From the Statehouse

Committee rejects parent notice rule

A tie vote Wednesday afternoon by the legislative Committee on Legal Services effectively killed the contentious State Board of Education rule that requires school districts to inform parents when employees are arrested for certain crimes.

Finger printsThe decision was the latest twist in a long story that has involved extensive negotiation among and multiple votes by board members, consistent opposition by the state’s mainline education interest groups and a lawsuit by the state’s largest teachers union.

The rule has been something of a personal crusade for SBE Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, who was prompted to propose it by badly handled arrest reporting incidents in the Poudre schools. Schaffer lives in Fort Collins and is a charter school principal.

The board unanimously approved the rule last April (see story), a year after Schaffer first proposed it. The rule subsequently was challenged in court by the Colorado Education Association (see story). That case is pending, although a Denver judge earlier this fall denied a motion for an injunction against the rule.

Schaffer said his next move will be “likely to pick up the phone” to see if he can find a legislator willing to sponsor a bill that would put the parent notification rule into law.

The somewhat arcane constitutional question of whether SBE had authority to issue the rule is a central issue in the dispute.

State agency rules are governed by a complex review process. Once issued, rules are in effect until the following May 15. For rules to go into effect permanently, the legislature passes a law every year extending rules beyond May 15.

Lawyers from the Office of Legislative Legal Services review new rules and may make recommendations to the Legal Services Committee, a joint House-Senate panel.

In this case, legal services staff lawyers Michael Dohr and Brita Darling concluding that SBE exceeded its authority and recommended the committee not include the rule in the annual bill to permanently extend new regulations (read their memo). The staff lawyers recommended the parent notice rule not be extended because they concluded the board didn’t have the legal power to issue it.

Much of the one hour and 45 minute discussion Wednesday focused on the somewhat esoteric issue of whether the state board’s constitutional assignment of “general supervision” of schools gives it the power to issue such a rule – particularly considering that the vast majority of SBE rules are issued to implement specific laws passed by the legislature. The notification rule was the board’s own initiative and was not issued to implement legislation.

Michael Dohr and Tony Dyl
Legislative lawyer Michael Dohr (left) and Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl.
Dohr, who presented to the committee, said, “The rules in this case go beyond ‘general supervision.’”

Senior Assistant Attorney General Tony Dyl, a longtime legal advisor to the state board, argued the opposite point of view, saying, “I believe the state board possesses both the constitutional and statutory authority” to issue the parent notice rule.

Committee members discussed the issue at length. Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, warned that affirming the rule was “a dangerous slippery slope” that could expand the board’s authority beyond constitutional limits.

Both Levy and committee chair Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, expressed concerns that the rule requires reporting of arrests, not convictions.

The rule applies to arrests or charging of employees and former employees whose jobs require them to be in contact with students. In most cases, notice must be given within 24 hours of a district learning of an arrest.

Notification is required in cases involving any felony, drug crimes (except for misdemeanor marijuana cases), misdemeanor and municipal violations involving children, misdemeanor and municipal ordinance violations involving unlawful sexual behavior of various kinds, and any crime of violence. Drunken driving arrests are included if an employee’s duties involve transporting students in motor vehicles.

The rule contains no enforcement or reporting requirements on school districts.

In the end, a motion to extend the rule died on a 5-5 vote, with committee Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no. Two Republicans, Rep. Mark Waller of Colorado Springs and Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, said they had concerns with part of the rule but voted yes on the motion to continue the full rule. The vote means the rule will expire next May 15.

Speaking with reporters after the meaning, Schaffer said the vote means parents could be “stuffed back into the darkness” of not knowing when school employees are arrested and indicated he’ll seek a legislative solution to the issue. He said he hopes the partisan split on the committee “is not a reflection on the substantive policy issue” of protecting children.

Despite the lack of a reporting requirement, Schaffer said, “The rule has worked very well,” adding he’s heard of 10-12 cases in which districts have notified parents since the rule went into effect last spring.

Dyl indicated that although he expects a judge to rule on the CEA lawsuit before May 15, the committee’s action pretty much settles the issue.

Mike Wetzel, a CEA spokesman, said Wednesday evening, “We’re pleased that school districts will be allowed to resume local control in matters of school employee discipline, and educators will not run the risk of permanent damage to their personal and professional reputations should they ever be wrongly accused. The rule did nothing to protect students or help parents, and we hope this is the last we hear of this truly unnecessary measure.”

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.