Charter reset

Memphis education leaders are liking Tennessee’s charter school bill, despite having little initial input

PHOTO: Tennessee Charter School Center
The Tennessee Charter School Center hosted its fifth annual enrollment fair in March in Memphis. Tennessee has 107 charter schools, 71 of which are in Memphis.

Education leaders in Memphis have worked for several years to forge a delicate coalition for addressing thorny challenges that come with having the state’s fastest-growing charter sector.

So some were surprised when the State Department of Education didn’t consult them while working to overhaul Tennessee’s 2002 charter school law with a bill now winding through the legislature. Only after the bill was introduced this winter did the state seek input from charter operators, local districts and advocacy groups.

That’s protocol for the State Department, which generally writes bills based on questions and experiences collected over time from districts and schools. “It’s just the way that the administration drafts bills. … They never share bill language until it’s introduced,” spokeswoman Chandler Hopper said last week.

But the process frustrated some Memphis leaders who had no knowledge that sweeping changes were in the works.

“It seemed like someone should have reached out to Shelby County Schools,” said school board member Stephanie Love.

Love and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson first heard about the proposed overhaul in February while visiting the State Capitol to lobby against a school voucher bill in the legislature. Now that she’s reviewed the measure, Love believes the proposal is aligned with the direction of charter policies in the state’s largest district. “There may be some things I don’t like, but I believe it’s workable,” she said.

Members of the 26-member Memphis charter coalition say they’re also fairly pleased with the proposal, and they agree it’s long overdue. It’s also obvious from suggested revisions that state leaders were paying attention to conversations already happening in Shelby County.

Among the bill’s provisions are an annual fee paid by charter operators to local districts to help pay for the sector’s oversight; adopting national standards for reviewing applications; and creating a detailed evaluation and revocation process — all issues that Memphis district and charter leaders have been sorting out with local solutions since they began working together last year.

Luther Mercer, who co-chairs the committee, says it’s time for the state’s law to be fine-tuned as is charter sector grows up and deals with difficult issues such as accountability, funding and facilities.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, co-chairs Shelby County Schools’ charter advisory committee.

“The bill is meant to close loopholes and bring more of a framework for charters and districts to work under,” said Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

Tennessee’s charter school law has had few changes since its passage in 2002, but the state’s charter sector has mushroomed to 107 schools, including 71 in Memphis. Nashville has the second-largest pool with 30 schools.

Titled the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act, the bill would give local districts the authorizer fee they have clamored for and would require them to adopt national standards in their processes. In recent months, Memphis operators have shown a willingness to pay that fee, especially as the district’s charter office committed to standards by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Districts also would have to come up with a detailed process for revoking underperforming charter schools and a framework for outlining academic requirements for charter schools. In Memphis, fuzziness over the district’s standards resulted last year in several district-charter battles that were appealed to the State Board of Education. Ultimately, Shelby County Schools won those appeals, but not before members of the State Board chastised the district for its lack of policy clarity. The Memphis coalition has since agreed on a detailed revocation process.

Under the bill, the state must have a similar evaluation system to track achievement gaps between historically underserved student groups, financial management, and student readiness for life after high school.

It also would establish a fund to help charter operators lease or buy and improve deteriorating buildings, which is one of their biggest expenses.

One provision would require local districts to hand over student data to approved charters within 30 days of a request and prohibits those schools from sharing that information with third parties without consent. The provision would address complaints by Memphis charter operators in the state-run Achievement School District, who charged last year that the local district withheld student data that would help them to register students zoned for their schools. It also would give a nod to Shelby County Schools, which accused the state-run district of giving that information over to Memphis Lift, an advocacy group that contacted parents about school performance data.

Brad Leon, whose office oversees charters in Shelby County Schools, declined to comment about the charter school bill. However, others on the committee say the synergy between the proposal and their work in Memphis is encouraging.

“I think it should enhance the work,” said Brittany Monda, executive director Memphis College Prep.

Below is a statement from the Tennessee Department of Education about how it went about getting input from across the state to draft and revise the bill:

“One of our duties at the department is to listen to the issues that are important to the Tennessee education community, and throughout this year we heard from districts, operators, advocates, etc., about the issues that matter most to them, including those involving charter schools in Tennessee.

