Who Is In Charge

Dems hunt for K-12 answers

Legislative Democrats know they don’t like Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2011-12 budget, but they don’t yet know quite how to soften the blow to K-12 education.

“The budget we pass won’t be the same as the governor’s proposal,” Senate President Brandon Shaffer told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t know how it will be different.”

Sens. Brandon Shaffer and Bob Bacon
Senate President Brandon Shaffer (left) and Sen. Bob Bacon weren't nearly as cheerful as they looked in this photo as they talked to reporters about K-12 budget cuts on Feb. 16, 2010.

Hickenlooper’s budget plan, unveiled Tuesday, proposes cutting K-12 spending for next year by $332 million from current levels. That cut would reduce average per-pupil funding from $6,823 to $6,326 and make total program spending about $5.1 billion.

The governor’s K-12 spending plan would be $836 million below what full 2011-12 funding would be under the terms of Amendment 23. Details in this story.

Legislators, lobbyists and others at the Statehouse weren’t blindsided by the Hickenlooper plan; a cut of $300 million to $400 million had been widely expected.

Still the actual announcement had a shock effect, which was still rolling through the Capitol Wednesday.

The subject came up as the House debated 2010-11 budget balancing bills, as the Senate Education Committee discussed non-budget bills and during a Senate Democratic caucus after the morning floor session ended.

“In my mind the legislative session just started” with Hickenlooper’s announcement, Shaffer said.

The Senate president and education committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, met with reporters Wednesday afternoon to talk about their commitment to education funding and about – without many specifics – what they hope to do about it. Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, was supposed to participate but was held up on the House floor, trying to scrape a little extra education money out of 2010-11 budget balancing bills.

Shaffer and Bacon evaded saying what level of K-12 would be acceptable to them.

One reporter asked if Hickenlooper’s budget was “dead on arrival” in the legislature. Bacon replied, “I certainly hope in part it is DOA.”

But the two talked only in general terms about what can be done to reduce the K-12 bite.

Hickenlooper has proposed setting a 4 percent general fund reserve for next year instead of the 2 percent sometimes used in tight budget years.

“That may be a point of discussion,” Bacon said.

Hickenlooper pointed out to reporters Tuesday that cutting back to a 2 percent reserve would only free up about $100 million and suggested that wouldn’t make much of a difference. Shaffer said Wednesday, “In my world $100 million is a lot of money.”

“I can’t tell you where the money is” to help education, Shaffer said. “This is a negotiation.”

The two also mentioned Senate Bill 11-001, a measure they are cosponsoring.

The bill would create a temporary and somewhat convoluted system to funnel an undetermined amount of money to K-12 schools. It would work like this: If the balance in the state general fund next December is larger than the March 2011 estimate of general fund revenue, the difference would go into a Knowledge-Based Economy Fund and then given to the Department of Education in January 2012. The money then would be distributed to school districts to partially offset cuts. Monday from audit recoveries also would be swept into the fund.

No fiscal analysis has yet been done on the bill, and Shaffer couldn’t estimate how much money it might raise.

Both agreed the revenue probably would be modest.

Shaffer also said money for education is “not going to come from one place,” adding, “There will be other initiatives that will come forward,” without being specific.

The president also has introduced Senate Bill 11-109, which would allow citizens to contribute to education through income-tax check-offs. He acknowledged that wouldn’t raise much money.

In response to a question, Shaffer said he wasn’t going to try to raise education funds by selling off the Pinnacol workers’ comp insurance company. That’s been a radioactive issue in recent sessions. “That’s not where I’m going.”

Raiding state cash funds, a popular tactic in past downturns, probably isn’t much of an option, Shaffer said. “I unfortunately think most of the cash funds are tapped out.”

Both men vowed to at least make education funding an issue of intense debate this session.

Shaffer noted that last year it took the Senate only six minutes of floor discussion to approve cutting some $265 million from K-12 support.

“We’re not going to let that happen” this year, he said.

And Bacon has talked about structuring the annual school finance bill in such a way as to draw attention to the magnitude of education cuts.

In other action

• It was the House’s turn Wednesday to work through the long list of Joint Budget Committee bills designed to balance the current 2010-11 budget. Consideration of the bills was moved up on the schedule.

Debate on the bills largely mirrored that in the Senate. The House did pass a Democratic amendment to give schools any excess funds over a proposed 2.3 percent reserve.

• The Senate Education Committee approved two measures, Senate Bill 11-111 and House Bill 11-1077.

The first is the bill by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, to create a study panel that would examine ways to attack the state’s college remediation problem. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, wondered if such a panel is necessary, given the new executive branch education commission being organized under Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia.

The committee did pass the bill, which now will require approval from Legislative Council, the leadership committee that has to OK all legislative studies.

Senate Ed also passed House Bill 11-1077, which would clean up state laws on special education and gifted and talented students.

• The Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee killed Senate Bill 11-075, which would have required state regulation of inflatable amusement devices such as “bouncy castles.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: