Play nice

Gov. Bill Haslam convened a ‘power meeting’ between Tennessee’s charter school and district leaders. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. John Forgety is chairman of a House education committee and has become the mediator of a dispute over Tennessee's 2017 charter school law. The Athens Republican is also a retired teacher, principal, and superintendent with McMinn County Schools.

There isn’t a charter school within 100 miles of Rep. John Forgety’s district, but the East Tennessee lawmaker has become the mediator in a lingering dispute between the state’s charter sector and its two largest school districts, in Memphis and Nashville.

As chairman of a House education committee that green-lighted last year’s sweeping update of Tennessee’s charter school law, Forgety said he felt partly responsible for one provision that’s created confusion, anger, and even litigation over whether local districts must share student contact information with charter operators.

And while his own legislative proposal to clean up the ambiguity has been sidelined, Forgety managed to get all parties at the table last week with Gov. Bill Haslam — no small feat given that two of them already are in court over the issue.

The Feb. 13 power meeting included Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, Metropolitan Nashville Schools Director Shawn Joseph, and Maya Bugg, CEO of the Tennessee Charter School Center.

At issue is the intent of the new charter school law, which included a provision directing districts to share student directory information requested by charter operators. Charter leaders say they need the information to make parents aware of their public school options, while Nashville leaders argue that a federal privacy law gives them discretion over who gets those lists.

“It was a very productive conversation,” said Forgety, a retired McMinn County school superintendent who asked Haslam to convene the gathering. “Before we start legislating and litigating this, we just needed to sit down and listen to each other.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson flank Gov. Bill Haslam at a 2016 event in Memphis.

The hour-long conversation ended with McQueen agreeing for her department to pound out a compromise to bring back to the table.

One question now is whether a consensus can be achieved before a judge’s March 16 deadline. Another is whether any proposal can hit the right notes so parents can reasonably learn about their options without being targeted with heavy-handed recruitment tactics.

Nashville is in a legal battle with the state’s charter-driven school turnaround district for refusing to share information on students zoned to failing schools. The state sued the Nashville district for its obstinance, and a Davidson County judge sided with the state and its charter operators in January. But the judge also gave Nashville more than two months to comply or appeal.

“That’s ample time to fix this problem,” Forgety said of the March 16 deadline. “We may not be able to, but what have we got to lose?”

Memphis schools are not part of the legal battle, but leaders of Shelby County Schools have the same concerns as their Nashville counterparts. And school boards in both cities voted last year to defy McQueen’s order to turn over information requested by charter operators LEAD in Nashville and Green Dot in Memphis.

Hopson vented to state lawmakers on the matter just last week, on the same day he went to the governor’s meeting.

“It’s not (that) we’re trying to be sinister and don’t want to give information. We used to give the information to (Tennessee’s Achievement School District) routinely,” he told a joint House education committee.

But Hopson halted the flow of information in 2015, he said, when the ASD shared it with the parents group Memphis Lift, which was going door-to-door to talk with other parents about their schools. “I’ve got a 10-year-old and 8-year-old,” he said. “If someone shows up at my door asking about my baby boy and baby girl with a folder with their information, we’re going to have a problem.”

Student directory information includes names, addresses, phone numbers, and students’ date of birth. School districts may choose to share such data with approved third-party vendors like government agencies and some companies.


Here’s what parents should know about how schools share student information


Bugg says such lists should be used appropriately, whether by charter operators talking with parents or companies that publish and sell school yearbooks. “We definitely are in agreement that if information is shared, it must be done so appropriately and according to agreed-upon parameters,” she told Chalkbeat. “And if it’s not, there should be consequences.”

A spokeswoman for McQueen declined this week to offer details about ongoing conversations or a potential agreement, but said the state is “encouraged about the possibility of reaching a path forward.”

But any proposal still has to go before school boards in Memphis and Nashville. And Nashville’s board may opt to pursue a legal avenue at the same time it awaits a possible legislative fix.

