From the Statehouse

Hick’s education council gears up

Education funding isn’t necessarily supposed to be a top issue for the new Education Leadership Council, but the subject kept popping up Tuesday afternoon at the council’s first meeting.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who created the group by executive order last January, spoke briefly with members at the start of the meeting. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the administration’s education policy leader, did much of the talking during the nearly three-hour session.

The meeting took place on the same day as September state revenue forecasts were issued, renewing Capitol talk about the possibility of $200-$300 million K-12 funding budget cuts for 2012-13. See story.

Hickenlooper first raised the subject, saying, “We’re going to have to face the reality that we’re probably not going to have more resources than we did” during the 2011 legislative session.

Garcia picked up the topic later in the meeting, quoting administration budget chief Henry Sobanet that “Flat is the new up.”

He continued, “For next year, we still are looking at significant cuts … between $250 and $500 million” in the overall general fund budget. “You know where those cuts are going to come from” – K-12 and higher education, he added.

Garcia: Prop 103 ‘about the only short-term solution out there’

Garcia then turned to Proposition 103, the ballot measure that would raise state income and sales taxes for five years to raise some $3 billion for schools and colleges.

While noting that Hickenlooper has pledged not to seek new revenue during his first year in office, Garcia acknowledged that 103 “is about the only short-term solution out there.”

Significantly, he said, “We certainly are not going to do anything to get in the way of that effort.”

But, Garcia said, “Whatever happens … we can’t allow the state’s budget problems to serve as an excuse” for not seeking ways to improve education.

Later in the meeting, Garcia returned to the subject, saying, “I would encourage people to talk about what Proposition 103 might do for the state,” then adding, “That’s all I should say about it.”

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs / File photo

During group discussion, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, noted, “Resources always come to the surface when you talk about education.

“We need to find dedicated sources of revenue” for education, Massey said. “We could significantly increase our mineral severance taxes and devote that to higher education,” he suggested, freeing up money in the main state budget for K-12.

“We’re not trying to balance this on business,” Massey said, saying industry might be willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for lighter regulation. “It would go a long way toward shoring up the system.”

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, sounded a cautionary note, saying other state study groups have looked at funding and that education reform should be the top priority of the leadership council.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, noted the fiscal pressures on state colleges and universities and their importance to economic development: “If we do not put our fiscal house in order,” the state won’t have the higher ed system it needs.

DeLay also hinted that perhaps the administration should rethink its neutrality on Proposition 103.

Hereford Percy, chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, agreed, “We need to find a dedicated sustainable source of funding.”

What’s on the council’s plate – Hick’s ed goals, and more

The administration’s initial goal for the council is to have it assist with Hickenlooper’s current education goals – implementation of in-progress reforms like new state tests and education evaluation systems, improving third-grade literacy and reducing the college remediation rate.

Education Leadership Council
First meeting of Education Leadership Council on Sept. 20, 2011.

Garcia said the council’s scope would encompass “birth to lifelong learning,” expanding the preschool-to-grad school emphasis of the council that advised former Gov. Bill Ritter.

But, Garcia said, “We don’t want to limit the group to those specific ideas. … We shouldn’t be bashful about adding our own ideas into the mix.”

The governor, who arrived at the meeting a few minutes after it started, acknowledged that his administration has focused on economic development in its first year and paid less attention to education, health care and transportation. He indicated that will change in the future.

“In education, there’s not a whole lot of mystery about what we need to do,” Hickenlooper said. “We are not training the kids for the jobs that are most likely going to be there for them. … How do we begin to address that?”

While Colorado has examples of successful education initiatives, Hickenlooper said, “We haven’t been able to put it together and maintain significant improvement over a significant amount of time.”

The state needs to work on “how quickly can we turn this around,” he said.

Garcia told the group he and the administration expect it (or at least a subcommittee) to be a sounding board and review panel for proposed education bills during the 2012 session. The chairs of the two education committees, Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Massey are members of the council.

Christine Scanlan, a former legislator who’s now Hickenlooper’s top lobbyist, said, “I expect that group to meet fairly frequently during the legislative session.”

Garcia said the council will divide into various working groups over the next three years, some short-term and some of longer duration. The council will use a consensus approach to make recommendations.

The next meeting of the full council is Nov. 8. See full list of members here.

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.