Posts

TNGOP to Schools: Ignore ACLU on Prayer Suit

Press release from the Tennessee Republican Party; October 10, 2013:

Dear Superintendent:

One week ago, you likely received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN). The message is the latest yearly missive sent out by the far-left organization meant to intimidate Tennessee students and high school athletes from exercising their First Amendment rights.

The group behind the letter misses a very basic principle about the First Amendment: It was written—not to protect government from religion—but to ensure religious freedoms are not violated by the government.

Moreover, the ACLU-TN willfully misrepresents a point highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case it cites. The Court has found:

“(N)othing in the Constitution…prohibits any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the schoolday.” Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 313 (2000).

When it comes to this issue, we stand with families across Tennessee who want to protect expressions of faith in the public forum and the precious freedoms we all hold dear.

It should be noted this is a Tennessee issue, not a partisan one. My colleague who leads the Tennessee Democratic Party, Roy Herron, was actually the first individual to lay out this position. In an opinion piece he authored as a State Senator about this very issue for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Herron wrote, “The Constitution does not require government hostility to religion.”

He wrote this to give a public explanation for the Tennessee Student Religious Liberty Act. The law was meant to “prevent government discrimination against religion, and to see that students’ existing constitutional rights are honored.” Essentially, the law enshrines the Court’s finding in Santa Fe here in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Legislature further clarified what is permissible in Tennessee schools recently with the passage of a law that ensures “school administrators may not prohibit personnel from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students.”

Obviously, the ACLU-TN is using scare tactics and the implied threat of litigation to stamp out the First Amendment rights of students. Not only is this a transparent political stunt, it is a misreading of the law and misunderstanding of Tennessee’s unique spiritual heritage.

With a new week of football games set to kick off, we write today to tell you we stand with you and the millions of Tennesseans who want to express their rights and not cower to the liberal self-interests of a leftwing organization.

Respectfully,

Chris Devaney
Chairman
Tennessee Republican Party

Federal Grants Totaling $27M Awarded to 17 Low-performing Schools

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; July 2, 2013:

NASHVILLE—The Tennessee Department of Education has awarded three-year School Improvement Grants totaling $27,228,598 in federal funds to seventeen schools that are among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, in terms of academic achievement.

“It is a priority of this administration to turn around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We believe that this grant will provide schools with the necessary resources, time, and personnel to make this a reality.”

“The state expects to see exceptional strides because we are giving districts the money to put the most effective teachers in front of children and recruit the most effective principals to lead schools. The extended hours that the money will fund will give these children the time for instruction necessary to improve results,” said Rita Fentress, school improvement coordinator. “We owe it to these children and to the state of Tennessee.”

Whiteville Elementary in Hardeman County will receive $1,390,800 in School Improvement Grant funds while Sarah Moore Greene in Knox County has been awarded $1,504,045. Five schools in the Achievement School District in Memphis—Corry Middle, Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, Whitney Achievement Elementary, Hanley Elementary, and Klondike Preparatory Academy—will be awarded $7,503,603 in total over the course of the grant. Douglass K-8, Riverview Middle School, Sherwood Middle School, and Treadwell Middle School within the Shelby County School district will receive $5,520,819 over three years. These awards are in addition to an $11,309,331 grant given to Hamilton County last fall to serve its six lowest-performing schools (Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Brainerd High School, Dalewood Middle School, Orchard Knob Elementary School, Orchard Knob Middle School, and Woodmore Middle School).

The grant will also provide the opportunity for school principals to work together in the state’s Turnaround Principal Cohort. “Our goal is to create opportunities for them to learn from one another, facilitate discussions, and share ideas and practices on a peer-to-peer level. We also want to create opportunities for them to visit high-performing schools across the state,” said Mike Koprowski, special assistant for accountability implementation. Koprowski will oversee the cohort in the department’s Office of School Improvement.

TBI Report Shows 12 Percent Decrease in School Crimes

Press release from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; May 9, 2013:

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation today released its annual study dedicated to crime in Tennessee’s schools. Produced by TBI’s Crime Statistics Unit, the study spans a three-year period between 2010 and 2012 and is based on crime data submitted by Tennessee law enforcement agencies to the Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System (TIBRS).

