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Pressure Builds Over State-Local Control of Charter Schools

Republicans who laud government that stays close to the people are finding themselves in a pickle now that a local school board has bucked state law.

Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education ignored orders by the Tennessee Board of Education to usher the charter school Great Hearts Academies into the district last week — the second such rebuff in a month. The Metro schools board contends that the first of five schools, run by a Phoenix-based charter school operator, would lack diversity and pander to an affluent Nashville neighborhood.

The Great Hearts dispute has exposed Republican leaders to criticism that they espouse local control only when it suits their aims.

“This whole thing just flies in the face of Republican philosophy when you have the big bad state coming down telling the local school board they have to comply with the law,” said Jerry Winters, a lobbyist with the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has been resistant to the emergence of school choice.

Charter schools have enjoyed favorable treatment at the hands of GOP Gov. Bill Haslam and his education department. The administration’s agenda for reform has included tougher standards for teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

Metro schools’ refusal to grant Great Hearts permission to open a school has sparked statewide debate over whether local approval is best. Great Hearts announced that it would not challenge the Metro schools’ decision.

“It’s really been kind of shocking to watch a government openly acknowledge and violate the law,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Disgusted by the ongoing feud, Throckmorton and other charter school advocates are pushing for the state to assemble an outside agency to review and approve charter school applications, allowing charter operators to leap-frog over the local school district.

Details on how that system would operate are still in the works.

Throckmorton says local school districts should still be involved with discussions about pending charter schools. But politics are getting in the way of opening quality schools that could find more effective ways to teach children, he said.

Opponents of the idea say locally elected school board members — rather than a handful of appointed officials in Nashville — should decide whether a charter school is the right fit for the district and the community.

“I think people are wanting to make this an example to justify their intent to make a statewide authorizer,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association which is opposed to charter schools skipping over local officials. “Often you hear the best decisions are made on the ground. (State approval) would totally fly in the face of that mentality.”

Several top state officials are staying quiet on the matter, including Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who in August said the state would take “appropriate action” to see to it that Metro schools approved the charter school.

He declined to comment on the latest denial for Great Hearts, although emails obtained by the City Paper indicate he was keenly interested in getting the application approved and has engaged in discussions about the need for a statewide authorizer.

The governor’s office has also been silent on the issue, although officials say they were waiting for Haslam to return from his economic development trip in Japan last week. Prior to Metro schools’ first rejection of the Great Hearts application, Haslam said he saw no need to develop a state panel to approve charter schools.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham has also declined to comment.

But Republican legislative leaders who have repeatedly offered messages about the importance of local control hint that they’d be open to a plan giving the state more power.

“I am extremely dismayed that the Nashville School Board is focused on limiting parental choice and educational opportunity for children,” Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told TNReport in an email. “It is unfortunate that the board seems mired in the old education politics while the rest of the state is moving forward.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell agreed, calling the decision by MNPS “simply a mistake for our children” and saying the Legislature “will revisit this issue” when they come back in January.

“We believe in local government and local school boards. But when they don’t give opportunities for our children, then that’s a problem,” she said.

Charter schools are privately-owned but publicly-funded. Supporters say they offer more flexibility to innovate and create choice and competition, while detractors say they drain public money and students, leaving traditional public schools with the students hardest to educate.

Charter school performance is generally mixed. Last school year, two charter schools ranked among the best performing institutions in the state, while five other charter schools reflected some of the worst student academic records statewide.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Jimmy Naifeh, a 36-year veteran of the Tennessee General Assembly and House speaker for 18 of those years, is among the most vocal Democratic legislators opposing GOP efforts to limit or eliminate collective bargaining for public school teachers.

But this isn’t the first time the crafty Covington lawmaker has figured prominently in Tennessee’s tug-of-war between workers’ rights and respecting local school board autonomy.

He has, however, switched sides on the issue.

The legislation currently in the Tennessee General Assembly — the House version of which is scheduled for a vote on the chamber floor this evening — is an attempt to rein in or repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, a law that forces local school districts to bargain with unions when certain thresholds of teacher support are met. (UPDATE: The House on Monday put off voting on HB130 until Thursday.)

