Future of Schools

As Tennessee lawmakers end session, did legislature ‘get education right?’

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam, flanked by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, discuss the business of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly, which came to a close on Wednesday.

Four months after Gov. Bill Haslam told lawmakers that “there is nothing more important to our state than getting education right,” he thanked the legislature for taking his message to heart, citing a $170 million boost in K-12 spending and a surprising consensus on what to do about Common Core.

“The reality is we’re making dramatic improvements in education,” Haslam said Thursday, one day after the legislature wrapped up its session for 2015.

However, legislative leaders of the minority Democratic Party were less celebratory, calling the assembly’s education accomplishments few — and overdue.

“Really, it’s a great start — for what we should have done five years ago,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) of the additional education spending. “I mean, I’m glad to see us put real resources in education, and I applaud the governor and the whole legislature in doing that. But we’re still far behind on this score, and need to keep going.”

Here are some education highlights from the 109th Tennessee General Assembly:

Funding: Noting that most of Tennessee’s new revenue went to K-12 schools, Haslam identified increased education funding as one of the major achievements of the legislature, which approved his education spending plan with virtually no debate. “I challenge you to go around and look at any other state and see what they’re doing in terms of improving funding for education, and I’ll take Tennessee,” Haslam said during a news conference at the state Capitol. Much of the new revenue is earmarked for teacher raises that could amount to up to 4 percent in some districts. But bills that would have helped the state fully fund its Basic Education Program, which arose out of funding lawsuits in the 1990s and early 2000s, never made it to committee vote. Meanwhile, seven school districts in southeast Tennessee are taking the state to court over its level of public education funding, which the lawsuit says is woefully inadequate. In response to the suit, the legislature’s appropriation bill stipulated that school systems may not use state funding to sue the state. “Sneaking into the budget this mechanism to avoid litigation,” Yarbro said, “… was an indication that there are at least a lot of people in the majority (of the legislature) that are worried about the fact that we might not actually be meeting the constitutional obligations that were set out for us.”

Standards: Haslam called academic standards one of the most contentious issues of the session — and called the compromise bill to gradually review and replace Common Core one of the most surprising outcomes. “Entering this, if I had said we’re going to have a discussion about how we’re moving forward on standards in Tennessee, and we’re going to have that kind of consensus, everyone in this room would’ve said ‘I don’t think that could have happened,’” the governor said. The compromise between Common Core opponents, who largely object to the standards for math and English Language Arts because they weren’t locally written, and those who favored the standards because of their academic rigor, adds people appointed by legislative leaders to the governor’s existing standards review process. The bill does not stipulate what changes should occur, but says the state should have new-and-improved standards by 2017-2018, and that the standards should be completed next year so teachers have time to acclimate to them.

Legislative leaders speak with reporters at the state Capitol.
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Legislative leaders speak with reporters at the state Capitol.

Vouchers: Despite strong support from Haslam, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools stalled again in a House committee, where Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) could not muster the votes for passage. Dunn cited local school district concerns that the program would take away too much funding from public schools. McCormick, who had predicted early in the session that vouchers would pass, said Thursday that a voucher bill will be back next year. “There’s a lot of people who used to be against it who are now for it,” McCormick said. However, the legislature passed a separate voucher bill that may impact up to 18,000 special education students statewide with severe disabilities. If Haslam signs the Individualized Education Act, the measure would allow parents who withdraw their students from public schools to spend state funds on services ranging from physical therapy to private schooling.

Parent trigger: While the Republican-dominated legislature has touted school choice and parent empowerment measures, such momentum did not carry a “parent trigger” bill past the committee level during this year’s legislature. The bill would have allowed parents at Tennessee’s lowest 10 percent of schools to replace administrators and teachers, extend the school day, or turn over the school to a charter operator, with the signature of 51 percent of parents. Though the bill passed the Senate Education Committee, it was pulled off notice in the House by Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), who did not have the necessary support for passage. DeBerry and Parent Revolution, a California-based group that has campaigned for the law in Tennessee for the past two years, said parent trigger will be back.

Teacher evaluations: Responding to concerns voiced by educators, Haslam initiated proposals to alter teacher evaluations, one of the major components of his first-term education agenda. The resulting bill was approved by the legislature and phases in the weight of test scores as the state transitions to its new TNReady assessment, which will be rolled out during the 2015-2016 school year. However, the legislation does not decrease the weight of student achievement data in overall teacher evaluations, which can be up to 35 percent. Under the revisions, scores from the new test will account only for 10 percent of the teacher evaluation score in the 2015-16 school year; 25 percent in 2016-17; and the entire 35 percent in 2017-2018. The policy also is designed to address concerns that teachers of non-tested subjects — such as art and physical education, as well as school counselors — are evaluated solely based on test scores that they don’t directly impact. The soon-to-be law decreases from 25 percent to 10 percent the amount student growth counts in 2015-16, and then to 15 percent in subsequent school years.

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.

Achievement School District: Charter schools meeting student growth expectations in the state-run Achievement School District (ASD) will be able to enroll students who aren’t residentially zoned to the schools under a bill that Haslam is expected to sign. Moving through the legislature, the legislation became a lightning rod about the performance of the ASD — a school turnaround district that is the centerpiece of Tennessee’s education improvement plan of the last five years. The bill’s approval reflected a vote of confidence from lawmakers impressed with and encouraged by the ASD’s results so far. However, its detractors — many of whom filed legislation to limit the district — questioned the adequacy of the ASD’s turnaround track record and argued against increased enrollment flexibility.

So what do you think? In the comments section below, tell us if you think state lawmakers “got education right” this year.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”