Future of Teaching

Five education issues to watch as state legislature hits its stride

As the 109th Tennessee General Assembly wraps up committee work this week, vouchers are hot, Common Core is not, and discussion about the ever-present issue of school funding looks like it will punted for further study – again.

While debate now shifts to the full House and Senate, Chalkbeat examines the status of five major K-12 education issues and what Tennesseans may expect before the legislature adjourns.

1) Vouchers have momentum. Just as it has three times in the last five years, the Senate again passed a program that would allow low-income students zoned to public schools with low test scores to use public funds to pay for private school tuition. The bigger question is what will happen with voucher legislation in the House, where the measure has never reached the floor for debate. The answer will come soon. After passage last week by a House education panel, the voucher bill is scheduled for consideration next in the House Finance Committee, where it died last year.

Legislative leaders say the prospects for passage in the House are better than ever. “We are one of the few Southern states that have not put an ‘opportunity scholarship’ voucher program in place,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said last week. “I think we have been very careful and cautious to draft a legislation that will address the children that need the assistance the most.”

If the bill passes, another question looms about the timing of implementation. Before advancing the voucher bill last week, the House education panel added an amendment that would delay the program’s start until next January, which House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) says is akin to delaying launch until the 2016-17 school year. Committee Chairman Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) supports the amendment because he said it would give public schools more time to mitigate the loss of funds expected to accompany vouchers. McCormick, though, thinks the delay is unnecessary, because public schools have known vouchers were a possibility for years. “Certainly, I would hope we take [the amendment] off in Finance Committee,” he said.

Another piece of voucher legislation is aimed at special education students. While, in many ways more sweeping than its companion bill for low-income students, the Individualized Education Act seems poised to continue flying under the radar and straight into the state’s law books.

2) Common Core debate is mostly done . . . for now. When the legislature began its business in January, Common Core was the hot topic, with many predicting the death knell in Tennessee for the much-debated academic standards for math and language arts. But the Haslam administration and professional educator groups repeatedly urged lawmakers to stay the course and let the administration’s existing review of the standards play out. In the end, a compromise bill co-sponsored by Rep. Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) and Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville) garnered support from Common Core opponents and advocates alike by adding another review layer to Haslam’s existing review process. Essentially, the compromise would give legislative leaders more input in the existing review. Detractors say the Spivey-Bell bill doesn’t go far enough, but broader bills — including some that would scrap Common Core altogether – never gained traction. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), who predicted early in the session that Common Core would die this year, said he is not surprised by the compromise. “I think [the Spivey-Bell] bill, in the end, will be what we’re looking for exactly,” he said Monday.

3) Funding discussions will be left for the summer. While the governor has proposed a state-funded salary increase and additional month of health insurance for Tennessee teachers, he’s not been able to hold back the tide of dissatisfaction from school district leaders over the state’s funding level for K-12 education. In March, seven school districts sued the state over chronic underfunding, and other school systems are exploring taking the state to court as well. In the meantime, education funding has not captured the attention of lawmakers. An attempt by Democrats to have the state fully fund education based on the state’s existing funding formula was skirted by a House subcommittee, which promised to study the matter further this summer. In the meantime, Haslam has said he will continue negotiating the issue with district administrators.

4) The charter sector will go untouched. This sector will neither grow – nor its growth be impeded – as a result of legislation this session. A proposal to allow school districts to charge charter organizations an authorizer fee was quickly rolled to next year’s session. The delay came after charter school leaders from Memphis and Nashville testified before the Senate Education Committee that such a fee would discourage charter organizations from entering the Tennessee market. Another proposal to allow parents to turn a school into a charter made it to the Senate Finance Committee but was taken off notice in the House, meaning it likely will come back next year. In addition, the nearly all-charter Achievement School District (ASD) escaped unscathed after an initial barrage of hostile legislation aimed at the state’s school turnaround program. An enrollment-related bill that would allow out-of-zone students to attend ASD schools is making its way through both chambers.

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.

5) Teacher evaluations will not be dramatically overhauled. Last December, Haslam proposed changes to teacher evaluations that teachers hoped would reduce the weight of student test scores when it comes to their jobs. Ultimately, that didn’t happen. However, one proposal would provide teachers with some breathing room until the state’s new Common Core-aligned test is unveiled next school year. Under Haslam’s legislation that has passed the House and is expected to pass in the Senate as well, the weight of test scores would be lessened during the next two school years as the state transitions to its new assessment, called TNReady. However, it would return to previous levels by the 2017-18 school year.

