TNLEG 2017

Here are four education issues to watch as Tennessee’s legislature kicks off

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

With Republican supermajorities in both chambers, Tennessee lawmakers expect to revisit two perennial questions when the 110th General Assembly convenes on Tuesday: How much money the state should spend on schools, especially when it’s flush with a multimillion-dollar surplus; and whether Tennessee should approve tuition vouchers to allow public money to follow students to private schools.

They’ll also take another look at the state’s Achievement School District, created by the legislature in 2010 in an effort to improve the state’s lowest-performing schools. Up for debate is whether the ASD, now in its fifth year of operation, has fulfilled that mission, as well as how it should be regulated.

The real action won’t begin until Jan. 30, when lawmakers return from a two-week recess to hear Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address. In his penultimate year in office, Haslam, who has said he wants to be known as Tennessee’s “education governor,” will use that platform to lay out his vision for public schools and the state.

Here are education issues likely to make a splash:

Funding

Likely this year’s No. 1 issue, education funding will help set the stage for other debates about tuition vouchers, school turnaround work and transportation safety, just to name a few.

A fatal school bus accident in Chattanooga in November led Rep. Gerald McCormick, a former majority leader, to promise a push to retrofit buses with seatbelts. The proposal gained little traction in previous years due to the expense, but the tragedy may give lawmakers a greater sense of urgency in 2017.

Last year, the legislature updated the state’s school funding plan called the Basic Education Program, or BEP, for the first time since 2007, and increased spending for technology, English language learners and teacher pay. But Tennessee still trails other states in school funding — a shortcoming that contributed to lawsuits against the state by three of its four largest districts during the last two years.

Rep. Harry Brooks, a Knoxville Republican who chaired one education committee last session, predicts a push for more money to pay for additional school counselors and for more teachers of English language learners. “I see those as financial improvements that will be a focal point,” he said Monday.

Vouchers

This will mark Tennessee’s seventh year of legislative debate over vouchers, and proponents are optimistic that this year’s bill will pass. But then, advocates said that of the proposal last year as well.

The chances for passage might have improved following last fall’s elections, with some voucher opponents losing their seats. And Congress might move quickly on federal incentives for school vouchers under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Hearings to approve voucher advocate Betsy DeVos for U.S. secretary of education are scheduled to begin next week.

The proposal that has gained the most traction in recent years would target students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools, most of whom are in Memphis and Nashville, with some in Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties. The program, if approved, would impact 5,000 students in its first year and reach 20,000 students annually in two years.

Last year, the bill reached the House floor for the first time but was pulled before coming to a vote when Rep. Bill Dunn, the lead sponsor, estimated that he was two votes short. Dunn, a Republican from Knoxville, is anxious to try again. “I know we came close last year and I hope (this year) we have a clear signal to go forward,” he said.

Achievement School District

As the state-run district stares down the possibility of its first school closure and a shortage of charter operators interested in running its schools, the State Department of Education and lawmakers are reevaluating its role in school turnaround work. Originally, ASD leaders set a goal of taking its schools from the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years. Though the ASD’s first schools don’t have five years of data due to last year’s test cancellation for grades 3-8, none have come close to hitting the mark, leaving lawmakers asking what changes need to be made. “The pace of change is a lot slower than anyone wants,” Dunn said. “We realize that children only have one shot. We don’t have 10 years to turn something around.”

State leaders say they remain committed to the ASD, but are considering ways to curb the district’s growth and increase transparency. In a plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, state officials propose limiting the number of schools eligible for state takeover and giving districts more autonomy in improving struggling schools. And in a legislative hearing last summer, local district officials asked for clear answers about when schools will be returned to local districts. “I think everyone, whether they are teacher, parent or a student, needs to know what’s in store for the future so they can plan,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat whose district in Memphis includes several ASD schools.

Brooks predicts that some changes in the ASD’s operation will be codified into law, but doesn’t expect a major overhaul. “I don’t think it will change the philosophy or what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said.

Testing

Testing dominated education outside of the legislature last year when Education Commissioner Candice McQueen canceled the state’s new TNReady assessment after a series of technical and logistical setbacks. Accordingly, both lawmakers and Haslam’s administration likely will file bills to address the test’s role in students’ grades and evaluations as students and teachers acclimate over the next few years.

For the second year, McQueen spearheaded a testing task force that dug into issues around standardized testing. Many ideas from the first task force, like axing ACT-designed tests for eighth- and 10th-grade students, ended up in legislation. Further testing reductions floated by the second task force include cutting state standardized tests for eleventh-graders, and replacing it with the ACT, as well as eliminating science and social studies tests for third- and fourth-graders.

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.