New hat

Tennessee’s State Board of Education is about to oversee its own charter schools. Here’s how members are prepping.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
A former teacher who is now executive director of Tennessee's State Board of Education, Sara Heyburn Morrison soon will have an expanded role as the superintendent overseeing charter schools authorized by the state body.

As the State Board of Education prepares to open its first charter school this fall in Memphis, it’s ramping up to double as a school district that oversees everything from calendars to budgets to testing.

Several members got a crash course Tuesday on the board’s new role as a charter “authorizer,” making them the gatekeepers responsible for ensuring that their schools of choice benefit their students.

It’s a role that’s both daunting and exciting, said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

“I’m excited to be closer to students,” she told the board’s charter school subcommittee. “We can be thinking about how can we take our learning from this to further own policy work.”

Tennessee’s board will join Hawaii’s as the only state boards in the nation to also operate as school districts.

The transition marks a major shift in Tennessee, where the nine-member board heretofore has served as a policymaking body on issues such as nutrition standards, school bus safety and teacher licensure. It also comes as the board grapples with big-picture initiatives to improve the state’s teacher preparation pipeline and develop policies in response to a new federal education law, in addition to completing a flurry of revisions to Tennessee’s academic standards.

“Do we have the infrastructure to do this?” asked Gordon Ferguson, a board member who represents part of Middle Tennessee.

Yes, answered Heyburn Morrison, a former teacher who will act as superintendent for the new state district.

But it’s going to start small, beginning this fall with a Memphis high school that the state authorized last year for Green Dot Public Schools when Shelby County Schools turned the operator down. Green Dot will start with a ninth grade and add more grades in subsequent years.

“We’re building the minimum capacity to do this well,” said Heyburn Morrison of hiring both fulltime and part-time workers to provide oversight of the schools.

Among their duties will be oversight of federal dollars and managing special student populations. The costs will be covered by a 4 percent authorizer fee charged to the state’s charter operators, amounting to $53,000 during the first school year.

The board’s portfolio will grow to three schools by 2019 as KIPP opens primary and middle schools in Nashville. KIPP’s applications previously were rejected by Nashville’s school board, but the State Board overruled the local body.

The expanded role became possible under a 2014 state law granting authorizer status to the State Board if the conditions are right in counties with the highest number of low-performing schools. If a local board denies a charter application, the operator can appeal to the State Board, which can then become the authorizer if it overturns the local board and the local board still declines to authorize the school.

The board has been actively preparing for the shift, said Tess Stovall, director of charter school policy and accountability, who walked board members Ferguson, Elissa Kim and Wendy Tucker through a calendar of responsibilities.

You can view the full presentation of Tuesday’s overview here:

Tough talk

State ed officials rip into ‘insulting’ SUNY charter proposal and ‘outrageous’ Success Academy chair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

The state’s top two education officials did not pull punches at a panel Wednesday that touched on everything from last weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville to recent charter school debates.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia took an uncharacteristically combative position against SUNY’s proposal to let some charter schools certify their own teachers — arguing it would denigrate the teaching profession and is not in the best interest of children.

“I could go into a fast food restaurant and get more training than that,” Elia said about the proposal, which would require 30 hours of classroom instruction for prospective teachers. “Think about what you would do. Would you put your children there?”

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denounced Success Academy’s board chair, Daniel Loeb, whose racially inflammatory comment about state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins drew headlines, and pointedly referred to New York City officials’ reluctance to talk about school segregation.

Wednesday’s conversation was sprawling, but its discussion of race and education had a particular urgency against the national backdrop of Charlottesville — and the president’s reluctance to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists in its aftermath.

The following are some of the most charged moments of the panel, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and hosted by City & State:

Segregation — “you’ve got to name it”

In response to a question about New York City’s diversity plan, which was widely criticized for not using the word “segregation,” Rosa suggested the city should have gone further.

“We committed to, as a department and as a Board of Regents, [the] notion of naming it,” Rosa said, referring to the state’s draft integration statement, which referred to New York schools as the most segregated in the country. “You’ve got to name it.”

Elia chimed in too, tying integration to the recent events in Charlottesville.

“I would say the last six days have pointed out to all of us that, clearly, this is something that must be on the agenda,” Elia said.

Dan Loeb — “absolutely outrageous”

Loeb ignited a firestorm over the past week with a Facebook post that said people like Stewart-Cousins, an African-American New York State Senator he called loyal to unions, have caused “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. (He has since taken down the post and apologized.)

Rosa strongly condemned the comments in the same breath as she denounced the violence in Charlottesville, and said children of color at Success Academy would be “better served” without Loeb leading the board.

“I am outraged on every single level,” she said. “Comparing the level of commitment of an African-American woman that has given her time and her commitment and dedication, to compare her to the KKK. That is so absolutely outrageous.”

Elia seemed to pick up on another part of Loeb’s statement, which referred to “union thugs and bosses.”

“For anyone to think that we can be called thugs,” Elia said. “People [do] not realize the importance of having a quality teacher in front of every child.”

SUNY proposal — “insulting”

SUNY Charter Schools Institute released a proposal in July that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers. The certification would require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of teaching experience under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

But as the requirements currently stand, both Elia — who compared the training to that of fast food workers — and Rosa took aim.

“No other profession, not the lawyers who are sitting in that SUNY Institute, would accept that in their own field. So if you don’t accept it for your very own child, and you don’t accept it for your very own profession, then you know what? Don’t compromise my profession. I think it’s insulting,” Rosa said.

Joseph Belluck, the head of SUNY’s charter school committee, said earlier this month that the committee is considering revising those requirements before the draft comes to the board for a vote. But he fired back after Rosa and Elia bashed the proposal on Wednesday.

“Commissioner Elia and Chancellor Rosa are proponents of the status quo,” Belluck said in an emailed statement. They have “no substantive comments on our proposal — just slinging arrows. Today, they even denigrated the thousands of fast food workers who they evidently hold in low esteem.”

on the record

Eva Moskowitz sends letter calling Success board chair’s comments ‘indefensible’ — but also defending his record

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy

In response to widespread criticism of a racial comment made by Success Academy’s chairman, the leader of the charter network, Eva Moskowitz, sent a letter Tuesday to parents, teachers and staff.

In the letter, Moskowitz used strong language to condemn Daniel Loeb’s comments. On Facebook last week, Loeb wrote that Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American state senator whom he called loyal to unions, does “more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood” — an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Loeb later apologized and deleted the comment.

In today’s letter, Moskowitz called the comments “indefensible,” “insensitive” and “hurtful,” a more aggressive rebuke than her previous statement.

Yet she also defended Loeb’s track record in the letter, pointing out his commitment to Success and various social causes. A spokeswoman for Success Academy confirmed that Loeb remains the board’s chairman.

The racist violence that ensued this past weekend in Charlottesville put an even more damaging spin on his comments. At a rally Monday to support Stewart-Cousins, the Senate’s minority leader, she made the connection between her situation and the events in Charlottesville.

“That is extremely hurtful given the legacy, certainly, of people of color — my ancestors,” said Stewart-Cousins. “We all got a chance to see it in Charlottesville, what that represents.”

Moskowitz made a veiled reference to the weekend’s events in the letter, saying that engaging students is “all the more important in the face of the broader trauma and crisis we are facing as a country.”

Here is the full text of the letter: