From the Statehouse

State makes its waiver bid

The Colorado Department of Education on Monday filed its formal application for waiver from some provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, asking for exemption from NCLB’s requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress and for greater flexibility in spending of some federal funds.

NCLB logoThe application has been in the works for more than three months, with Colorado among the parade of states seeking waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was modified in 2001 with passage of the NCLB law.

Passage of that law was a landmark event in the first term of President George W. Bush. But in recent years many states and districts have found it increasingly problematic, especially with the approach of the law’s 2014 deadline for universal student proficiency in reading and math, a requirement that’s widely seen as unrealistic.

The Obama administration last year proposed a NCLB overhaul that would shift the law’s focus away from AYP and the 2014 deadline toward an emphasis on new state content standards and college and career readiness for students by the time they leave high school.

But lack of congressional progress in updating the law has raised the frustration level in many states and in the Obama administration, which earlier this year announced the waiver process. On Sept. 14 the State Board of Education approved education commissioner Robert Hammond’s recommendation that Colorado seek a waiver.

Key points of Colorado’s application include:

  • Allowing the state to use its own accreditation and rating system for districts and schools in place of AYP. The state system, created in 2009, basically sets a five-year horizon for the lowest-rated schools and districts to improve.
  • Increased flexibility in using federal funds to target them to a broader selection of struggling schools than is allowed under NCLB.
  • More control over the designation of highly qualified teachers, another part of NCLB that has created problems for states and districts.
  • Flexibility in requirements and programs for English language learners.

Colorado’s application places heavy emphasis on and provides exhaustive detail about state reforms since 2008 as evidence that the state has the tools – in fact has better tools – to reach the broad federal goals of school improvement and closing of achievement gaps.

Here’s how the application puts it:

“The thrust of Colorado’s education reforms of the past three years demonstrates our commitment to the implementation of rigorous college- and career-ready academic standards, strong assessments that measure progress toward high standards, thoughtfully constructed accountability tools, an educator effectiveness program with a formative focus, and the integration of all these components into a meaningful accountability system that targets supports where needed.

“The Colorado system not only delivers the required components, but extends the vision of this ESEA flexibility package in its promise to foster continuous improvement and ensure that all students are college- and career-ready by the time they graduate.”

The waiver application required documentation of public and interest group involvement in the process, which the application details with a lengthy recitation of the consultations and meetings that led up to such reforms as adoption of new state content standards.

Previewing the waiver application for the State Board of Education on Nov. 9, Hammond said, “We have one of the stronger waiver requests” and said he expects a DOE decision by January.

Here’s a rundown of state reforms in the last three years:

  • The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids required new state standards (which have been implemented), definitions of school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness (also done), new state tests and alignment of the new K-12 system with state college admissions requirements.
  • A 2009 reform of the state system for accrediting and rating schools and districts has been implemented, and the second set of ratings will be issued next month.
  • The state also has implemented the Colorado Growth model, which tracks student achievement scores across multiple years to see if kids are improving and also predicts how much growth is needed over time for students to reach proficiency.
  • A new principal and teacher evaluation system became law in 2010, but full implementation is still several years away. And the CAP4K requirement for new state tests may have to be delayed for budgetary reasons.

Hammond has said failure to launch new state tests in 2014 could threaten the effectiveness of the entire reform program.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

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.

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.