SCORE

As Tennessee governor’s race ramps up, so does the conversation around schools

PHOTO: SCORE
CEO Jamie Woodson of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education speaks to education leaders from across Tennessee during an event in Nashville to unveil the group's priorities for improving K-12 education.

A powerful advocacy group helping to steer Tennessee’s education policy is now working to shape the conversation around schools heading into the 2018 governor’s race.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE, on Wednesday unveiled five priorities aimed at moving Tennessee up from the middle of the pack on student achievement.

The list offered no big surprises. The priorities are mostly based on strategies that have emerged in overhauling K-12 education during the last 16 years under two governors, Democrat Phil Bredesen and most recently Republican Bill Haslam.

However, this checklist offers a sharper focus than any previous ones from SCORE. The group’s leaders credit learnings from major reforms launched in Tennessee during the Race to the Top era.

The priorities are:

  • Make Tennessee the best state to live, work and grow as a teacher by recruiting preparing, supporting, and rewarding them.
  • Support every student to become a strong reader and writer by expanding access to materials and training teachers on literacy instruction.
  • Develop school leaders who are ready to lead learning and people by investing in high-quality principal preparation programs.
  • Make high school the on-ramp to postsecondary studies and jobs via redesigned high schools.
  • Provide students with the greatest needs a high-quality education through an equitable distribution of highly effective teachers, strong school leadership, and innovative supports.
PHOTO: SCORE
Bill Frist

Since its 2009 founding by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, SCORE has worked closely with education stakeholders and the State Department of Education to develop a roadmap for improving schools. The nonpartisan organization grew out of the state’s 2007 wakeup call from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which gave Tennessee Fs for exceptionally weak academic standards and postsecondary and workforce readiness.

The state has since improved its standing through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, but it’s still not risen above the national average on that important measurement.

The next few years will be critical, said Jamie Woodson, SCORE’s chief executive officer.

“Next year, Tennesseans will elect a new governor and at least 23 new members of the Tennessee General Assembly,” Woodson said. “Tennessee voters rank K-12 education among the top issues in the state, so there is no better time for those of us who care deeply about Tennessee students to put forth a new vision to achieve even greater academic success.”

PHOTO: SCORE
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a panel discussion.

Six of the seven major gubernatorial candidates were on hand Wednesday as SCORE outlined its priorities in a new report and hosted a panel discussion in Nashville featuring Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson; Tennessee Teacher of the Year Cicely Woodard of Metro Nashville Public Schools; Nancy Dishner, president and CEO of the Niswonger Foundation; Eastman Chemical Co. executive David Golden; and Sharon Roberts, chief strategy officer at SCORE.

“This supercharges education as an issue,” Frist said of the report and the gathering. “It’s a complex issue that nobody has the answers for. The only way we’re going to make progress is to have knowledgeable leaders who can work with the education community.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.