Tennessee

Only two bills still alive out of 22 to limit the state’s school turnaround district

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari's district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state's Achievement School District.

Two months after the leader of the state’s school turnaround district implored lawmakers to give the sweeping program time to succeed or fail, it appears that Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) will weather the legislative session intact.

As the 109th General Assembly enters its final month, only two of 22 bills to limit the district’s authority are left standing. Of those, ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic had input in both.

The remaining two bills were approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee.

The first, introduced by Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) and Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), requires the state Department of Education to notify schools that they are in the bottom 10 percent of Tennessee schools a year before the release of the state’s priority list, which identifies the bottom 5 percent and makes them vulnerable to state takeover. The intention is to give struggling schools time to improve before the state intervenes.

The second bill, sponsored by Tate and Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), prohibits the ASD from taking over schools with high student growth scores.

The House sponsors of both bills said they were willing to compromise with officials from the ASD and the state Education Department because they want results for their constituents. More sweeping legislation – such as bills to abolish the school district altogether – never received motions for discussion, much less votes.

Love and Akbari revised their bills after talking with officials from the ASD and the Education Department, which Barbic said he appreciated. “We want to make sure folks understand what we’re doing, and sit down and have those conversations,” he said.

Akbari and Love told Chalkbeat they don’t oppose the ASD, but they do oppose the district’s process for state intervention. They said their constituents often feel bullied by the district’s rapid action.

“It may take a few years for [the ASD] to be more palatable [to constituents] because, right now, it’s viewed as an intrusion — let me use better words — it’s viewed as a takeover,” Love said. “Anything like that happens and it hurts the chances of successes.”

The bill to give warning to struggling schools is scheduled to be discussed April 7 in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee. The bill to prohibit takeover of schools with high TVAAS scores is slated for consideration April 8 in the House Finance subcommittee.

The legislative climate for the ASD today has improved somewhat since February when Barbic – besieged by legislative proposals targeting the 4-year-old district – testified before the Senate Education Committee. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now that are either trying to kill [the ASD] or pull it apart, and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the petri dish,” Barbic said amidst a lengthy discussion.

Akbari and Love had filed other bills intended to curb the ASD’s intervention process. Both moved to disallow phase-in models, in which the ASD’s charter operator takes over a school only one grade at a time while the local district continues to operate the remaining grades. They argued that the model – known as co-location – hurts students in older grades who are stuck in a school that the state has labeled as failing.

“I had one parent tell me it was like some children were going to this new special school, and other children were just getting the resources leftover,” Akbari said. “And I don’t want any child to feel like that.”

Shelby County Schools no longer allows the ASD to co-locate with their schools, which was a contributing factor in a decision last week by YES Prep, a Texas-based charter operator, to pull out of Memphis.

Love also originally had filed a bill to forbid the ASD from adding grades that the school didn’t serve before its takeover. For instance, the LEAD charter network, which will operate Neely’s Bend Middle School in Nashville, is considering eventually adding a high school at that location.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Ultimately, Akbari and Love said they focused on the two bills that have the best chance of passing.

“The other bills, you know, they’re so important to me,” Akbari said. “But I don’t think we can get any sort of support for them [this year], and that’s the key.”

However, Akbari said the ASD and its work will remain a subject for potential future legislation. “I am not going to let the issue fade into the sunset,” she said. “These issues are too important for those who live in Memphis.”

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?