Under the terms of the 1978 law, still in effect today, when those conditions are met, a “professional employees’ organization” is awarded sole and formal negotiating authority to “(deal) with boards of education concerning, but not limited to, grievances, wages, hours of employment or conditions of work.”

The 1978 act was designed “to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with boards of education, and to protect the rights of the boards of education and the public in connection with employer-employee disputes affecting education,” according to Tennessee state code.

When 30 percent of teachers in a district demand a vote to be unionized — and a majority of those teachers voting in the special election choose a union to represent them — then that union is awarded the designation as the district’s “exclusive representative” for teachers. That role gives the union sole privileges to negotiate on behalf of all teachers in the district. With that state-mandated recognition comes the power to exclude from labor discussions with the school board any and all competitors and individuals who wish to negotiate alternative or competing agreements.

The Act passed when Naifeh was in his fourth year as a state representative. The Senate passed it on a 20-10 vote. The House passed it 60-38. It was signed on March 10, 1978 by Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who, according to a Tennessean article written the next day, “made a surprise visit” to a Tennessee Education Association convention in Nashville so that teachers could witness him officially make it law.

But Naifeh was by no means then the champion of mandatory collective bargaining that he is now.

In fact, Naifeh and then-state Rep. John Tanner were “viciously opposed” to giving unions the power to force collective bargaining with local school districts, said Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, who was present at the debate and voted in favor of the 1978 Act. Tanner served 22 years as a United States Congressman from Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District after 12 years in the state House of Representatives.

“They tried every rule, everything in the book to stop it,” DeBerry said of Naifeh and Tanner.

Tanner didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

In audio recordings of House floor debate over the 1978 Act, Naifeh can be heard attempting to add amendments to the bill that were derided by supporters of collective bargaining as delaying tactics or attempts to kill the union-friendly legislation.

Naifeh in 1978 was a supporter of local control, and he argued that the state was imposing its will on the districts by forcing them to recognize and exclusively negotiate with a teachers union.

“All I’m asking is that you give the people of your district the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to have professional negotiations,” Naifeh at one point pleaded with his House colleagues.

But between the fiery debates then and now, Naifeh has done a 180-degree change of course.

“I made a mistake, and I have admitted that many times,” Naifeh told TNReport earlier this legislative session. “At the time, it just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t think it was the way to go.”

However, he added, “Once it got in place and all, I realized that we needed collective bargaining.”

And if anything, the former House speaker is even more adamant today in supporting collective bargaining for teachers than he was against the idea in 1978. He’s often among the most incensed Democratic voices as GOP-driven developments unfold seemingly beyond his or his party’s influence.

“I’ve never seen anything more political in my years in this Legislature than what has gone on in the first few months, and I am sick and tired of it,” Naifeh thundered during one House subcommittee debate earlier this year.

Naifeh said he changed his mind on public-sector organizing after talking to school board members and his local director of schools, who told him “it gives them an opportunity to be able to sit down with the teachers and discuss these things in a very civil manner.”

“It may not have been a mistake then,” Naifeh said of his 1978 vote, “but today and even a few years after that, I can see where it was playing a role.”

Former Tennessee Education Association President George Kersey Jr. told the Tennessean in 1978 that the legislation was not “specifically designed for the TEA or its affiliates,” but would instead give teachers a choice about which organization could represent them.

Nevertheless, TEA has come to dominate teacher unionization in Tennessee, representing two-thirds of the 64,229 public and secondary school teachers. The other association that represents school employees in the state, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has only about 5,000 teachers.

Jack Johnson, the Senate sponsor of the proposal to repeal collective bargaining and replace the system with a more open and less regulated system of communication between teachers and school boards, said he believes there’s little objective evidence to warrant continued support of mandatory collective bargaining in 2011.

“I think that it is clear if you look over the history of collective bargaining that it hasn’t worked,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican who ushered his bill to passage in the Senate on an 18-14 vote earlier this month. “So, why he could be against it then and for it now, I do not understand.”

