Future of Schools

Q&A with Speaker Beth Harwell: Tennessee will probably develop own standards

PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is a Republican from Nashville.
PHOTO: Capitol.tn.gov
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is a Republican from Nashville.

Speaker Beth Harwell, historically a supporter of the Common Core State Standards, said she recognizes they might be on the way out — and as long Tennessee retains high standards, she’s not worried.

“I really think Tennessee is going to get to the point where they’ll just develop their own standards and try to make them some of the best standards in the nation,” she said Thursday in an interview with Chalkbeat Tennessee.

When asked if Harwell supported the Common Core State Standards, spokesperson Kara Owen didn’t answer directly, but said that Harwell believed that “Tennessee — and not the federal government —  knows what is best for Tennesseans.”

Harwell’s comments mirror Gov. Bill Haslam’s shift in tone about the standards, which are often criticized by parents and policymakers for limiting local control of schools and being confusing. Haslam, a staunch supporter of Common Core, insists that his devotion to the standards hasn’t softened in face of heightened political opposition to them. Still, these days he talks publicly less about the need for Common Core standards specifically, and more the need for  “higher standards” in general.

Last month, the standards were one focus of an education summit he co-hosted with Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Harwell’s prediction that the standards might be on their way out was supported at that summit, where at least two legislators called for Tennessee-designed standards.

Last legislative session, Harwell helped defend the standards as some of her Republican colleagues became increasingly wary of them, although she did sign the bill that delayed the implementation of a Common Core-aligned assessment [read more Common Core coverage here].

The Republican from Nashville became the Speaker of the House in Tennessee’s General Assembly in 2011, and has been in the General Assembly since 1988. She has supported Gov. Bill Haslam’s educational agenda, which included rolling out the Common Core standards for math and English as part of a larger push to increase the number of Tennesseans qualified for higher education and the workforce.

Harwell spoke with Chalkbeat about her educational priorities, and the priorities of her constituents on Thursday.

 What educational bills were most important to you last session?

A: Most important was maybe not a bill, but the outcome that we came to the conclusion that we have made great strides; that we don’t want to go backwards; that we want to maintain high standards in our state even though that’s challenging;and we want to keep accountability. We are one of the first states and the few states that have true accountability in our school system and it’s paying off because were were the fastest growing state on national exams.

We passed some other legislation, for example, in the area of charters. We tried to make it easier for public charter schools to come to our state. We have some great charter schools in our state, and we want to keep that momentum going. They are some of our best performing. We only want the very best charters to locate here, so we’re very picky. [For more about Tennessee’s charter sector, read here.]

What issues do you most from your constituents?

A: I think a lot of it revolves around the whole Common Core issue. I don’t hear people say we shouldn’t have high standards. I think there is concern that Common Core — some people think they’re not high enough standards; some people think they’re confusing; some people think it has something to do with President Obama so they’re scared of it. I really think Tennessee is going to get to the point where they’ll just develop their own standards and try to make them some of the best standards in the nation. We’ve proven we can do that, and we just need to keep going.

I do occasionally get questions about funding. We’re not the highest funded state in the nation, but I think we do a fairly good job of holding harmless education, we haven’t cut the education budget. And in times of fiscal rough waters, that in itself is remarkable.

Since I’ve been speaker, those have been the highest profile (issues). We’ve talked a little bit about vouchers. We do not have a voucher program in Tennessee, and I don’t know whether that will come up again this year or not. There were a lot of concerns about if that would take funding away from our public schools, and an issue about whether or not state dollars should be going to religious institutions was very much in the mix, in the discussion. I would imagine that will be discussed again in years coming. [For more on how vouchers might shape Tennessee, read here.]

What are you most hopeful for this upcoming legislative session?

We cannot go backwards. We are making great strides. If you looked at the state budget and saw how much money went to education, the taxpayers should demand nothing but the best education. More importantly than that, our children deserve nothing but the best education system. And we’re not only competing with neighboring states around us, we’re competing with the whole world for jobs. It’s really important to keep our standards high and it’s really important to keep in place accountable. Teachers should be held accountable and school systems should be held accountable.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.