From the Statehouse

"Teacher choice" one of Pence's education proposals

PenceAtPodium
Gov. Mike Pence laid out his 2014 legislative agenda in a speech Thursday at the annual Legislative Conference. (Scott Elliott)

Gov. Mike Pence wants to extend the concept of school choice to teachers, he said today, offering state aid to those who are willing to work in low-scoring, high-poverty schools.

Pence made education a centerpiece of the 2014 legislative agenda he announced in a speech today, with the novel “teacher choice” program one of five plans aimed at improving schools.

Under the plan, teachers who chose to work at low-performing schools serving high-poverty communities would receive a salary boost from the state.

Details of Pence’s proposals — especially the potential costs — have not yet been determined, according to his staff.

Also among his education ideas were a plan for Indiana to venture for the first time into direct funding of preschool for poor children and a proposal to expand career and technical education programs he pushed through the legislature earlier this year.

Four of his proposals — to help charter school networks, make it easier for charter schools to use school district buildings, establish an educator innovation fund, and the teacher choice program — were first aired in a controversial email released by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz on Wednesday.

The email, written by a lawyer from the Center for Education and Career Innovation that Pence developed, included proposals for Pence’s education legislative agenda. Ritz released the email as part of her complaint that the center is aiming to strip her of her powers as state board chairman.

Pence said Thursday he would not support a bill to limit Ritz’s power.

Here’s more detail on each of Pence’s proposals:

Teacher Choice

The “teacher choice” proposal aims to provide an incentive for teachers to take jobs at low-scoring public or charter schools serving high-poverty areas. As an incentive, the state would offer additional pay to supplement teachers’ salaries at their new schools.

The program would particularly help charter schools, which typically pay far less than traditional public schools. For example, in 2012 the average salary of an Indianapolis Public Schools classroom teacher was $53,910. The average pay for a charter school classroom teacher in the city, meanwhile, was $39,055. The lowest-paying charter school that year paid $20,900 less than IPS on average.

Pence’s plan would cover a portion of that difference in salary for a teacher who changed schools. Teachers could earn the extra pay up to three years.

Claire Fiddian-Green, co-director of CECI, said teachers would receive a flat amount of extra salary. How much has not yet been determined.

She said she hoped it would be enough to create an effective incentive, especially for teachers who are motivated more by a mission to serve needy children than by money. “It gives more choices to teachers if there is some structural reason that keeps you from moving to do mission-oriented work in a D or F school that serves a high percentage of free or reduced-price lunch kids,” Fiddian-Green said. “Is this the extra boost that gives you that added oomph to make the bridge over there?”

Preschool

Pence proposed remedying Indiana’s status as one of just a dozen states that provides no state funds for pre-kindergarten programs. “Children, especially from low income families, often are unprepared when reach kindergarten,” Pence said. “It’s time for us to give our most disadvantaged kids a chance at success.”

Fiddian-Green said the program would be aimed at the 44,000 most needy Hoosier children and would operate much like the state’s K-12 voucher program. Families could choose public or private preschool and use state dollars to pay tuition. Preschools would be evaluated for their effectiveness, perhaps based on assessment tests judging their readiness for kindergarten.

Fiddian-Green acknowledged that 44,000 students in the program would have an “enormous fiscal impact on the state,” saying the program might be phased in over a period of several years and acknowledging that the level of funding would depend on negotiations with legislators. “We’re not ready to speak about money yet,” she said.

Charter schools

Pence proposed allowing charter school networks — companies or non-profits that operate more than one school in the state — to operate under a single governing board.

Currently, each charter school must have its own board. Charter boards report to a sponsor — such as a university or Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s office — who judges whether they meet their goals and can be shut down. The boards also choose the managers for the charter schools they run.

Pence’s plan would allow a single board to oversee several charter schools managed by the same operator. The plan would also treat charter school networks like school districts, allowing them to share funds among schools.

School buildings

State law already allows charter schools to buy or rent empty school district buildings, but a Pence proposal would take that one step further. His plan would create a new public or public-private entity to manage unused school buildings. The new entity would capture property tax dollars to maintain the buildings and assign them to charter schools or public schools as it deems fit.

Laws passed in 2011 and 2013 give charter schools the right to rent or buy unused public school space for low cost.

Innovation fund

Pence proposed creating a new competitive grant program — except unlike President Obama’s Race to the Top grants, these would go to Indiana teachers interested in taking on an innovative idea in their classroom.

Career and technical education study

Pence called for a “return on investment” study to determine which career and technical programs best prepare high school students to earn jobs upon graduation.

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.