The reported number of crimes that occurred at schools decreased by 12 percent from 2011 to 2012 with 12,477 offenses reported in 2011 to 10,980 offenses reported in 2012. Examination of 2010 through 2012 data revealed a 16.5 percent drop in crime reported at schools over a three year period. This report is based on incidents submitted by law enforcement agencies and excludes offenses reported by colleges and universities. Those statistics are compiled in TBI’s “Crime on Campus” report that was released earlier this year.

“School Crimes Report” Quick Facts

  • Simple assault was the most frequently reported crime at 3,956 or 36 percent of offenses.
  • Of the 3,930 weapons reported at schools, 82 were firearms.
  • Crimes against persons made up the largest majority, nearly 50 percent, of reported school crimes.
  • More crimes occurred on Thursday than any other day of the week and the month of February had the highest frequency of school crime.
  • 47% of the time, the relationship between the offender and victim was acquaintance.
  • Marijuana greatly outnumbered all other seized drugs at school in 2012 accounting for nearly 75 percent of drug seizures.

It is important to understand the characteristics surrounding school crime and its offenders and victims. This understanding will help schools, policy makers, law enforcement and the public learn how to better combat crime that occurs at these institutions. To view the “School Crimes Report” for 2011 in its entirety, click here.

Study: TN School Districts Top-Heavy with Bureaucrats

Tennessee teachers could have gotten annual raises of $8,367 over an almost two-decade period, if school boards had curbed growth in the number of administrators they employ.

That’s the message in a new report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, based in Indianapolis.

The bump represents a 17.8 percent increase in pay on the $47,000 salary a typical Tennessee teacher takes home.

Using student population as the benchmark, the foundation examined growth in the central offices in school districts across America, from 1992 to 2009.

The number of non-teaching staff jumped 46 percent nationally, compared to a 17 percent increase in students  – or less than half the rate of growth in the administrative ranks.

Tennessee closely followed the national trend line, with administrators and staff increasing 49 percent, compared to a 17 percent increase in students.

“As the dramatic growth of non-teaching staff in public schools shows, throwing more money at education is not the answer,” said Justin Owen, with the free-market Beacon Center in Nashville. The Beacon Center works with the Friedman Foundation to promote school choice.

“That money simply gets eaten up in the system with nothing to show for it rather than educating our children,” said Owen.

The foundation did the math on potential savings if administrative growth had tracked student population over the study period.

Tennessee would have realized more than $543.2 million in savings annually. Nationally, the figure was more than $24.2 billion annually.

To derive the teacher raises estimate, the foundation took the $543.2 million in savings, divided by the number of teachers in the state in 2009.

View the full report here, as well as an interactive, state-by-state map.

The foundation was established by economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose.

TNReport.com is a nonprofit news service supported by generous donors like you!

Campfield Bill Would Link Student Attendance, Performance to Gov’t Benefits for Parents

Saying his intention is to try a new way to “break the cycle of poverty,” Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced sure-to-be-controversial legislation tying a low-income child’s educational progress to the aid his or her parents receive from the state.

A member of the Senate Education Committee, Campfield told TNReport.com recently that his aim is to place “more accountability on people who are on government benefits.”

Senate Bill 132 would establish mechanisms for reducing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families payments for TANF recipients whose children fail to maintain satisfactory progress in school. According to the Tennessee Legislature’s website, the bill doesn’t yet have a House sponsor.

“Right now, the only top ticket out is education for people in poverty,” said Campfield, a Republican who served three terms in the Tennessee House of Representatives before winning his state Senate seat in 2010. “And what we have a lot of times are people in poverty who don’t care if their kids graduate, go to school or not.”

Campfield noted that state government has over the past couple years shouldered teachers with more responsibility for ensuring Tennessee’s public school children show marked improvement. Parents of under-performing kids need to share the load, he said. “We have to have parents who say it’s important that my kid goes to school,” said Campfield.

