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.

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.

PHOTO: George Walker IV/The Tennessean

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.

exclusive

Walton memo recommends charter advocates do more to persuade Democrats and appease unions

Governor Charlie Baker speaks during an announcement regarding Charter Schools at Brooke Charter School in Boston, Mass. on October 8, 2015. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Charter advocates in Massachusetts need to better galvanize charter teachers and do more to convince Democrats if they want to win future fights, recommends a memo commissioned by the Walton Education Coalition.

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat reported on part of the memo — a postmortem of a high-profile effort to raise the cap on Massachusetts’ charter schools — and has since obtained additional pages, which appear to make up the entirety of the report. (The Walton Foundation, which is legally separate from the Walton Education Coalition, is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

The final pages highlight challenges that charter advocates will likely face in the state and offer a playbook for moving past their recent defeat — though it’s far from clear whether these strategies will be successful.

The report recommends mobilizing teachers who support charter schools, acknowledging the widespread opposition to the 2016 ballot initiative among Massachusetts teachers, who were trusted in their communities.

“If the opposition is on the ground, they must be matched on the ground, by equally trustworthy validators,” concludes the report, which is dated March 2017.

Another potential counterweight: parents.

“If parents can be mobilized to voice opposition, teachers may listen and break from the pack,” it says. “Alternatively, research should be conducted to identify a voice, alternative to teachers, that can be trusted on education reform.”

The report acknowledges the challenges in persuading Democrats, who overwhelmingly opposed the referendum, known as Question 2. In the future, charter advocates may need to push their messaging to the left, the report suggests.

“Advocates should test owning the progressive mantle on education reform and charters: this is about social justice, civil rights, and giving kids a chance,” it recommends. “While this is a problematic frame for the electorate as a whole, it may speak to the values of a Democratic electorate.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is especially unpopular among Democrats, just adds to advocates’ challenge. “As Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos begin to champion school choice, we need to separate Democratic goals and motivations from theirs in left-leaning states,” the report says.

The partisan divide is opening up in national polling and playing out in local politics. The latest example is in Colorado, where the state party recently passed a resolution highly critical of Democrats For Education Reform.

The memo recommends that charter advocates try to appease their opposition by pushing for additional spending on all schools. Research has shown that the expansion of charters comes at a significant price for district schools, which was a key issue in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

“By giving a little to everyone, and sweetening deals with additional funding, the narrative that new charters will ‘take’ from current schools becomes less relevant,” the memo says.

In Massachusetts, it’s clear that charter advocates have a long way to go to change the narrative in the state. Earlier, the report notes that that there was “such a fierce opposition that No on Question 2 signs were seen in January [2017] at the Women’s March in DC.”

Read the full memo below.



Digging in

‘I do not plan to resign,’ McQueen tells lawmakers over latest testing missteps in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies Wednesday before state lawmakers about technical problems that stalled students' online TNReady tests this week. Beside her is Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar, the state's testing company.

Candice McQueen adamantly told state lawmakers Wednesday that she will not step down as Tennessee’s education commissioner over the state’s bungling of standardized tests for a third straight year.

One day after House Democrats called for the embattled leader to resign, McQueen reported that students were testing successfully online on the third day of TNReady. She said the problems of the first two days had been addressed — at least for now.

The commissioner opened a two-hour legislative hearing with an apology to students, parents, and educators for technical problems that stalled testing and affected tens of thousands of students this week.

“We were completely devastated when we heard that districts were again having technical issues yesterday,” she said of issues now being attributed to a “cyber attack” on the data center operated by testing company Questar.

She reported speaking with the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about a possible criminal investigation — but that jurisdictional issues may prevent that since Questar’s data center is located in Minnesota. Immediately, she said, the state will work with Questar to hire an independent investigator.

Rep. Mike Stewart

That plan angered Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, who fired off the opening question that set the tone for most of the day’s dialogue.

“Could you answer the fundamental question why you should not use this hearing to resign right now, based on these consistent failures?” Stewart asked, citing problems that go back to 2016 when Tennessee canceled much of TNReady after the state’s first attempt at online testing collapsed.

“I do not plan to resign,” McQueen responded, adding that she expected to power through the next three weeks of testing with “continued improvement and success.”

At her side was Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Minnesota-based Questar, which is under a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year. He took responsibility for this week’s testing failures.

“I think it’s important for members here to understand that the department did everything that they could to thoughtfully plan for this administration, as did the commissioner,” Baumgartner told lawmakers.

“We own the last couple of days,” he added.

That prompted Stewart to ask McQueen why the company that’s acknowledging mistakes is also spearheading the investigation into them.

"Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed."Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville

“What I heard is that I don’t have any information, but I want to make an excuse for the person who hired us and gave us a bunch of money,” Stewart said. “… Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed.”

McQueen said the state and Questar will consult with the TBI about bringing in a third-party investigator, and she pledged to ask Davidson County’s attorney general to request a TBI probe. (After the hearing, she formally made that request.)

She added that she was open to the idea of suspending accountability measures for one year and holding students, teachers, and schools harmless based on this year’s tests, if that is the will of the legislature. But state lawmakers, who are expected to wind down the 2018 session next week, would have to authorize that change since it’s now part of state law.

In contrast to Stewart, Rep. Mark White came to McQueen’s defense and urged her to dig in her heels.

“Don’t you dare consider resigning,” the Memphis Republican told the commissioner. “The easy thing to do is quit and give up when the going gets tough.”

He recounted how Tennessee was blasted in 2007 for its low academic standards and dishonesty in reporting that its students were doing well on state achievement tests when they were tanking on national tests.

“We were failing our students 10 years ago,” said White, calling the testing problems “hiccups” and hailing the state’s more rigorous standards.

“[Today] we are the fastest-improving state in the nation. We didn’t get there by pushing back and giving up and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh it’s too hard.’”

A former classroom teacher and university dean, McQueen was appointed education chief in late 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam. On Tuesday, a Haslam spokeswoman said the Republican governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen.”

You can see McQueen’s presentation below: