From the Statehouse

Community colleges win a round

The state’s community college system has taken the first step toward being able to offer bachelor’s degrees, winning Senate Education Committee approval Thursday of a bill that would allow them to do so in limited cases.

Metro State President Steve Jordan
Metro State President Steve Jordan

The bill advanced despite determined opposition by some of the state’s biggest university systems and questions by an influential committee member.

Senate Bill 13-165 would allow community colleges to offer up to seven bachelor’s degree programs in “technical, career and work force development” fields if approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. CCHE  would have to consider factors including program need, accreditation and uniqueness of a program before granting approval.

Those limitations aren’t enough for some four-year institutions and systems. The University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Western State Colorado University, Colorado Mesa University and Fort Lewis College are formally opposing the bill.

The backstory to this issue, of course, is money. State support of higher education has dropped significantly in recent years, meaning colleges on average get only a quarter of their support from taxpayers. That has made colleges more entrepreneurial, and most have added new programs and services to attract tuition-paying students. Community colleges could draw more students with bachelor’s programs, and four-year schools could lose some potential students.

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Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, home of CU’s flagship campus, also has questions about the bill, and he offered an amendment that would have significantly weakened it by esentially turning it into a study of the issue. It was defeated on a 2-7 vote. The bill passed a short time later on an 8-1 vote, with only Heath voting no.

Although most of the state’s four-year establishment opposes the bill, one of its strongest supporters is Metro State University President Steve Jordan, who testified Thursday.

He said allowing community colleges to offer limited bachelor’s degrees “serves a very important workforce need.” He added that expanding community college opportunities would help “place-bound” students who can’t move to Front Range campuses to complete degrees. “It’s about expanding opportunity to people in Sterling and Wray and Mancos and Trinidad,” Jordan said.

Nancy McCallin, president of the state community college system, pitched hard for the bill, noting that community colleges are closer to more communities (there are no institutions east of the Interstate 25 corridor and none in northwestern Colorado) and that “we have the infrastructure, we have the expertise in technical areas.”

She noted that in the last decade several four-year institutions have been upgraded to universities or have had graduate programs approved, and “all of those bills have had relatively little pushback.”

Heath kept trying to push his go-slow amendment , telling McCallin that he supported community colleges offering some four-year degrees but that the issue needs more study and review.

“With all due respect, we add programs in the four-year institutions all the time, yet the four-year programs are not required to go through this needs assessment” that Heath was proposing, McCallin replied.

Heath was tense throughout the hearing, repeatedly clenching his jaw as his listened to witnesses and other committee members.

Testifying against the bill were CSU Chancellor Mike Martin and top CU officials Pam Shockley of the Colorado Springs campus and Don Elliman of the Denver campus. They argued that “partnerships” between community colleges and four-year schools are a better way to go.

Elliman warned that low funding and “excess capacity” in the state higher education system make it unwise to expand the mission of community colleges.

It’s not unusual elsewhere for community colleges to offer four-year degrees. According to several witnesses, 21 states allow the practice. And the legislature a couple of years ago allowed Colorado Mountain College to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees.

Colorado Mountain College, which serves several counties in the central mountains that don’t have a four-year campus, is supported partly by local taxes and partly by state funds, so it isn’t a fully integrated part of the state system.

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.