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.