Did we miss anything? Are you happy with the session’s work so far? Let us know in the comments below.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

It takes a village

Here’s why Indianapolis teachers are walking away from the opportunity to own an affordable home

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
The Educators' Village is a two-block cluster of 22 new and restored bold-colored homes in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. Though marketed to teachers, the homes are set at below-market prices for anyone within a low- to middle-income cap.

When Jack Hesser learned about a local nonprofit’s efforts to retain and recruit teachers to Indianapolis through an affordable housing project, he saw an opportunity to buy a house in the neighborhood he serves.

“Knowing that I really wanted to buy a home in Indianapolis, I definitely wanted to be somewhere near my school and near my students,” said Hesser, a seventh-grade science teacher at Harshman Middle School. “The teachers’ village seemed like a really great opportunity.”

As soon as applications for the new housing initiative, Educators’ Village, were available, Hesser was at Near East Area Renewal’s office with his bank statements and pay stubs in hand. But, several months later, after not hearing back from the community development group, Hesser backed out.

“I wanted to move forward with purchasing a home and wasn’t getting a lot of communication back,” he said.

The aim of Educators’ Village was to provide affordable housing to teachers, who often make low salaries that prompt them to leave teaching, while revitalizing a neighborhood. But despite dozens of people applying to purchase the homes after NEAR and city officials broke ground last November, only one teacher has bought a house in the village.

At least 11 teachers, including Hesser, have pulled out of the process, either because construction has gone slower than expected or teachers found out they earn too much money to qualify for the homes. This has led some critics to wonder whether the Educators’ Village can live up to its promises.

“It’s kind of a missed opportunity in terms of the people that could’ve really utilized a program like this and could have benefitted from a program like this,” Hesser said. “Teachers so often are a big force in their communities.”

What is the Educators’ Village?

Keeping teachers in the state is a problem.

Indiana ranks among the lowest states for teacher recruitment and retention, according to a 2016 Learning Policy Institute study. Teachers cited the pressure around student performance on standardized tests, large class sizes, and starting salaries lower than the national average as reasons why they leave the profession.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is also declining, making it more difficult to recruit experienced educators.

The study found that teacher turnover is higher in cities than in suburban or rural districts in most regions. An average of 500 teachers leave Indianapolis Public Schools each year out of about 2,400 teachers, according to district spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black.

But the Educators’ Village is an effort to keep teachers in Indianapolis.

It was introduced in September 2017 as a partnership between Near East Area Renewal, the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, and the City of Indianapolis.

In his 2016 campaign for mayor, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said he wanted to sell city-owned homes for little or no cost to teachers, in the hopes of enticing educators to stay and drawing new teachers to move to the city.

“On a lot of different levels, it checks boxes across the board,” Hogsett told Chalkbeat. “Number one, I believe that as a community, education is probably the single most important issue that will help Indianapolis get to the next level.”

Hogsett said the project rehabilitates neighborhoods, increases property and income tax revenues, and promotes teacher recruitment.

Several cities nationwide have implemented their own variation of a teachers’ village. In Newark, New Jersey, teachers can rent an apartment in a $150 million, 400,000-square-foot complex, dubbed the “Teachers Village.”

John Franklin Hay, executive director of NEAR, worked with district and city leaders to identify a cluster of homes for the Educators’ Village close to schools on the near east side. That’s when they found several unoccupied homes and lots on North Rural Street where the neighborhood had a 70 percent vacancy rate.

“Instead of a teacher not being able to find housing in the urban core where they serve, teachers locate out to suburban areas and begin the daily commute of 25 minutes to 90 minutes a day,” Hay said. “The idea would be to develop a cluster of houses that would be much closer to the schools in the school district, but would also be a really cool place to live.”

The housing development is a two-block cluster of 22 new and restored bold-colored homes in the St. Clair Place neighborhood. Though marketed to teachers, the homes are set at below-market prices for anyone within a low- to middle-income cap.

When the village is complete, nine homes starting at $136,000 will be available to anyone at 80 percent of area median income or less. For example, a single-person household is capped at $43,250.

