On ESSA

Sen. Lamar Alexander on the nation’s new education law, and how it could shape Tennessee schools

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
From left: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) speaks with former Nashville superintendent Jesse Register about the Every Student Succeeds Act.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has one underlying message to share about the federal education law he co-authored and co-sponsored last year in Congress: Leave decisions about schools up to local stakeholders.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, spoke Monday to an audience of Tennessee educators and policymakers at Belmont University in Nashville about the revised federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly called No Child Left Behind and now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The discussion was moderated by Belmont professor and former Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register.

Alexander knows Tennessee education from numerous angles. The son of a kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal in Maryville, he promoted standardized skills for students and merit pay for teachers as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. Prior to his 2002 election to the U.S. Senate, he also served as president of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Here’s what Alexander had to say about his experiences with education policy, and what he hopes is in store for his home state:

On why No Child Left Behind had to go

No Child Left Behind was passed under President George W. Bush’s administration in 2001, and signed into law in 2002. The law dramatically ramped up the federal government’s role in education and had a lofty goal: that all students in the United States would be “proficient” in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. Schools, states and districts that failed to comply with No Child Left Behind were penalized financially.

It quickly became apparent that most schools would be labeled as failures under this ambitious metric, and President Barack Obama in 2011 offered states waivers to the law. In order to receive a waiver, states were required to adopt rigorous “career-and-college” readiness standards. Though no specific set of standards was mandated, almost all states, including Tennessee, moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards.

The U.S. Department of Education also asked states applying for a waiver to focus on schools in the bottom 15 percent, and to create teacher evaluations at least in part based on teacher evaluations.

Alexander called the waivers overly prescriptive and said they created the appearance that the federal government was requiring states to do things they might have done anyway, significantly undermining certain reforms.

“The department was in effect acting as a national school board for the 42 states with waivers — 100,000 schools,” he said. “The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back. So it was important to get the balls back in the hands of the people who really should have it.”

On testing and accountability

The Every Student Succeeds Act mandates annual testing in math, English and science in grades 3-11. It also mandates states break down the test scores to look at achievement gaps among various subgroups of students by race, socioeconomic status, and even homeless students and students in foster care.

“There are more things you have to look at in your accountability system, but what you do about those things is up to you,” he said.

"The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back."

Alexander said he went into the process of rewriting No Child Left Behind thinking it would eliminate federally required tests. However, he changed his stance after realizing, he said, that people had fewer concerns about the federally required tests, and more concerns about what was being done with test results.

“The problem was Washington telling people what to do with those tests — states were using those tests for everything!” he said. “So schools were giving dozens of tests to prepare to that test. We found one district in Florida was giving 183 tests. But only 17 were required by the federal government.”

Like past federal regulations, the new act requires states to break out their lowest-performing schools. But it leaves the decisions on how the state identifies its lowest schools to the state, and the decisions about how to turn around those schools to districts. (The law will not interfere with state turnaround districts such as Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Alexander’s policy aides clarified after the discussion.)

On TNReady

Alexander charged that the state’s TNReady woes — including the state’s failed new online standardized test and numerous delays in shifting back to paper tests — are a direct result of federal meddling.

“The problem is the federal government stuck its nose in Tennessee and helped create a huge backlash against Common Core,” he said. “As a result, the legislature and the governor changed that. And when you change the academic standards and when you change the test, it’s very expensive and it takes awhile. So my view is, if the federal government had kept its nose out of it, Tennessee was doing just fine. And I think Tennessee will do fine in the future, as soon as it gets back on track.”

The Common Core, which was was developed in a multi-state process spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Regarding presidential candidates who want to repeal the Common Core, Alexander said he was exasperated even by the inclusion of Common Core into recent presidential debates.

“We still have people running against it — even though it’s not there unless the governor and the legislature and the school board and the teachers want it to be there.” he said. “As of last December, there’s a law that says the federal government is not authorized to set standards.”

On next steps for Tennessee

"The exciting thing about (this law) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee."

“The exciting thing about (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee,” Alexander said.

He urged state policymakers to submit a plan on what they want to do under the new law — not to wait for regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Come up with your own ideas, and then fit it into the federal template,” he said.

Alexander warned educators not only to be on the lookout from federal interference, but state interference as well.

“If there’s overtesting in any Tennessee school, it’s Tennessee’s responsibility,” he said.

Budget woes

In budget address, Pritzker proposes modest education increases — vowing to ‘invest’ in Illinois’ future

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 a $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 mosts 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. Illinois is expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with an overall budget deficit of more than $1 billion.

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.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.