From the Statehouse

A case study in Indiana State Board of Education dysfunction

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry.

How did a seemingly simple procedural change, one that Indiana State Board of Education members and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz unanimously favored, become a half-hour debate and result in a split vote on Wednesday?

For regulars at state board meetings, these sorts of puzzlingly contentious moments may be among the few board actions that seem routine.

The real issue in this case was not so much about the question before the board — a proposal to expand public comment at its meetings — but more like another round in the battle among Indiana State Board of Education members and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz over whether she had adhered to the board’s rules.

Disagreements over meeting rules have been a recurring theme for the board, usually accompanying new cracks in the fault lines of hard feelings about how Ritz has managed her role as chairwoman, and how its members have behaved, going back months.

This time, board member Andrea Neal’s suggestion to allow those who come to board meetings to speak on any topic sparked the skirmish.

Though nearly every member of the board said they liked the idea, Neal’s motion only passed 7-3.

Here’s how they got there.

Neal had recently expressed surprise and dismay to find the rules limited speakers to talking only about items on the board’s agenda. In response, Ritz named a committee to develop a recommendation.

And that’s where the trouble began.

Board member Gordon Hendry said he wished to attend the committee meeting but was upset that Ritz sent him notice too late to allow him to plan for it. The meeting was held early Wednesday, before the 9 a.m. state board meeting. Also unable to attend the meeting were state board staff members.

Hendry called for delaying the vote until a future meeting to allow more discussion and was backed by board member Brad Oliver, along with David Freitas and Dan Elsener who were participating by phone.

“The board members on the phone haven’t even seen current proposal,” Hendry complained.

Oliver then cited the board’s own rules that require public notice five days in advance.

The state board has had regular battles over its rules since 2013, and disputes with Ritz as to whether she has faithfully followed them. Those tensions culminated in an explosive November meeting that ended when Ritz abruptly declared they were adjourned.

Since then, changes to the board rules have been intended to mend fences and guard against any future clashes. New procedures that have been added since November have made it easier for board members to place items on the agenda and to make motions during board meetings.

When it comes to scheduling meetings, however, Ritz said Wednesday the 11 board members’ many work and personal commitments make it difficult for her to always find times that work for everyone.

“I have other duties than my state board duties,” she said. “I am an elected official. I am swamped in my superintendent duties.”

But Oliver and others argued that the meeting notice is a responsibility that isn’t optional. Not just the board members had this concern. After the meeting, a newspaper reporter in attendance made formal complaints to the Indiana Department of Education and the state board for failing to provide public notice of the committee meeting.

Ritz tried to guide the discussion back to Neal’s motion.

“It’s a simple matter of an up or down vote,” Ritz said, urging the board to vote.

An exasperated Neal agreed.

“This is a question of expanding public comment,” she said.

The new rules passed despite no votes from Oliver, Freitas and Elsner.

Oliver and B.J. Watts said they agreed with Hendry, but voted yes because they supported expanding the comment rules.

In the end, Hendry also voted yes, citing the same reason.

The board’s next scheduled meeting is July 9, but Ritz said she would be reaching out about dates and times for a second June meeting soon.

For other stories from a busy state board meeting Wednesday see:

 

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.