“The board has their principles and they want to protect student privacy and protect families from hardline, heavy-handed recruiting,” said Mark North, who lobbies for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

"We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try."Rep. John Forgety, R-Athens

As for Forgety, who isn’t running for reelection and says he doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” he’s just grateful that all the parties are at least sitting down to listen to each other.

“We didn’t get here overnight and I don’t know if we’re going to fix it overnight, but we need to try,” Forgety said. “I can assure you that both school systems and the charter center and the state of Tennessee have better things to spend their money on than attorneys on the second floor of the Davidson County Courthouse.”

vouchers

Lee says ‘parent choice’ education initiative coming soon in Tennessee

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Lee became Tennessee's 50th governor in January and pledged to make K-12 education a priority, including providing parents with more choices.

Gov. Bill Lee hinted that he soon will introduce a legislative initiative to give parents more education options for their children, even as Wednesday’s deadline passed to file bills for lawmakers to consider this year.

“We continue to believe that choice is important and that we want to look at every opportunity for choices for parents,” the Republican governor said.

But whether his proposal will include school vouchers or a similar type of program remains a mystery.

“We haven’t definitively put together the legislation around what that choice looks like, but we will be in the coming days,” Lee said.

The door remains open because of numerous vaguely described education bills known as “caption bills” that met the filing deadline on Wednesday. Any of these could be turned into voucher-like legislation by the bill’s sponsor.

On the campaign trail and in his victory speech, Lee pledged to give parents more education options. But he’s been coy about what that could look like and whether he would champion such a crucial policy shift during his first year in public office — one with the potential to end in a significant legislative defeat. Over the past decade, vouchers have been fended off consistently in the legislature by an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans.

Vouchers would let parents of eligible students use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees. But this year, Tennessee’s voucher supporters have talked about taking a different voucher-like approach known as education savings accounts, or ESAs.

Education savings accounts would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

While a new survey suggests that most Tennesseans support education savings accounts, school boards across the state are on record opposing both approaches. They argue that such programs would drain state funds from traditional public schools and increase student segregation. They’re also concerned that students in those non-public programs would not be held to the same standards and performance measures as students in public schools.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who leads a key panel that all education legislation must clear, said any bills to create an education savings account program would have to include strong accountability measures to get his support.

In Arizona, where lawmakers approved education savings accounts in 2011, the program has been marred by rampant fraud. A recent audit reported that parents who used the program misspent $700,000 from their 2018 accounts on banned items that included cosmetics and clothing.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari said Arizona’s experience should give Tennessee lawmakers pause.

“It would have to be a really tight bill for me to support it,” said the Memphis Democrat. “A lot of folks like the flexibility of an education savings account. But when you’re talking about public dollars, there has to be a measure of accountability.”

The results of a Mason-Dixon survey released this week showed that 78 percent of Tennesseans who were polled recently support passage of legislation to create education savings accounts. The survey was commissioned by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children.

“During last year’s campaign season, many candidates spoke boldly about parental choice in education,” said Shaka Mitchell, the group’s Tennessee director. “The polling shows that voters were listening and expect those promises to result in laws that are just as bold.”

Lee spoke with reporters Wednesday about his legislative agenda after addressing Tennessee school superintendents meeting in Nashville. A day earlier, he announced his legislative initiative to expand access to vocational and technical training for high school students, another promise he campaigned on.

“It will increase the number of kids that are career-ready within a year of leaving high school,” he told members of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Lee said he also wants to strengthen the state’s programs for developing principals and create more opportunities and curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math.

“I want to be an educator governor,” he told the superintendents. “I want [Tennessee] to be a state that is an education state.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include results of the Mason-Dixon survey.

tough sell

Rezoning debate highlights gap in opportunities at two Memphis high schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Under Mark Neal's leadership, Melrose High School has earned its way off the state's "priority" list of low-performing schools.

As Shelby County Schools considers a rezoning that would transfer 260 White Station High School students to Melrose High School, some in the community are calling the proposal a needed correction, while others don’t want to move students from a higher-performing school to a lower-performing, but improving, one.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Jonathan Cross speaks at the rezoning meeting Monday.

