Roll call!

Here are the 45 Tennessee education laws already passed during this legislative session

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address soon after the start of Tennessee's 109th legislative session in 2015.

When the Tennessee legislature reconvenes on Tuesday, lawmakers will officially kick off the second half of the 109th General Assembly, which began in January of 2015. The session’s first half was dominated by debate about Common Core as legislators voted to tweak the academic standards review process already under way. The General Assembly also temporarily altered the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations; gave districts more flexibility in counting standardized test scores in students’ grades; and passed a law that’s basically a voucher system for students with severe disabilities. 

But many other education bills also became law, some of which flew under the radar. Here are the 45 education bills approved by the legislature in 2015:

Testing changes

  • Quick scores. House Bill 36 allows districts to opt out of including students’ TCAP scores in their final grades if the district doesn’t receive the “quick scores” calculated for grading purposes at least five instructional days before the end of the school year.
  • Test dates. House Bill 78 deletes the previous schedule for the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) that requires testing to occur during a two-week window by the first Monday on or after April 22. It also authorizes the state education commissioner to establish a new TCAP schedule.

School funding

  • BEP deadlines. House Bill 6 requires setting by May 1 the fiscal capacity of each district used by the state to allocate money through the Basic Education Program (BEP) before the next school year begins. It also prohibits any change in a district’s fiscal capacity after the amount is set.
  • Penalties. House Bill 188 alters the penalty imposed on a municipality for violating the Municipal Finance Officer Certification and Education Act from $50 per day to a sales tax revenue reduction in an amount not to exceed 15 percent of the total amount due to the municipality in a fiscal year.
  • Federal funding. House Bill 1171 permits a local school board to refuse federal funding for an education program without penalty, unless such refusal would cause a loss of federal funding for all participating districts in the program.

Tennessee State Board of Education

  • Meetings. House Bill 819 allows the state board to meet in locations other than Nashville by revising the requirement that the state board meet at least quarterly in Nashville. The measure instead requires that the state board meet at least quarterly, with at least two meetings held in Nashville.
  • License renewal and revocation. House Bill 23 authorizes the state board to make policies concerning the revocation of licenses and certificates for misconduct.

State intervention

  • Achievement School District (ASD). Senate Bill 293 requires charter schools authorized by the ASD to conduct an initial student application period of at least 30 days and specifies that if the ASD authorizes a charter school, the ASD will receive an annual authorizer fee of up to 3 percent of the charter school’s per-student state and local funding.
  • Pausing state takeover. House Bill 921 prohibits the placement of a priority school in the ASD if, after the school is identified as a priority school but before the education commissioner determines that the school should be assigned to the ASD, the school demonstrates student achievement growth at a level of “above expectations” or greater, as represented by TVAAS.
  • Notification. House Bill 735 requires the education commissioner, by Oct. 1 of the year prior to the public identification of priority schools, to notify any school and its respective district if the school is among the bottom 10 percent of schools in overall achievement as determined by the performance standards and other criteria set by the state board.

School districts

  • Character education. Senate Bill 1021 authorizes and encourages local education agencies to adopt as their course of instruction in character education the Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program.
  • Lobbying. House Bill 772 requires local school boards to provide financial information concerning expenditures for lobbying and professional associations in their budgets.
  • Graduation. House Bill 567 prohibits a local education agency from requiring more than the minimum graduation requirements in order to receive a full diploma for students enrolling or transferring in the 11th grade or later who are in the custody of the state Department of Children’s Services.

Teachers

  • Liability. Senate Bill 604 enacts the Educator Protection Act of 2015, which creates the Tennessee educator liability fund to provide excess professional liability insurance coverage for all teachers and student teachers, subject to the appropriations of the General Assembly.
  • Teacher evaluations. Senate Bill 199 enacts the Tennessee Teaching Evaluation Enhancement Act, which temporarily alters the percentage of evaluation criteria composed of student achievement data as the state transitions to its new TNReady assessment.
  • Teacher education. House Bill 329 terminates the Advisory Council on Teacher Education and Certification.
  • Political activity. House Bill 158 prohibits certain campaign-related activities by teachers and certain other public school employees while on school property.
  • Firing. House Bill 1031 changes from “prior to June 15” to “within five business days following the last instructional day for the school year” the time within which notices of dismissal or failure of re-election must be provided to teachers.

School choice

  • Special education vouchers. Senate Bill 27 enacts the Individualized Education Act, which allows students with severe disabilities to use public school funding for private services.
  • Charter school closures. House Bill 125 halts the closure at the end of the 2014–2015 school year of charter schools on the state’s 2015 priority list; and makes the 2017 priority list the first list for which charter schools appearing on a priority list must close at the end of the school year.
  • Virtual Public Schools. House Bill 398 extends the date of the repeal of the Virtual Public Schools Act from June 30, 2015, to June 30, 2019.
  • Charter school teachers. House Bill 874 requires the local board to consider the years of service acquired by a tenured or nontenured teacher who takes an extended leave from a school district to teach in a public charter school authorized by the district, the Achievement School District, or the State Board of Education in certain circumstances.
  • Insurance. House Bill 157 allows the governing body of a charter school to choose the insurance plans offered to the school’s teachers and other full-time permanent employees; and removes the requirement that charter school employees participate in the state group insurance plan.
  • Student expulsion. Senate Bill 182 establishes requirements governing expulsion of certain students convicted of a violent felony; authorizes remand to alternative school for certain students; and revises other provisions regarding student suspension.

