Three big differences on Tennessee education between Dean and Lee

PHOTO: Ned Jilton/Kingsport Times-News
Democrat Karl Dean makes his point as Republican Bill Lee listens during their Oct. 9 gubernatorial debate in Kingsport. The candidates' third and final debate will be on Oct. 12 in Nashville.

While the first two debates have been polite and cordial between Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee, sharp differences are emerging on hot-button education issues in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor.

The successor to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will have the chance to shape the state’s policies for K-12 public schools in significant ways. Voters have told pollsters that education will be one of their top priorities when they cast their ballots on Nov. 6.

Both candidates agree on the need to make teacher pay more competitive — and to take closer looks at the state’s troubled testing program and the state-run district for improving low-performing schools.

But as they prepare for their final televised debate on Friday evening in Nashville, the candidates clearly don’t agree on three significant issues. The positions are based on what Dean, a lawyer and former mayor of Nashville, and Lee, a businessman and farmer from Williamson County, have said during their first two faceoffs, as well as on candidate surveys.

1. Using public dollars for private schools

The use of taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition has been debated for more than a decade in the legislature, but such proposals have been consistently fended off by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans.

The current governor said he’d sign voucher legislation if lawmakers passed it, but they never did and he didn’t champion the policy shift as research showed mixed results on the impact of vouchers on students.

That climate could change if Lee becomes governor. A graduate of public schools who sent his children to a mix of public, private, and home schools, the Republican nominee has praised policies that give parents more school choices for their kids. Lee has said that vouchers have potential, but he has sidestepped specific questions about such programs.

Dean has seized on the voucher issue as a pivotal difference between him and his opponent and this week released a TV ad suggesting that the policy would undermine public education.

“Funding has always been an issue, but we should do nothing to take away from the strength of public education,” Dean said during their second debate in Kingsport.

He went on to talk about his support for nonprofit charter schools as mayor of Nashville from 2007 to 2015, but characterized vouchers as a different animal altogether.

“I have the scars on my back from my work in education reform,” Dean said, “but I do not believe in vouchers because vouchers actually take public dollars and put them into a private education system.”

2. Expanding early childhood education access

Both candidates want to improve the quality of publicly funded preschool programs across Tennessee, but have a different timetable for expanding access beyond the state’s lower-income families.

Dean advocates for universal pre-K programs, while Lee is cool to that idea.

“I’m always the guy who believes that government is not the answer,” Lee said during their first debate in Memphis.

Dean said investing more dollars in early childhood education makes sense if education is the No. 1 priority in a state that wants to prepare all children for success in the classroom and ultimately the future of work.

“That would be something that I would try to fund as quickly as I could,” Dean said of universal pre-K.

But Lee says that approach is premature in light of a landmark five-year study released in 2015 by Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that, while helpful in the early years, participating in the state’s public programs could actually negatively impact students as they advance through school — a shocking finding that ignited new efforts to step up pre-K quality across Tennessee.

“I believe we owe it to taxpayers and parents to focus first on how we can improve quality to ensure that any gains are sustainable,” Lee told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “That begins by working with our state universities and colleges of education to ensure they are driving quality training for early childhood educators, while at the same time working with local education agencies to set goals for improvement and identify best practices across the state.”

3. Arming educators in schools

A proposal to give some teachers handguns and train them on firearms fizzled this year in the legislature under opposition from the current governor, who instead spearheaded additional investments in school security.

But Lee, who has been endorsed by Haslam, thinks that arming teachers could help prevent mass school shootings like the one that killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida, last February.

“We protect our banks with guns, we protect our judges, we even protect our governor. But we leave our children defenseless in gun-free zones,” Lee says on his campaign website. “We should absolutely allow a qualified and vetted teacher to make the choice to be a part of the solution.”

Dean believes that arming teachers would be a big mistake.

“Putting guns in the classroom would create more problems and concerns,” said the former public defender. “The common sense approach would be to provide school districts with the resources they need for trained law enforcement and school resource officers. Of the hundreds of educators I’ve met during his time as mayor and on the campaign trail, the overwhelming consensus is that teachers want to teach. They do not want to be armed.”

Read our candidate surveys: Here’s what Dean and Lee say on public education

With less than a month to go until Election Day, polls show Lee with a solid lead over Dean in a state that leans mostly Republican.

The third debate is taking place on the campus of Belmont University and will be broadcast live beginning at 7 p.m. Central Time on Nexstar Media Group affiliates statewide.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton, Kingsport Times-News
Voters listen to the second debate in Kingsport.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million per year for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million per year for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.