Based on questions and experiences we have heard from districts and schools over the past few years, and based on vagueness in some provisions of the current charter law, the department drafted a comprehensive charter school bill. After the High-Quality Charter Schools Act was introduced, we sought feedback from a wide group of stakeholders and drafted a new amendment based on that feedback.

To gather feedback, the commissioner held a call that all charter operators and all charter authorizers were invited to join. Additionally, advocacy groups like TOSS, TSBA, Tennessee Charter School Center, TennesseeCAN, and Tennesseans for Student Success provided feedback that we took into consideration. We feel the legislation in its current form reflects the input of all stakeholders and will help strengthen the charter sector in Tennessee.”

election 2019

College student, former candidate jumps into Denver school board race – early

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Tay Anderson speaks to students at Denver's South High School in May 2017.

A Denver college student who as a teenager last year unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the district’s school board announced Wednesday that he plans to try again in 2019.

Tay Anderson, 20, said he will run next November for the board seat currently occupied by Happy Haynes. Haynes, a longtime Denver politician who is executive director of the city’s parks and recreation department, does not represent a particular region of the school district. Rather, she is one of two at-large members on the board. Haynes was first elected to the school board in 2011 and is barred by term limits from running again.

Haynes supports the direction of Denver Public Schools and some of its more aggressive improvement strategies, such as closing low-performing schools. Anderson does not.

He is the first candidate to declare he’s running for the Denver school board in 2019. Haynes’ seat is one of three seats that will be open in 2019. There is no school board election this year.

In 2017, Anderson ran in a heated three-way race for a different board seat representing northeast Denver. Former teacher Jennifer Bacon won that seat with 42 percent of the vote.

Anderson, a vocal critic of the district, campaigned on platform of change. He called for the district to improve what he described as weak community engagement efforts and to stop approving new charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Bacon also questioned some of the district’s policies. The Denver teachers union endorsed her over Anderson, who raised the least amount of money of the three candidates. Bacon was one of two new board members elected in 2017 who represent a more critical perspective. The 2019 election is likely to involve many of the same debates over education reform.

Anderson is a graduate of Denver’s Manual High School. He is now a student at Metropolitan State University, where he is studying education. He said he also works at Hinkley High School in neighboring Aurora, helping with the school’s restorative justice program, a method of student discipline that focuses on repairing harm rather than doling out punishment.

Anderson posted his campaign announcement on Facebook. It says, in part:

After a lot of thought, prayer, and seeking guidance from mentors, I decided this is the path I need to pursue to fulfill my commitment to the students, teachers, and community of Denver. I learned many valuable lessons during my campaign in 2017 and I know that I need to prepare and ensure that I have the adequate time to be in every part of Denver to connect with as many voters as possible, which is why I am getting to work now!

My dedication to Denver Public Schools has always been deeply personal and this campaign is reflective of that. As I gear up for another campaign, I am once again driven and motivated by my grandmother, who was an educator for over 35 years. Her tenacity to never give up is what drives my passion for the students in Denver Public Schools. I am determined to follow in her footsteps. I have organized students around school safety and more importantly impacted students’ lives in Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. These students have a voice and I am prepared to fight for their agency in their education.

more back-and-forth

Eighteen legislators show support for TNReady pause as 11 superintendents say press on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

School leaders and now state lawmakers continue to pick sides in a growing debate over whether or not Tennessee should pause state testing for students.

Eighteen state legislators sent the superintendents of Nashville and Memphis a letter on Tuesday supporting a request for an indefinite pause of the state’s embattled test, TNReady.

“As members of the Tennessee General Assembly responsible for helping set policies and appropriate taxpayer funds for public education, we have been dismayed at the failed implementation of and wasted resources associated with a testing system that is universally considered — by any set of objective measures – to be a colossal failure,” said the letter, signed by legislators from Davidson and Shelby counties, where Nashville and Memphis are located.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, spearheaded the letter. Representatives Johnnie Turner, G.A. Hardaway, Barbara Cooper, Antonio Parkinson and Sen. Sara Kyle were among the signers representing Memphis.

Clemmons told Chalkbeat that he believes Tennessee should have a state test, but that it shouldn’t be TNReady.

“We are showing support for leaders who are representing students and teachers who are incredibly frustrated with a failing system,” Clemmons said. “We have to come up with a system that is reliable and fair.”

