Election 2018

Six things we heard during Tennessee’s first gubernatorial forum on education

PHOTO: Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean
From left: Republican Beth Harwell, Democrat Craig Fitzhugh. Democrat Karl Dean, Republican Bill Lee, and Republican Randy Boyd participate in a Jan. 23 gubernatorial forum on education at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee voters got their first good look at most candidates for governor during an education forum televised statewide Tuesday evening.

While few sharp differences emerged during the hour-long discussion, the exception was the issue of offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, which split along party lines. Meanwhile, a question about whether the candidates sent their children to public schools provided a glimpse at their personal family choices.

Here are six things we heard during the event at Nashville’s Belmont University:

The teaching profession needs to be supported and rewarded.

Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more qualified pledge. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.

Credibility in TNReady needs to be restored.

Not every candidate got to answer every question, but those asked about the state’s problem-plagued standardized test spoke of the need to make improvements, not to dump it. “When the scoreboard breaks, you don’t just stop keeping score. You fix the scoreboard,” said Randy Boyd, a Republican businessman from Knoxville. Candidates also spoke of the importance of having an effective measuring stick to hold teachers accountable. “Teachers do not mind accountability; what they want is credibility in that accountability system and they want it to be useful,” Harwell said. “… We have come too far as a state to ever turn back in our accountability system.”

There was consensus that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are a good investment.

More than two years after a Vanderbilt University study highlighted problems with Tennessee’s public pre-K programs for disadvantaged children, all of the candidates agreed that the focus now should be on lifting the quality of early childhood education, not abandoning it. “Not all pre-K is the same,” said Boyd. “We need to find programs that work well and duplicate those.” Meanwhile, Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said public pre-K should be expanded.

But there was disagreement over whether to provide in-state tuition for students who are undocumented immigrants.

PHOTO: George Walker IV/The Tennessean

Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.

Education is ultimately about jobs.

All of the candidates called for investments in career and technical education that could lead to certifications and jobs. Several highlighted the importance of dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college-level credits while still in high school. They also discussed the challenge of equipping students to finish college in a state where only one in five high school juniors meet all benchmarks for college readiness. “The key is to seek improvement in K-12,” said Dean. “If students go into college prepared, … they’re much more likely to succeed.”

The candidates’ personal experiences with public education are mixed.

Since funding and overseeing public education is one of the biggest jobs of state government, the forum’s moderators said it was fair game to ask the candidates about their own family decisions on attending public schools. Dean and Harwell said they went to public schools but sent their children to private schools. Boyd said he went to public school and opted for public and private schools for his two sons. Lee said his children have experienced a mix of homeschooling and public and private education. Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.

Five of seven major candidates participated in the forum sponsored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Belmont University, USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. Absent were U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican who said she had a scheduling conflict, and Mae Beavers, a Republican and former state senator from Mt. Juliet, who bowed out after her mother died over the weekend.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

Movers and shakers

Memphis Education Fund has a new leader. Here’s what the group will put money behind going forward.

PHOTO: Memphis Education Fund
Terence Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town.

Memphis’ most prominent education philanthropic fund officially has a new leader in former interim CEO Terence Patterson – and one of his big goals for Memphis Education Fund is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for someone to bring us an idea,” Patterson said. “We’re getting out in the schools and meeting regularly with school leaders, as well as education partners from across the country.”

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The philanthropy is significant in the Memphis education funding landscape – where cash-strapped districts and charter schools seek outside funding funneled through the Education Fund to improve school facilities, add new curriculums, and even fund in-school positions.

Patterson wants to see multiple types of giving as he enters his second month as CEO.

He is introducing “innovation grants.” His organization will work with education partners, districts, and school leaders to identify innovative programs already happening in Memphis classrooms or elsewhere. Patterson said there’s not a set dollar amount for the grants or any formal application process.

In addition, next year the Education Fund will focus on initiatives that help parents better understand their school choices, increase the number of quality school offerings in Memphis, and improve equitable access to school facilities.

“We see this as helping to fill gaps in bringing quality resources with quality instruction to schools,” Patterson said. “We’re in a position to collaborate with the county commission, the school board, and district leadership to really push on academic achievement.”

The Memphis Education Fund has invested more than $50 million in education initiatives since 2015 — ranging from helping charter schools pay for new curriculums to bolstering teacher and principal pipelines.

The philanthropy has also worked with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift on the possibility of creating a “unified enrollment system.” Each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top school choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent.

Currently, Memphis has multiple types of schools that require applying in different ways, on different websites. Supporters of unified enrollment, such as Memphis Lift, say it will benefit parents who don’t have the time to research schools on their own.