Johnson added that there’s “plenty of evidence where (collective bargaining) has created an adversarial and hostile relationship between teachers’ unions and the school boards.”

In fact, injecting a dose of political strife into how locally elected school boards conduct their affairs may have been partly by design. Responding to the suggestions that mandating collective bargaining would be a recipe for pitting teachers and school boards against one another, one lawmaker who supported collective bargaining commented during the 1978 House floor debate that “in some rural areas, tranquility and mediocrity have gone hand in hand.”

House records from that year reveal concerns about teacher input, and whether the bill would add to education problems or solve them — issues echoed in the current debate over tenure and teachers’ unions.

Then like now, teachers turned out in force at the Capitol to rally in support of state-mandated collective bargaining. They were “packing the galleries” during the House debate, according to the Tennessean.

Reid Akins, Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this story.

TEA Mulling Haslam’s Tenure Reform Proposal

Tennessee’s largest teachers union is ready to do its homework on Gov. Bill Haslam’s education reform plan.

But regardless of the details of the governor’s legislation, union leadership sees a lot in other bills that it says have nothing to do with teaching children.

Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, said Thursday his organization wants to give Haslam’s education proposals a good, close look, then stands ready to talk.

“I think his proposal is going to be complex enough that we’re going to need to get it and analyze it to see exactly what he’s proposing, and then we’d like to talk to them before we take an official organization position on it,” Mance said. “That is particularly true with anything having to do with tenure.”

Haslam delivered his anticipated tenure-adjusting proposal to the legislature Thursday as the highlight of a package that includes lifting current limits on charter schools in the state. Haslam wants to change the probationary time for teacher tenure from three years to five years.

Mance said the TEA will probably have a detailed response by early next week.

Haslam’s tinkering with the tenure system followed the first real shot in Republican lawmakers’ battle with teachers’ union supporters a day earlier, with a Senate committee voting Wednesday to advance a bill wiping away collective bargaining for teachers. The week was a potent one-two punch to the union. The union bargaining issue has stirred the most passion thus far.

“We’ve got 52,000 members across the state who aren’t happy,” Mance said. “This is devastating for some of them. Keep in mind almost 90 percent of all teachers are covered by negotiated contracts. A lot of teachers have lived during the period when we didn’t have them.

“What negotiation does is provide an orderly and structured way for you to sit down with the school system and talk about those problems and issues that may get in the way of actually improving schools.”

Mance has heard some of the information going around that says non-bargaining local educators make an average $130 a year more than teachers who work under collectively bargained contracts. But, he said, that is taking into account only salary, not both salary and benefits.

He said bargaining groups of teachers almost always exceed what nonbargaining local organizations receive in health insurance.

“If they repeal the bargaining law, they have no opportunity to sit down in an orderly way and have input into the education and school system,” Mance said. “They will be back to a time when teachers were expected to be seen and not heard, and I don’t think that’s something teachers are going to be able to tolerate ever again.

“I don’t think most school boards want that.”

The Tennessee School Boards Association says indeed it does not. But that organization rejects the notion that such an outcome is likely or would, for that matter, be tolerated by the voters who elect local citizens to the boards.

“It serves the best interest of everyone in the system, especially the school board and the teachers, to have a collaborative relationship,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the TSBA, which is pushing the anti-collective bargaining bill. “School board members are elected, and they have to meet certain standards, and they have to have highly qualified teachers — and they have to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. It serves them absolutely no good and no interest to shut the teachers out.”

Harrell, who made his remarks before the Senate Education Committee this week, said the 45 school districts in Tennessee that aren’t mandated to collectively bargain with unions — 91 districts are — have an “open relationship” that results in constructive discussions with teachers on the full range of education-related issues.

“They want to hear directly from teachers in the classrooms,” Harrell said of school board members.

Mance said the existence of mandatory collective bargaining in one system can have an effect on a neighboring system, like the Memphis city schools compared to Shelby County schools.

“Some of the benefits in Shelby County are what they are because Memphis is right next door, and Memphis negotiates,” Mance said. “In order to establish and maintain some kind of parity it means that Shelby County has to improve its benefits but also improve teacher involvement in decision-making.

