It's a start

Here’s a first look at how Tennessee schools could change under new federal law

PHOTO: TDOE
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits a Tennessee school as part of her Classroom Chronicles tour. The commissioner launched another statewide listening tour in May to gather feedback for Tennessee’s plan to transition to the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Should schools in Tennessee be held accountable when students miss too much school?

That’s one question that the State Department of Education will float during town hall meetings kicking off this week about its proposed plan for the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. State officials on Tuesday released a preview of the evolving plan, which touches on everything from school turnaround work to teacher preparation to English Language Learners.

Tennessee doesn’t intend to stray far from its five-year strategic plan outlined last year. However, the preview highlights potential changes in how the state measures school quality, provides resources to schools, and addresses low-performing schools. State officials will release the entirety of Tennessee’s first draft by the end of the month.

Town Hall Meetings

  • Knoxville, Dec. 6, 5:30 p.m.
  • Jackson, Dec. 8, 5 p.m
  • Memphis, Dec. 14, 5 p.m.
  • Nashville, Dec. 15, 5 p.m.
  • Chattanooga, TBD

ESSA, which Congress passed last year to replace No Child Left Behind, gives states and local districts more flexibility in how they run schools. But the law also adds provisions such as one that requires states to identify a measurement for school quality that’s unrelated to test scores.

The first draft of Tennessee’s new schools plan was assembled with input from educators during a listening tour last spring, and from groups of advocates, policymakers and educators consulted over the summer and fall. State officials will incorporate further public feedback before submitting Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring for approval.

It’s uncertain how President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will affect states’ plans under ESSA. The new administration will be in charge of interpreting and enforcing the civil rights and accountability law, potentially rendering months of guidance from current U.S. Secretary of Education John King moot.

At the very least, the transition in Washington, D.C., has pushed the deadline for states to submit their plans back by a month to April, and to implement plans back by a year to the 2018-19 school year.

Even so, Tennessee plans to stick to the original deadline and complete its final draft by March, one year after state officials first solicited public feedback on the law.

Here are some proposed changes highlighted in the preview:

Accountability

Tennessee would grade students in part based on chronic absenteeism as part of its new “opportunity to learn” metric, meant to satisfy ESSA’s requirement to evaluate schools with at least one “non-academic” measure. State officials want the new metric to show whether students are able to “grow and thrive” at their school, and might eventually incorporate a range of other data points into it, like school discipline.

Test scores still will figure prominently into how the state evaluates schools, although the preview doesn’t say how much they will count. In addition to achievement scores and growth, the state will grade schools on graduation rates, participation rates on state assessments, and for the first time, progress by English learner students in achieving English proficiency.

All of those factors will be used to assign schools with an A-F letter grade, a requirement of a 2015 state law. Although the letter grades are unrelated to ESSA, state officials are using the planning process to gather feedback on what factors should go into the grades.

“There will be multiple ways to show success, and all schools will have the opportunity to earn an ‘A,’” the preview states.

Low-performing schools

The preview suggests school improvement will become more transparent. ESSA still asks schools to identify its academically lowest 5 percent of schools, and the state would continue to issue a “priority list” of those schools every three years. But under the current draft, local districts would have more say in how to improve their low-performing schools. Currently, the state-run Achievement School District can take control of schools once they slip onto the priority list. The state proposes in coming years to give districts more time to improve schools on their own, and to clearly articulate its expectations and possible interventions for low-performing school according to set benchmarks for test scores and growth.

The state also might provide districts with more resources to improve priority schools through additional funding, as well as competitive grants.

English language learners

ESSA focuses more on English language learners than its predecessor, asking states to report on English proficiency and set clear guidelines for which students should receive English learner services. Beginning next July, Tennessee would use a new screener to determine that. For several years, the state’s English learner students have taken the WIDA assessment to test their language progress. Those scores would be publicly available for the first time under the state’s new plan, and would determine when students are able to graduate from English learner services.

Teacher and student support

Tennessee officials are using ESSA as an opportunity to focus on students’ needs beyond academics. The new U.S. law establishes a federal student support grant that districts can use for programs such as school counselors or school-based mental health services. The state’s plan would make sure that school counselors actually have time to counsel students, versus being tasked with other duties such as administering tests. Districts also would be able to apply for grants for arts, music and foreign language instruction and other enrichment opportunities.

Assessments

Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires at least 95 percent of students in grades 3-11 to take end-of-year tests. Tennessee already has pared down the length of its new TNReady assessments and is looking for ways to further winnow down tests for third- and fourth-grade students. The state also is considering subbing out end-of-year tests in 11th grade for the ACT, and is looking for ways to reduce smaller assessments throughout the year for the state’s academic intervention program, called  RTI, or Response to Instruction and Intervention.

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.