“To have a true choice district, this is an important component,” Patterson said. “The Memphis landscape has its own nuances. … but common enrollment is an important factor in how we think about choice.”

He also said he hopes to see his organization be more vocal about education policy and continue to prioritize groups focused on teacher and school leader recruitment and retention.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 with help from a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists wanted to transform Memphis into a destination for talented teachers. In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools, brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson from Indianapolis, and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

Robinson left in April for a job in St. Louis, and Patterson stepped in as interim. Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town. He was the former chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.

Patterson said he is the right fit for the job because of his background with Memphis schools, in managing districts, and in fundraising. He also said part of his job responsibilities would be bringing more national funders to Memphis.

Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would be “thrilled to partner” with Patterson.

“He’s world class, and I can’t think of a better selection to support this community’s work to continue to improve student achievement and access to high-quality education,” Hopson said. “He’s worked in a large school district and understands the Memphis context given his grantmaking experience.”

Policy impact

Controversial school inventory report starts to surface in Chicago decision making

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

When Chicago Public Schools rolled out a comprehensive inventory of its schools and programs earlier this fall, community activists feared that the district would wield the report to close yet more sparsely attended neighborhood schools, and bring in more charters.

But just the opposite happened this week. The school board rejected Intrinsic Schools’ proposal to open a new charter high school in the Loop next school year that would draw students from across the city, following staff advice drawn on the report, the Annual Regional Analysis.

The vote disappointed backers of Intrinsic charter school, which operates a top-rated high school in the Irving Park community on the Northwest Side. The problem, school officials explained, is that the plan didn’t mesh with the district’s map pinpointing which neighborhoods need such high-quality schools.

It turns out, the Loop doesn’t fit the bill.

Build schools where CPS needs it, and then we’ll have a different conversation,” board President Frank Clark told crestfallen supporters of Intrinsic.

The school board and district leadership are under increasing pressure to justify any new school openings as enrollment continues to drop, and as neighborhood schools losing population call for investments and programs to better serve and attract more students. Declining enrollment was cited on Wednesday as one of the most formidable risks the school system faces.

The school board also voted Wednesday to deny two other charter school applications, although for reasons not tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which the district compiled with assistance from school-choice group Kids First.

Since it was made public in September, the inventory of academic options, enrollment, and quality has become a tool used by the district to convene conversations about neighborhood-by-neighborhood options and, as the board meeting made clear Wednesday, to make hard decisions. Mary Bradley, executive director of the district’s department of innovation and incubation,  said the Intrinsic proposal “does not align with needs identified in the ARA.”

“Where are the needs?” Clark asked Bradley following her presentation explaining the denial.

“Quality needs are mainly on the South and West sides of Chicago,” schools chief Janice Jackson said.

Intrinsic parent Lucy Weatherly said she was deeply disappointed. She touted the current Intrinsic school’s Level 1-plus rating and supportive school community.

But her plea and those of other school supporters did not sway the board.

The denial might have been the first board decision about a school’s fate explicitly tied to the Annual Regional Analysis, which divides the city into 16 planning districts, including the one Intrinsic had proposed a school, the Central Area Region. The area includes downtown, the Loop, and the South Loop.  

The district touts the detailed report as a base of facts to aid planning and community engagement, and it has hosted a series of workshops in neighborhoods around the city to discuss the findings. (There are six meetings left.) But several groups have criticized the document as too reliant on data and school ratings and questioned the district’s intent, given that school quality and enrollment that has been used to justify school closings, turnarounds, and proposals for more charter schools.

On Wednesday, however, school officials used the report to argue that the Intrinsic charter proposal doesn’t meet any existing community need for additional high quality seats.

The majority of students who live in the Central Area Region or attend school there attend top-rated schools. The region’s student population is about 20 percent white, 30 percent Asian, 34 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, and it’s the only region where white and Asian students outnumber black and Hispanic students. The area is gaining Asian students and losing black students, and the families are growing more moneyed.

The region houses two top-rated selective enrollment schools that draw population from across the city, Jones College Prep and Walter Payton College Prep.

The Intrinsic school would have been the fifth high school in the region and the third charter high school, after Noble-Muchin and Perspectives-Joslin, two citywide schools rated Level 1-plus and 2-plus, respectively.

The area’s population and enrollment have increased since 2014. That’s a sharp contrast with most communities, hence Chicago Schools’ much bemoaned enrollment crisis, which in 2013 was used to justify closing 50 schools.

The challenges posed by Chicago’s dwindling number of children wasn’t lost on school officials at Wednesday’s meeting, especially during a presentation Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett provided about the key risks facing the school district.

Clark asked her what the biggest problems were.

Even amid a state takeover of the troubled special education program and continued fallout over the student sexual abuse scandal, her first response was declining enrollment.