parent power

New Nashville parent advocacy group says its only agenda is high-quality schools

PHOTO: Project Renaissance
Parents collaborate at a 2016 Nashville Rise training event.

A new parent advocacy group is rising up from Nashville’s complex, and often divisive, education landscape as an offshoot of a nonprofit organization started by staunch supporters of charter schools.

However, participants of the new Nashville Rise insist that their only goal is to raise the quality of all schools in Nashville, not to promote specific options.

Nashville Rise was created in December by Project Renaissance, a nonprofit education initiative spearheaded by former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. It is scheduled to kick off formally Tuesday evening during a community forum at a Nashville high school.

The group already has about 100 parent participants. Organizers plan frequent trainings to help parents advocate for their children at the school level, with information on navigating issues ranging from special education to teacher-parent conferences.

Nashville Rise is the latest in a nationwide wave of parent advocacy organizations rooted in the growing body of research that shows parental engagement is a key to academic success. Many are closely aligned with the school-choice movement, which advocates for charter schools and, in some cases, tuition vouchers to attend private schools. They are predicated on the idea that providing more school options empowers parents. However, unlike the PTAs that have undergirded K-12 education for decades, these groups have an eye on affecting local and state education policy, as well as advocating for their individual students.

For example, the year-old Memphis Lift is backed by John Little, a charter advocate active in both Nashville and Memphis. This spring, Lift parents traveled frequently to the state Capitol to testify in favor of the state-run Achievement School District, which uses charter networks as the primary vehicle to try to improve schools.

Nashville Rise’s parent organization, Project Renaissance, also has strong ties to the push for choice in Tennessee, although its leaders have been adamant that the organization supports both charter and traditional public schools that offer access to a high-quality education. In addition to the backing of Dean, who is credited with the recent proliferation of charter schools in Nashville, the nonprofit is led by the mayor’s former education adviser, Wendy Tucker, a current member of the State Board of Education, as well as the former head of the Tennessee Charter School Center, Justin Testerman. Project Renaissance also is launching a teacher residency program this summer.

Conversations thus far among Nashville Rise parents have centered mainly around the racial achievement gap and increasing equitable outcomes among Nashville’s schools.

Demi Owen is among parents who are on board. The mother of four children who attend Meigs Magnet Middle Prep and Thomas Edison Elementary School, she learned about Nashville Rise during an Easter egg hunt at her local community center. Owen said the group seeks to ensure that children receive the best possible education, no matter what school they attend.

Owen has her own inspiration for being an engaged parent. Growing up one of six children in a single-parent household, she struggled in school and had a speech impediment that was never diagnosed or treated. With help from other Nashville Rise parents, she recently advocated for her youngest child to receive a speech assessment and get early intervention.

“Their main thing is just about high-quality education — making sure my child or any child at any school is getting one,” she said.


Correction: May 10, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Memphis Lift supports tuition vouchers. The group has taken a stance against vouchers.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.