war of words

Proposed constitutional amendment to curb judicial power over Tennessee schools stumbles

Despite the sponsorship of key legislative leaders, a proposed constitutional amendment designed to give the Tennessee legislature more control over education funding — and the courts less say — floundered Wednesday in a Senate committee.

The resolution targeted “activist judges” ruling against state governments on issues regarding education, especially when it comes to funding. The measure had advanced through early committees with surprising ease and appeared to have momentum. Sen. Dolores Gresham, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, argued passionately in favor of the proposal, as did Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, a key lawmaker.

But when the roll was called in the Senate Education Committee, the resolution fell one vote short of the five votes needed for passage. Four senators were for it, three abstained, and one voted it down. Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, a supporter of the amendment, was absent.

The vote means that, unless the resolution is resurrected before the legislature’s expected adjournment next week, the proposed amendment could not reach voters on a statewide ballot until 2022.

Even if Tennessee’s constitution eventually was amended as proposed, it’s unclear how the revision could impact schools. A March 29 opinion from State Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery stated that amendment would have no bearing the “equal protection” provisions of the constitution that were the basis for a series of successful school funding lawsuits filed by districts against the state in the 1990s and early 2000s.

That’s one of the points argued before lawmakers by Roy Herron, a Dresden attorney and former state senator who now lobbies for Tennessee’s small school districts. At best, the amendment would be pointless, he said; at worst, it would be harmful.

Herron cautioned against any amendment aimed at diminishing constitutional protections for an adequate public education in Tennessee. And he argued that the courts are where districts have recourse to address such charges.

“Regardless of what folks may do elsewhere, we think we have a judiciary in Tennessee that can be respected,” Herron said.

Since 1993, the courts have ordered the legislature three times to provide more funding to rural school districts. And two new state funding lawsuits filed last year are pending.

Specifically, the resolution would amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding the phrases in italics to a sentence in Article XI, Section 12 so that it reads: “The General Assembly as the elected representatives of the people shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools in such manner as the General Assembly may determine.”

"Regardless of what folks may do elsewhere, we think we have a judiciary in Tennessee that can be respected."Roy Herron, attorney for small districts

In his opinion, Slatery held that the new language, if adopted, “would do nothing to change the fact that any legislation enacted in furtherance of the public schools clause must comply with the equal protection guarantees of the Tennessee Constitution.”

Slattery called much of the proposed language “superfluous.”

Dunn, who wrote the resolution, said he was disappointed by Wednesday’s vote. He said schools should answer to democratically elected representatives, not appointed judges.

“Judges don’t go into your school; judges don’t ask hard questions,” said Dunn, who said he will continue to press for the change.

In the meantime, two lawsuits over state funding are winding their way through the courts — one filed by Shelby County Schools in Memphis and the other by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga with six surrounding smaller districts. At issue are the adequacy and equity of the state’s funding levels given its constitutional duty to provide “a system of free public schools” for children in Tennessee.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”