The lawmakers’ statement comes a day after Education Commissioner Candice McQueen responded to the Nashville and Memphis school leaders in a strongly worded letter, where she said that a pause on state testing would be “both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state.”

The growing divide over a pause in TNReady testing further elevates it as an issue in the governor’s race, which will be decided on Nov. 6. Democratic nominee Karl Dean, who is the former mayor of Nashville, and Republican nominee Bill Lee, a businessman from Williamson County, have both said their respective administrations would review the state’s troubled testing program.

“We are hopeful that the next governor will appoint a new Commissioner of Education and immediately embark on a collaborative effort with local school districts to scrap the failed TNready system,” the 18 state lawmakers said in their statement.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph launched the back-and-forth with an Aug. 3 letter they said was sent to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test. McQueen’s office said Tuesday that neither her office nor the governor’s office had yet received the letter.

However, a spokeswoman for Nashville public schools told Chalkbeat on Monday that the Aug. 3 letter was sent to Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, who reports to McQueen. While some legislators backed the two superintendents, 11 district leaders from around the state released an email statement on Tuesday supporting state testing. Superintendents from Maryville, Alcoa, Sevier, Johnson, Dyersburg, Loudon, Clinton, Marshall, McKenzie, Trousdale, and Lenoir signed the statement, which they said was also sent to McQueen.

“Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking,” the email said. “The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance…. Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.”

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams. The state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

Read both the state lawmakers’ letter and the superintendents’ statement below:

Signers are: John Ray Clemmons, Bo Mitchell, Sherry Jones, Dwayne Thompson, Brenda Gilmore, Darren Jernigan, Antonio Parkinson, Jason Powell, Bill Beck, Mike Stewart, Barbara Ward Cooper, Larry Miller, G.A. Hardaway,  Karen D. Camper, Harold Love,  Johnnie Turner, Sara Kyle, and Joe Towns.

August 14, 2018
 
STATEMENT OF SUPPORT
 
District leaders across Tennessee understand and validate the disappointment and frustration our teachers, students, and parents felt with the glitches and errors faced during the spring’s administration of the TNReady student assessment. It was unacceptable. However, it is important that we, as leaders, step up to say that now is the time to press on and continue the important work of improving the overall education for all Tennessee students.  
 
We are optimistic about where we are heading in education – ultimately more students will graduate prepared for the next steps in their lives. The foundation is solid with (1) rigorous standards, (2) aligned assessments, and (3) an accountability model that focuses on student achievement and growth.  We are now expecting as much or more out of our students as any state in the nation. Test items and question types are directly linked to the standards and are pushing students to deeper critical thinking. The comprehensive accountability model holds schools and districts accountable for improved student performance across all subgroups.  Challenges remain, but together we must be positive as we continue the work.
 
Our students have made strong and steady gains in achievement and growth over the past few years, earning recognition at a national level. Our students now have the opportunity to be more fully prepared and competitive to enter college and the workforce. This is not the time to press the pause button. Even with the improvements in student performance, there is much work to do. Achievement gaps for subgroups are too large and not enough students are graduating “Ready” for the next step.
 
We must hold the course on rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and an accountability system focused on student achievement and growth. We, the directors of Tennessee schools, believe this rigor and accountability will impact all students. We embrace the priorities outlined in Tennessee Succeeds with a focus on foundational literacy and pathways to postsecondary success. Tennessee students have already demonstrated a determination to reach the mastery of rigorous state standards and will rise to the newly established expectations. We have work to do, and we should keep the focus on instruction and closing the gaps to ensure every student in Tennessee is ready for their future. We want to send a message of confidence and determination, a relentless ambition to reach our goals. We must step up and hold the line. We cannot expect anything less than excellence. Our students deserve it. 
 
 
Mike Winstead, Maryville City Schools
Brian Bell, Alcoa City Schools
Jack Parton, Sevier County Schools
Steve Barnett, Johnson City Schools
Neel Durbin, Dyersburg City Schools
Jason Vance, Loudon County Schools
Kelly Johnson, Clinton City Schools
Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County Schools
Lynn Watkins, McKenzie Special School District
Clint Satterfield, Trousdale County Schools
Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City Schools