Last year the Legislature nearly unanimously passed a bill that established a pilot program geared toward encouraging greater parental involvement in a student’s academics, particularly in poorly performing schools.  Sponsored by Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, and Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the legislation launched a system for parents of young children in the state’s worst schools to grade themselves on the direction and discipline the child gets at home.

In Campfield’s view, more can be done. In particular, parents on welfare need to be on the hook for kids who chronically play hookey, he said. If a child misses a lot of days, doesn’t take classwork seriously or quits school all together, “then it should come back on the parents.”

“There has to be some accountability,” Campfield said. “We’re not going to keep paying for you to have kids who are quitting school and repeating the cycle of poverty generation after generation.” He said it is not acceptable for children to say, “‘Well, my parents never graduated and they’re doing OK, so why should I graduate?’

“We’ve just got to break that,” said Campfield.

Amelia Hipps and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

TNReport.com is a nonprofit news service supported by generous donors like you!

PET: ‘One Size Fits All’ Legislation Not an Answer to Protecting Schools

Op-Ed from the Professional Educators of Tennessee; January 8, 2012:

By Bill Gemmill

Professional Educators of Tennessee will neither endorse nor reject legislative proposals concerning the arming of teachers in schools. We argue that we do not want the state to mandate educators having to carry arms or for that matter to prohibit them from carrying. It is a decision that should be made at the local level. We believe that large urban districts are likely to oppose, while rural areas will likely support. One size fits all will not work. The subject is very emotional, with good arguments coming from all sides.

We anticipate that the legislature will pass a law that empowers individual school districts to determine for themselves what direction they want to take, including qualified, certified and licensed volunteer school personnel going armed in their building. We plan to offer resources and support to districts as they make their decisions, so that whatever that decision might be it will be implemented properly and safely.

We also believe that if a district decides to allow armed teachers and administrators into the schools, the decision will not be made lightly. Volunteers who go armed in the schools will be well trained and highly qualified. We have heard from teachers around the state who are expressing their willingness to defend children. Several are ex-military and former law enforcement officers who are now classroom teachers.

Professional Educators of Tennessee strongly supports the retention and expansion of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. This is a highly effective program that serves many purposes during the school year and is invaluable where it now exists. Within the walls of schools in Nashville, for instance, SRO’s build relationships with both students and adults, building a sense of trust and security. The Metro Nashville Police Department provides these wonderful officers, and their presence is reminiscent of the popular “beat cops” of yesteryear. As a former principal, I would recommend this program to any administrator.

As Tennessee progresses into the future with improved school security, we also support posting additional guidance counselors to schools and advanced training for all teachers that will help identify problem students before a tragedy like Sandy Hook, Columbine or the Aurora theaters once again rears its ugly head. Any viable option that can lead to a safer environment in our schools and communities needs to be considered.

All schools need upgraded security, whether it is as simple and reasonable as inside locks on classroom doors, or teachers going armed. The legislature’s actions and the decisions that the districts make will impact the lives of all the inhabitants of school buildings across the state. Professional Educators of Tennessee stands ready to help them do it right.

##

Bill Gemmill is Professional Educators of Tennessee’s Director of Membership & Media. He retired from Metro Nashville Public Schools as a principal in 2010.

Huffman Expects More Schools In State’s Achievement District

The state expects to add 10 or 12 schools next year to its specialized district aimed at helping schools that have fallen behind academically, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said during his department’s state budget hearing this week.

That would bring up to 18 schools operating under the umbrella of the Achievement School District, a state entity that has the power to take over failing schools. Like the schools already in the district, many of those additional schools will be in Memphis. Ten Memphis City schools, all in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools in terms of achievement, were notified this week that they will be taken over by the district, the Commercial Appeal reported Wednesday.

Huffman said schools in the Achievement district are operating with longer days, teaching until 4:30 p.m., and using data more aggressively to drive instruction. Huffman discussed the progress so far.

“I think they feel positive about the direction that they’re going, but it’s hard work,” Huffman said. “And I think everybody who works for the (achievement district) understands the very long path they have to go, because their goal is not to have these schools simply be less bad. They want these schools to be good schools where people want to send their children.”

The district was approved by the Legislature in 2010 as part of the state’s successful efforts to win Race to the Top funding for education reform.