Source: Near East Area Renewal’s income qualification restrictions. (Image by Sam Park)

“That income range is really right within particularly starting teachers — first, second, third-year teachers,” Hay said. “In Indianapolis Public Schools right now, for instance, teachers start at about $40,000, and 80 percent of area median income currently is a little over $43,000 dollars [for one person].”

The other 13 homes will be open to anyone at 120 percent of the area median income, meaning a single-person household must make $64,875 or less. Those homes range in price from $170,000 to $193,000.

Finding educators for the village

Since the application became available last fall, 34 people have applied. But so far, only one person has purchased homes in the village. NEAR did not provide additional details about the buyer.

Of the 17 teachers who applied, three are in underwriting and one is awaiting the sale of an existing home. At least 11 teachers are no longer in the process — three purchased a home elsewhere, three were denied credit, four qualified for a home but backed out, and one was approved but couldn’t afford a house, according to Hay.

Hay is confident, however, that all the homes in the Educators’ Village will sell within 90 days of being listed. He said he’d like at least one-third of homebuyers to be teachers, but is happy to welcome others to the community.

Over the last two years, Hay said NEAR has invited the district and local charter schools to buy into the project. Hay said IPS said it could not provide funding, but would consider finding a way to incentivize teachers. After several conversations with district and charter school leaders, Hay said nothing materialized.

“We are still hopeful,” he said. “We think financial incentives from school leadership will send a great signal to teachers who want to serve in the urban core, where they are so needed.”

In response, district spokeswoman Carrie Cline Black said the Educators’ Village is an incentive in itself for teachers to stay connected to the local community.

“IPS values collaboration and welcomes a formal proposal to consider additional creative ways to recruit and retain talented teachers in our learning community,” Black told Chalkbeat in an email.

The district is also facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year, which may contribute to the lack of incentives.

Facing limitations

Ronak Shah, a seventh grade science teacher at KIPP, thought the Educators’ Village would be the perfect place for him to create a space for teachers to gather and share stories and ideas.

“My goal in purchasing there was: Let me turn my garage into a space with a bar and have chalkboards and everything and invite teachers from anywhere in the city in and have social events there,” Shah told Chalkbeat.

Shah is president of Teachers Lounge Indy, an informal support group for local teachers. Teachers Lounge Indy partners with Chalkbeat on story slam events.

From the beginning, Shah said he was very upfront with NEAR about the need for a garage. In an early conversation with the organization, he learned about an company NEAR partnered with that could build a garage for free with an apartment above.

“The way they framed it, it sounded like it was guaranteed this was a possibility,” Shah said.

But because the Educators’ Village is a government-funded project, Shah said the future buyer is limited to what specifications they can request. He said those limits started being enforced.

In April, he found out the garage would no longer be an option, but said Shah could build one himself. By the beginning of May, Shah reconsidered his interest and pulled out of the process on May 2.

“I ended up having to make a lot of caveats and it ended up not being what I really wanted anyways,” Shah said. “What I really want is the space for teachers to come together, and I couldn’t have that there, which is ironic because if I could have it anywhere it should be there.”

A sense of community

While only one educator has purchased a home in the village, the initiative is still enticing to a lot of people, even those who aren’t teachers. Kelsey Wolf drives past a house in the development nearly every day on her way to and from work.

“I am in the market for a house,” said Wolf, a social worker for HealthNet Healthy Families. “I work in the community. It’s great that they’re trying to revitalize it and bring people like me who work here and give them an opportunity to own something in the community we work in.”

After touring the home and others in the neighborhood at NEAR’s June 30 open house, the former school teacher wanted to apply as soon as she could.

PHOTO: Shelby Mullis
Near East Area Renewal hosted an open house for the Educators’ Village on June 30. Several homes were open to the public to tour.

Wolf took a look at her financial situation. She recently finished school and stepped into a new career, and said she isn’t in the financial state she would prefer. Wolf met with NEAR Tuesday to learn more about the village and what her options are.

Although she’s not a teacher anymore, Wolf stills works with families on the near east side. She said sharing a community with her families will strengthen the bond they share.

“It connects all of us. It makes all of our experiences shared,” Wolf said. “It gives us an opportunity to not only work together, but live amongst each other so we can really start to form a sense of community.”