The community meeting Monday was the first of 10 such gatherings to discuss the district’s plan to rezone a portion of 19 schools with the goal of moving 3,200 students to schools closer to home. Students currently living in those areas can choose to stay at their current school, but parents, not the district, would then be responsible for transportation. (For an overview of all proposed rezonings, read our story from last week.)

This particular meeting was focused on the proposal involving White Station and Melrose.

“The kids already have a fantastic option for education,” at White Station High School, said Jonathan Cross, who owns a house in the proposed area that would no longer be zoned for the East Memphis high school.

If the school board approves the plan, rising ninth graders in the area would be zoned to Melrose this fall. The neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, was rezoned to White Station, from Melrose, at least 20 years ago. Neighborhood advocates in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound say that decades-old change has contributed to the enrollment decline at Melrose.

The rezoning would help level the enrollment at the two schools where Melrose had declining enrollment and White Station was crowded. Under the rezoning, enrollment at Melrose could increase by 44 percent and decrease at White Station by 12 percent. Currently 586 students attend Melrose, while 2,142 attend White Station.

“We’re just reclaiming what was taken from Orange Mound,” Claudette Boyd, a neighborhood advocate, said.

The fight for students in the square-mile that the rezoning plan addresses highlights Shelby County Schools’ struggle to ensure high school students have similar opportunities wherever they go in the district.

“All of our schools need to be high-quality options that offer comprehensive work to our students,” acknowledged Angela Whitelaw, the district’s chief of schools.

Melrose, which has the highest concentration of high school students from low-income families in the city, recently earned its way off the state’s “priority list” of low-performing schools; still fewer than one-quarter of students score at grade level in any subject.

The rezoning could boost Melrose’s enrollment to what the district considers acceptable, meaning that students fill at least 60 percent of the building’s capacity — up from 52 percent capacity this year.

White Station High School, which conversely has the second-lowest concentration of poor students, routinely performs above the district average in all subjects, but in the last three years has seen academic achievement decline.

State of Education in Orange Mound

    • Parents, students and community stakeholders are invited to a community discussion about:
    • Attendance zone for Melrose High
    • Opening of charter schools
    • School closures
    • Status of Aspire Hanley
    • Childhood trauma (ACEs)

The event is sponsored by Committee of Melrose Alumni, Orange Mound Development Corporation, and Orange Mound Community Parade Committee. Grand prize drawing for a 39-inch television. Must be present to win.

  • When: 12 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
  • Where: Orange Mound Community Center, 2572 Park Ave. Memphis, TN 38114

Making sure that Orange Mound students have preferred admission to their neighborhood school has been a priority for Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who was elected to the Shelby County Schools board in August.

“This may be new to some of you, but this is not new,” she told meeting attendees, referring to neighborhood residents attending Melrose, which she said “used to have high enrollment.”

At Monday’s meeting, Whitelaw outlined the sports teams and clubs Melrose offers, as well as course offerings that can count for college credit and industry certification.

But some parents are wary of the Shelby County Schools claims — saying that if Melrose was as academically strong as the district claims, most of the students slated for rezoning would already be attending that school, which is closer to where they live.

“If the kids my child hangs out with don’t go to Melrose, we don’t have a strong neighborhood school,” said Michelle Ficklen, who has lived in the proposed rezoned area for about 20 years.

In a district report last year, Melrose High had few options for advanced coursework that could prepare students for the rigor of college classes. There were no Advanced Placement classes, three dual enrollment, and 21 honors. Next year, Melrose is slated to get some Advanced Placement classes, eight dual enrollment classes, but will offer six fewer honors classes, according to Linda Sklar, the district’s optional school coordinator.

By contrast, White Station High already has the highest number of Advanced Placement and honors courses, and the second highest number of dual enrollment classes in the district.

School board member Stephanie Love, who was present at Monday’s meeting, said district staff should see “what classes [White Station students] were in and mirror some of them at Melrose.”

“What’s going to happen if they choose somewhere else?” she said after the meeting.

The school board will likely vote on the rezoning plans in late February or early March, district officials said.