The state won $501 million in that contest sponsored by the Obama administration, and Haslam asked Huffman if education officials are planning for what happens after that money is spent. The deadline is in about 18 months, Huffman said.

“We know that we will have to figure out, there will be some ongoing costs that we’ll need to absorb and make room for those costs because it’s the right thing to do,” Huffman said of planning at the state level. Local districts will have to decide whether to continue funding positions like math coaches created under the Race to the Top initiatives.

“When the money runs out they either need to figure out that this is an ongoing priority that’s worth the investment and therefore they need to spend the money on it and not spend someplace else, or they need to transition out of it,” Huffman said.

Huffman has proposed a 2 percent increase in the state share of his department’s funding, from $4.1 billion in the current year to $4.2 billion in 2013-14, the Tennessean reported.

One of the factors driving that increase is a projected $45 million bump to spending for local schools, Huffman said, based on the state law that proscribes state funding for local schools based on inflation and enrollment.

Higher Graduation Rates High on Casada’s Priorty List

Tuesday’s statehouse general election results assure that GOP-driven education reform will remain a primary topic of policy discussion in the 2013 Legislature, said a key House Republican leader.

“We’ve got to address education,” said Rep. Glen Casada, who currently chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee and is a likely successor to the role of GOP caucus chair for Debra Young Maggart of Henderson, who in August was ousted in the Republican primary.

“We’re near the bottom, and we have been near the bottom for years. Now the mantle of leadership is on the Republicans we have to get us out of that negative trend,” said Casada.

Casada, a conservative Republican from Franklin, told TNReport he wants to see a 90 percent graduation rate from Tennessee high schools.

Although it’s been climbing over the past decade, Tennessee’s graduation rate stands at 77.4 percent.

Education is bound to be a front-and-center issue at the legislature in the session that begins in January.

Indeed, how best to educate students has been a constant subject of debate for years now, culminating recently in a feud between Metro Nashville Public Schools officials and state leaders.

One issue almost sure to arise in 2013: The possible creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert and at 615-669-9501.

Huffman: TN Report Card a Tool for Improvement, Parental Involvement

The Tennessee Department of Education has released a searchable 2012 schools report card, which offers detailed breakdowns of successful and failing schools across the state.

“I actually think this report card gives a better lens into the school’s absolute performance in growth,” state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said at the unveiling of the website Wednesday. For example, “If I were a parent in a low-performing school but with high growth I would feel like, ‘This is good, this is a good sign that the school is starting to make some progress.’”

Here’s the problem, though: For parents with students in failing schools, such as Brick Church Middle School in Davidson County, which has received ‘F’ grades from the state three years running for academic achievement in science, math and language, or in Memphis high schools which have double-digit dropout rates, there is little to be done except look at the numbers and hope for the best.

That’s because in many cases parents cannot select another school for their child. They are stuck with the hand they are dealt.

“Some districts have good choice opportunities. Other districts don’t,” Huffman said. “I think parents should be engaging themselves at the school level and engaging themselves at the district level to ask for and demand the kinds of choices and options that show that their kids have the ability to attend high-performing schools.”

Huffman’s comments come at a time when the debate over school choice has consumed Metro Nashville Public Schools officials. The Legislature next year will likely consider the creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Huffman said that he was pleased that the scorecard showed statewide upticks in both math and science.

“Most schools across the state had impressive gains,” Huffman said. “We feel good about our progress last year, but we also feel like there is a long way to go before we feel close to satisfied with how things are going.”

The scorecard also details categories such as disciplinary actions and dropout rates. For example, it shows the number of suspensions increased at Davidson County schools to 11,023 students in 2012 from 10,404 students in 2011.

So, how do failing schools get fixed? According to the state, one of the ways is providing more money to the schools.

“Well, we don’t punish low-performing schools,” Huffman said. Indeed, the lowest-scoring five percent of schools have a range of options from having the state take them over to being infused with additional cash to pay for more instructional help.

To search the state’s report card, click here.

To see the full Department of Education news release, click here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com via Twitter @trentseibert or 615-669-9501.