tweet storm

Tennessee’s former ed chief: Betsy DeVos must resign; Trump’s comments have undercut her moral authority

PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee's education commissioner from 2011 to 2014. He is now a consultant and writer living in Nashville.

Tennessee’s former education commissioner called on Betsy DeVos to resign as the nation’s education chief Thursday because of her boss’s ambivalent response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Kevin Huffman, who led the Tennessee Department of Education from 2011 to 2014, said President Donald Trump’s comments have undercut the secretary’s ability to work on behalf of public school students, many of whom are students of color.

He fired off a morning tweet storm urging her to “please resign your office” over Trump’s statements blaming both white nationalists and counter-protesters for weekend violence that left one protester dead.

Other education leaders have denounced Trump for walking back his denunciation of racist groups that are part of his political base. But Huffman’s comments were unique in insisting that they equally implicate DeVos.

It was the first time since last October that Huffman had tweeted — and he let loose a string of messages that he said later was aimed at holding Trump and his administration accountable. While many top executives have left Trump’s jobs advisory councils over the president’s comments, none of his cabinet members have resigned for that reason.

“There have been a lot of generic calls on people in the administration to resign, but it’s too easy for everyone to duck responsibility,” said Huffman, now an education consultant and writer living in Nashville. “I think it’s appropriate for people to call out specific people in our own field.”

He said the education secretary’s main responsibility is to uphold civil rights in schools — and Trump’s comments mean “she has lost the moral authority to do her job.”

“I can’t imagine Secretary DeVos walking into a room of educators and explaining that your civil rights agenda is to advance all kids, particularly children of color. How would you have the moral authority to have that conversation, given the things your boss has said, particularly when you’re unwilling to call out your boss?” he said.

DeVos posted several tweets over the weekend criticizing the “behavior and the violence and hate-filled rhetoric displayed” in Charlottesville.

But many education leaders called her response inadequate and unspecific, and urged her to take advantage of a teachable moment to call out bigotry.

On Thursday, DeVos went further in a letter to her staff.

“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” she wrote, calling the events in Charlottesville “tragic and unthinkable.”

“The view of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal.”

Huffman led Tennessee’s Department of Education under Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, and during the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat. He was instrumental in the state’s overhaul of K-12 education spurred by the $500 million federal Race to the Top award received from the Obama administration and its first education chief, Arne Duncan.

Huffman, who said he has met but does not know DeVos, added that people he respects believe that her policy agenda is “driven by a deep desire to expand educational opportunities for all kids, including and especially low-income kids.”

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”