Students and schools

  • Students with disabilities. Senate Bill 0214 extends the Advisory Council for Education of Students with Disabilities to June 30, 2020.
  • County officers. House Bill 0420 removes obsolete and contradictory language concerning temporary school superintendents.
  • Civics studies. Senate Bill 10 requires a student, during the student’s high school career, to take a U.S. civics test.
  • STEM. House Bill 946 requires the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network to establish STEM innovation hubs in rural areas of the state and in Northwest Tennessee; requires the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network to provide a middle school curriculum on the variety and benefits of STEM careers.
  • Missing class. House Bill 891 authorizes a school principal to excuse students for non-school-sponsored extracurricular activities; requires the student to submit to the school documentation of the activity and the parents to submit a written request to the principal at least seven business days prior to the student’s requested excused absence.
  • Kindergarten. House Bill 1361 allows children to enter kindergarten programs in the 2015–2016 school year if they are 5 years of age after August 15, 2015, but on or before August 31, 2015, and entered two-year pre-kindergarten programs in the 2013–2014 school year.
  • Textbooks. Senate Bill 1105 prohibits supervisors from disciplining or discouraging teachers and other educators for reporting inaccuracies or errors or potentially inflammatory material in textbooks or other educational materials to supervisors, elected officials, or parents or guardians; prohibits requiring a teacher or other educator to agree not to report inaccuracies or errors or potentially inflammatory material in textbooks or other educational materials, as a condition of employment.
  • Drinking and driving. House Bill 98 directs the education commissioner to develop guidelines for districts to create an annual report that informs students of the death of any person 18 years of age or younger who died as a result of a person 18 years of age or younger driving under the influence of an intoxicant or drug.
  • Career and technical education. House Bill 77 changes references in the code from vocational education to career and technical education; changes references in the code from the board for vocational education to the board for career and technical education.
  • Non-immigrants. Senate Bill 1039 requires certain institutions to report nonimmigrant student enrollment to the state Department of Safety.
  • Guns. House Bill 683 prohibits schools from requiring students or parents to provide information on firearm ownership; prohibits districts from requiring employees to provide information on firearm ownership; prohibits adverse disciplinary or employment action based on information of firearm ownership that is voluntarily provided.
  • Domestic violence. House Bill 830 encourages districts, in consultation with local law enforcement, to institute at least one domestic violence awareness education program per year for middle and high schools; requires each program to be developmentally appropriate based on the students’ age and level of maturity.
  • Sports. House Bill 1077 grants a voluntary association that establishes and enforces bylaws or rules for interscholastic sports competition for secondary schools in this state access to records or information from public, charter, nonpublic, other schools, school officials and parents or guardians of school children as is required to fulfill its duties and functions; requires the association to maintain the confidentiality of records or information in its possession that relate to academic performance, financial status of a student or the student’s parent or guardian, medical or psychological treatment or testing, and personal family information.
  • Textbook quality. House Bill 968 requires the state textbook commission to study the age and physical status of textbooks used in Tennessee public schools and issue a written report to the General Assembly by Jan. 1, 2016, detailing the average age, physical condition, and cost to replace outdated textbooks and solutions to avoiding the use of textbooks that are more than 10 years old.
  • Religious instruction. House Bill 834 authorizes a local school board to create a policy that excuses students who request to attend a released time course in religious moral instruction taught by an independent entity off of school property.
  • Sexual abuse. Senate Bill 656 requires a school in which a child who is a suspected victim of child sexual abuse that occurred while the child was under the supervision or care of the school to make reasonable accommodations to separate the alleged victim of child sexual abuse from the alleged perpetrator.

Colleges

  • College financial assistance. Senate Bill 0255 extends until 2019 the board of trustees appointments for the Baccalaureate Education System Trust (BEST), which provides Tennessee families with a means to save for their children’s future college education costs.
  • College prep. House Bill 1074 exempts education courses that are solely to prepare students for graduate or professional school entrance exams and professional licensure exams from the Postsecondary Education Authorization Act of 1974.

Department of Education

  • Department audit. House Bill 364 extends the Department of Education, June 30, 2019, and requires the department to report back to the committee concerning the findings in its 2014 performance audit report.

Standards

  • Common Core. House Bill 1035 requires the State Board of Education to implement a process whereby the set of standards known as the Common Core State Standards adopted in 2010 will be reviewed and replaced with new sets of standards; requires the state board or the Tennessee Department of Education to cancel any memorandum of understanding concerning Common Core State entered into with the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers; establishes advisory teams and a standards recommendation committee; revises other provisions regarding curriculum standards.

Transportation

  • School bus ads. House Bill 112 increases the permissible size of advertisements on school buses from 16 inches high and 60 inches long to 36 inches high and 90 inches long.

2016edbilltracker

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.