carson. … We’re not trying to set a precedent.”

Kit Carson’s innovation application proposes to waive many of the educator evaluation procedures of SB 10-191 and allow the district to give teachers multi-year contracts, change the basis for evaluations and hire non-licensed teachers.

Keefe pointed out the absurdity of applying SB 10-191’s requirement that principal evaluations be based 50 percent on student growth. Noting that he’s both superintendent and principal, Keefe asked, “What’s the school board going to do, fire half of me?”

“This is about the future of the school. … We think it meets the intent of Senate Bill 08-130,” the innovation law.

The district has a single building for its preK-12 student body and about 30 staff members, including 17 teachers.

Some board members expressed skepticism at the idea.

Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, said, “I haven’t heard the innovation” in the plan. She suggested Kit Carson should help pilot implementation of SB 10-191.

“This is an application that works best for Kit Carson R-1 School District. … This works well in rural Colorado,” Keefe said.

The Kit Carson discussion came just a day after the board received a new report on rural districts. Much of that document was in line with Keefe’s overall sentiments.

One part of the study noted, “Superintendents feel that the reform initiatives coming from Denver and Washington, D.C., one after another, have not really addressed the needs or concerns of rural schools. … This churn of new initiatives and reform efforts has lead to considerable frustration and distrust.” Read the report.

School districts of all sizes have become increasingly restive about the flurry of state mandates in recent years, not necessarily with the direction of reform but about the difficulties of implementing new systems without adequate funding and support.

Read Kit Carson’s innovation application here and see comments by CDE officials.

Board acts in Prospect Ridge Academy appeal

Also Thursday, the board voted 5-2 to assert its jurisdiction in a case involving the Prospect Ridge Academy charter school and Adams 12-Five Star district. The school board had unanimously passed a resolution prohibiting Prospect Ridge from developing a proposed site following concerns raised by the Broomfield Zoning Commission. Prospect Ridge Academy appealed to the state board, but Adams 12 claimed the state board does not have jurisdiction over site location issues.

The action sends the issue back to the local school board and probably will return to the state board on appeal. Charter school appeals usually involve differences between only a school board and a charter and don’t involve a third, independent government entity such as a city.

Next steps in commissioner search

The state board Thursday got an update on the hunt for a new education commissioner by the search firm of Hazard, Young, Attea. The consultants told the board they’ve completed their surveys and interviews of education leaders and groups about desired characteristics of a new commissioner.

The board is tentatively scheduled to meet by conference call Monday to try to narrow that list of characteristics so that the consultants have a better of idea of what kinds of candidates to look for.

Read the consultants’ report on their surveys and interviews about what’s needed in a new commissioner.

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.