Legislative Recap

Overshadowed by TNReady, here’s what the legislature did on education this year

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville

Even as funding and school choice dominated this year’s education debate, Tennessee’s most recent legislative session likely will be remembered for the troubled rollout of the state’s new standardized assessment.

While a private tuition voucher bill fizzled and Gov. Bill Haslam touted a $261 million K-12 funding increase as historic, problems with TNReady hovered over the Capitol like a cloud. The state’s new online assessment had been trumpeted as the beginning of a new era in Tennessee education by the governor, the Department of Education and many lawmakers.

In the end, the legislature — which had set the creation of TNReady in motion in 2014 by voting to delay an existing Common Core-aligned assessment known as PARCC — passed a new law to allow teachers to discount first-year TNReady scores from their teacher evaluations.

In his own recap of this year’s session, Haslam only celebrated the funding gains.

“For Tennesseans who don’t follow news out of the State Capitol every day, I think you can take away two main things from this session: education and fiscal strength. We’re making the largest investment in K-12 without a tax increase in Tennessee’s history …,” Haslam said in a statement.

Here’s a recap of other education highlights from this year’s session:

Surprising school-choice supporters, vouchers were blocked yet again.

Going before lawmakers for a sixth year, voucher legislation had been considered a sure thing at the session’s outset. Amid a broadening base for school-choice measures, the bill had the support of the governor and most of the Republican-controlled legislature and clicked through early House committees with surprising ease after passing last year in the Senate.

But outcry from public school officials and teachers and the organizations that represent them on the Hill, most notably the Tennessee Education Association, ultimately derailed the bill once again. Rep. Bill Dunn, the Knoxville Republican who sponsored the measure in the House, tried to make the legislation more palatable to lawmakers on the fence with a last-minute amendment to limit the program to Shelby County. Ultimately, however, he surprised most everyone on the day of the scheduled vote by pulling it from consideration altogether. He just didn’t have enough votes, Dunn acknowledged.

Known as “The Opportunity Scholarship Act,” the bill would have made vouchers for private tuition available to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of public schools.

But other school-choice measures passed.

Another voucher-related proposal championed by The Beacon Center, a conservative think tank, passed — but in a limited form. Originally, the proposal would have allowed public school students to use some state money to pay for individual courses at nearby public schools, private schools or online; as passed, the measure only permits students to take online courses at other public schools.

School choice advocates also received a boon with the easy passage of a law to assign letter grades to schools beginning with the 2017-18 school year. Supporters argued that the measure will make it easier for parents to navigate an increasingly complex school-choice landscape, while detractors say it will stigmatize low-performing schools, which are generally in low-income communities of color.

The formula used to fund schools for the past nine years was put into state law — even as some school districts are suing the state over funding.

For the first time since 2007, the legislature updated the state’s school funding plan called the Basic Education Program, or BEP.  Following the governor’s proposal, the legislature voted to codify a hybrid of BEP 2.0, the version passed in 2007, and the original BEP formula, passed in 1992.

The legislature also approved Haslam’s plan to increase spending for technology, English language learners, and teacher pay. It’s unclear if the changes and investments will appease school district leaders who say that the hybrid formula, now law, is outdated. Last year, eight school systems filed two lawsuits against the state over the funding plan.

The state’s BEP review committee, which includes local and state education officials and elected representatives, repeatedly has urged the legislature to update the formula to help equalize teacher pay across the state and funnel more money to high-needs schools. The governor and other state leaders believe those concerns are eased by this year’s bump in spending.

Meanwhile, a proposed constitutional amendment to curb the impact of future funding fights had early momentum but failed in committee. In theory, the proposed amendment would make it harder for courts to intervene over education issues when districts sue the state.

New research on pre-kindergarten helped to shape new strategies for early childhood education.

When Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten program was found lacking last year in a nationally scrutinized study, advocates of early childhood education braced for a legislative agenda this year that might scrap the initiative. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill designed to make Tennessee’s pre-K classrooms stronger.

The legislation will require pre-K programs to adopt practices recommended by researchers at Vanderbilt University, including “meaningful” professional development for teachers and better alignment between pre-K and K-3 classrooms. The governor also has allotted $1 million to develop a new screening tool to assess kindergarten readiness.

Lawmakers opted for further study of Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts through the Achievement School District.

The Achievement School District, or ASD, began another legislative session under fire for its controversial takeover tactics and sluggish turnaround results.

Lawmakers convened soon after a Vanderbilt University report suggested that struggling Memphis schools would be better off with the locally administered Innovation Zone than the state-run turnaround model employing mostly charter schools. That led to the legislature’s black caucus to publicly call for a moratorium on the district’s expansion until its schools’ achievement improves. Ultimately, all ASD-related bills were tabled for “summer study” — although it’s unclear what might come out of those discussions.

Meanwhile, as a result of the transition to TNReady this year, the ASD this month imposed on itself a “hold harmless” year from taking over more low-performing schools.

TNReady’s troubles trickled into legislation.

After Tennessee’s new online assessment failed, lawmakers backed Haslam’s request to let teachers discount TNReady scores from this year’s teacher evaluations, answering demands from educators that predated the test’s messy debut.

They also backed the administration’s proposal to increase testing transparency by allowing test questions from past state achievement tests to be released to the public. However, legislators were quick to shut down a proposal generated by educators in Tullahoma City that would have allowed districts to replace TNReady with a suite of tests produced by the ACT.

And, even as public outcry over testing mounted outside of the Capitol, the legislature brushed off calls to give students the option to “opt-out” of testing, despite the flexibility granted by the new U.S. education law replacing the No Child Left Behind Act. One lawmaker, Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, did opt out his own child, however.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and, if there is community support, reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.

Correction: This article has been updated to better reflect the Elevate slate’s position on reinstating the school district’s proposed voucher program.