“That is as important to most teachers as the salaries and benefits.”

Mance expressed concern about a flurry of bills in the Legislature he says don’t directly affect education. They include the mandatory collectively bargaining issue, a bill doing away with TEA’s members selecting people for the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System board of trustees and a bill to remove a payroll dues deduction for any employee organization that participates in politics.

“There are a number of bills around, and none of them have anything to do with support of teaching in the classroom or support for education reform that have any possibility of improving the education of Tennessee boys and girls,” he said.

‘TELL Tennessee’ Seeks Teachers’ Input on Improving Education

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, Feb. 10, 2011:

NASHVILLE – Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Department of Education want to ensure all educators have a supportive environment to help students achieve. The TELL Tennessee (Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning) Survey is the first statewide opportunity for teachers and licensed staff in Tennessee to provide input on their learning environment. The survey launches February 14 through March 11, 2011.

“A successful school has a great principal leading it and great teachers in the classroom,” said Governor Bill Haslam. “We want to ensure that every Tennessee principal and educator has the tools and supportive environment necessary to be effective in the classroom and in their schools.”

All school-based licensed educators are strongly encouraged to anonymously and voluntarily share their perceptions of the teaching and learning environment in their school, which research has shown to be critical to student achievement and teacher retention. As part of Tennessee’s First to the Top reform initiative, the survey will provide additional data for school and district improvements and results are expected to inform state policy.

The TELL Tennessee survey is supported by a Coalition of Partners that include Governor Haslam, Acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith, Tennessee Education Association, Tennessee Principals Study Council, Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Tennessee School Boards Association, Tennessee Association of School Superintendents, and Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Educators across the state can access the survey online with their individual, anonymous code from any Internet location to provide insight about key day-to-day factors such as:

  • Time during the day for collaborative instructional planning
  • School and teacher leadership
  • Facilities and resources
  • Professional development opportunities

“TELL Tennessee Survey data gives a voice to our teachers and licensed staff,” said Acting Commissioner Smith. “In turn, policy makers and education leaders are encouraged to make informed decisions. Identifying areas of improvement and guiding strategic interventions will help shape the future of our schools and support academic success for our students.”

Participation in the survey is encouraged and Tennessee SCORE is providing $1000 to five schools each that reach a 90 percent participation rate or higher.

Help Desk assistance is available for all survey takers at helpdesk@telltennessee.org, or by calling toll-free at 1-888-280-7903 Monday through Friday between 7:30 AM and 4:30 PM local time. Educators can access instant help from the website by visiting www.telltennessee.org. Survey results will be available online mid-April 2011.

For more information or to view the real time response rates for Tennessee schools, visit www.telltennessee.org.

Feds Award TN $34.9 Million Grant for Teacher Performance Bonuses

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, Sept. 23, 2010:

NASHVILLE–The Tennessee Department of Education has been awarded a $34.9 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Academic Improvement and Teacher Quality Programs. The Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant will support local efforts to improve student achievement by increasing teacher and principal effectiveness.

“This grant will help us provide our students with the effective support they need and improve the overall education climate across the state,” Education Commissioner Tim Webb said. “I’m very pleased Tennessee will receive this funding over the next five years to develop and implement new performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools.”

These performance based reforms incorporate multiple performance measures for evaluating educators and their schools—to include student academic achievement , financial incentives and educator recognition to encourage teachers to take on additional responsibilities and leadership roles. The first year of the grant will be a planning year, allowing district and school level teams to design reform plans in conjunction with key stakeholders.

Through the grant, the department will also continue to develop and refine a comprehensive communication strategy, a fair and transparent evaluation system, performance-oriented data and information management systems, and state-of-the-art professional development and technical assistance activities.

The Teacher Incentive Fund Program seeks to strengthen the education profession by rewarding excellence, attracting educators to high-need and hard to staff areas, and providing all with the feedback and support they need to succeed. Tennessee wins the competition in partnership with more than 100 high-needs and key professional organizations, including the Tennessee Education Association, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, and Tennessee School Boards Association.