From the Statehouse

Plan to trim social studies tests comes to screeching halt

House sponsors of a bill to cut back on the state’s new social studies tests asked the House Education Committee to kill the measure Monday afternoon, and the panel did so on a 13-0 vote.

“This bill is trying very hard to be responsive to what we’ve been hearing,” said sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. She was referring to rising parent and teacher complaints about the amount of state testing.

But, she added, “We haven’t been able to work with our stakeholders on a solution that has been fully vetted.”

“We need to take a close look at the whole testing regime,” said her cosponsor, Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley. He noted that another bill proposes a wide-ranging study of testing this summer and fall. That measure, House Bill 14-1202, received final Senate approval last week.

The social studies measure, Senate Bill 14-221, surfaced just last week, the brainchild of two Democratic senators from Jefferson County, Andy Kerr and Rachel Zenzinger. It passed the Senate 24-11 Monday morning and was immediately introduced in the House.

It proposed delaying next fall’s first 12th grade social studies tests for a year and then moving all three sets of tests to a “sampling” schedule under which an individual school would have had to give the test only every three years. The tests also are given in the 4th and 7th grades. Schools still could have administered the tests every year if they chose to do so.

The bill was criticized for doing too little about the testing burden and for singling out social studies. There reportedly weren’t enough votes on House Education to pass it on to the floor.

The panel also voted 10-0 to kill Senate Bill 14-185, which proposed creation of a “pay for success” method to fund early childhood programs. Sponsor Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, asked that the bill be killed, saying, “We have a lot of work to do to ensure we have the correct guardrails in place.” (Get more background on this innovative but complicated idea in this story.)

Senate whittles down its calendar

The Senate worked through a long list of education bills as it attempted to clear its calendar ahead of adjournment on Wednesday.

Perhaps the most significant for education was House Bill 14-1319, which received preliminary approval. It would create a new funding formula for the state’s higher education system that gives greater weight to enrollment and would base a modest amount of funding on institutional performance measures such as graduation and student retention.

There was no Senate debate; most of the concerns with the bill were dealt with before it reached the floor in the House. The bill gives substantial flexibility to the Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in designing the new funding formula, which won’t go into effect until 2015-16.

Nearing the finish line

These bills received final Senate approval Monday but still require House consideration of Senate amendments before passage.

House Bill 14-1118 would budget $261,561 to provide incentives for rural school districts to offer Advanced Placement classes. It passed 21-14.

House Bill 14-1301 allocates $700,000 to the Safe Routes to School program, which provides information for students and parents about safe walking and biking to school, as well as grants for driveway and sidewalk improvements and similar work. It passed 24-11.

On the the governor

These bills have passed – or been re-passed – and are on their way to the governor:

House Bill 14-1085 – The Senate voted 20-15 for this bill, which provides $960,000 in funding for adult literacy programs.

House Bill 14-1156 – The House accepted Senate amendments and passed the measure 39-26. The $809,095 proposal would make 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders now eligible for reduced-price lunches able to receive free lunches.

House Bill 14-1288 – This is the controversial vaccination education proposal, which was amended to remove its original requirement that parents who choose to opt out of immunizations first receive education on pros and cons. The measure now basically requires the state to set up an immunization information website and requires schools to maintain and provide data on the number of students who haven’t had their shots. The House agreed to Senate amendments and re-passed it 39-25.

House Bill 14-1294 – The House accepted Senate amendments and voted 62-0 to re-pass this measure, which sets various data privacy and security requirements on the Department of Education.

Senate Bill 14-124 – This bill would set up a $2 million program to train leaders for turnaround schools. The House passed it 37-28.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to the texts of bills covered in this story and other information.

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.