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Education NewsTracker

Dems Say GOP Rejecting Local Gov’t Control In Charter Moves

Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday accused Republicans of abandoning their mantra of local government control in their handling of a proposed charter school for Nashville.

Fired up over the Haslam administration’s fining Metro schools because its school board rejected the charter school application, Democrats said GOP leaders had adopted for the “big government” mindset they purport to detest. Still, Democrats say they, too, are no stranger to falling back on government oversight.

“I’m not saying there’s not some times when the federal government should step in or the state government should not step in and overrule local government, but they’re doing it on a pretty consistent level up here now when one time that was something they were really opposed to,” said House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, of Old Hickory, following a press conference with four other local Democratic legislators and candidates.

The state Department of Education last week slapped Metro Nashville Public Schools with what amounts to a $3.4 million fine for ignoring the state Board of Education’s order to approve a charter school application from Arizona-based Great Hearts Academies. The Metro schools board voted twice against the state board’s order to OK the proposal, saying that the school planned for the affluent West End neighborhood lacked a diversity plan.

Members of the minority party — which has little pull on Capitol Hill — said they’d like to see the state continue to meet and work with the school district in hopes of dodging the fine. Joining the press conference were Rep. Sherry Jones, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, Rep. Mike Stewart and Phillip North, a Democratic candidate for state Senate.

Stewart, of Nashville, said he takes issue with how the administration has carried out the charter school law. He said the Legislature never meant to give the state the power to ultimately approve charter schools against a local school district’s will.

But the section in law giving the state such authority predates Haslam and was passed in 2002 when Democrats still had control of the House of Representatives.

According to the Tennessee Charter School Act:

“If the state board finds that the local board’s decision was contrary to the best interests of the pupils, school district, or community, the state board shall remand such decision to the local board of education with written instructions for approval of the charter. The decision of the state board shall be final and not subject to appeal. The (local school district), however, shall be the chartering authority.”

Turner asserts that the Metro school board followed the state law to a “t,” and says the charter school operators never produced a satisfactory diversity plan, as outlined by the state Board of Education.

The state Board seems to disagree. The board sent out a statement backing up the Haslam administration’s decision after news broke of the state fine.

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Press Releases

Davidson Co. Dems Criticize Haslam Decision to Fine MNPS

Press release from the Tennessee House Democrat Caucus; September 25, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – State Democratic leaders criticized Gov. Bill Haslam for taking $3.4 million in taxpayer money away from Metro Nashville schools over the school board’s refusal to approve Great Hearts Academies.

Members of the Davidson County legislative delegation, along with District 20 state Senate candidate Phillip North, spoke to reporters about the issue at a press conference Tuesday.

“We disagree with Gov. Haslam’s administration on taking Davidson County taxpayers’ dollars and sending them to other school districts when that money is needed right here,” said State Rep. Brenda Gilmore, chairwoman of the Davidson County delegation.

North said that local school boards should have the right to evaluate a charter school’s application on its merits, and he said that that’s what happened in the case of Great Hearts.

“The merits of the application of a charter school company should be left to the local, elected school board,” North said. “I continue to have confidence in our elected school board, teachers and school administrators.”

Others said it might be time to clarify state law on charter schools. The law currently gives charter schools the right to appeal a school board’s decision, but does not explicitly give the state sole authority to approve a charter school’s application.

“If that’s what legislators had intended, we would have set up an independent authorizer,” Rep. Mike Stewart said.

“We have Democrats on both sides of the charter school issue,” Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Turner said. “But we all agree that it’s wrong to penalize Metro when they’ve made a judicious decision.”

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Press Releases

Dems Decry Administration for Withholding $3.4M from MNPS

Press release from  the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; Sept. 19, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats on Wednesday condemned the state sanctions doled out against Metro Nashville Public Schools over its denial of a single charter school’s application.

Gov. Bill Haslam, along with Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, announced Tuesday their decision to withhold $3.4 million from Metro Nashville schools. Huffman has gone to great lengths to recruit Great Hearts Academies to an affluent Nashville neighborhood, and now kids all over Davidson County will have to pay.

But Senate Democrats added that they would oppose any bill next session that gives the state sole authority to approve charter schools over local objections.

“I can’t believe they would punish our teachers and students because a political debate didn’t go their way,” Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle said. “We teach our kids not to be bullies, and our state leaders need to heed that lesson.”

This move by state Republicans shows a tendency to put state power over cities and counties. It could have statewide implications. Now Republicans are hinting at a change in state law so that the state can authorize charter schools over local objections.

“It’s a disturbing message Republicans have sent to cities countless times: we know better,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Sen. Lowe Finney said. “I’m saddened to see students in Nashville shortchanged like this.”

“Republicans are always so outraged at Congress over federal mandates, but when it comes to cities in Tennessee, they won’t hesitate to impose their will,” Kyle added.

Tennessee has some experience with charter schools and out-of-state companies. Existing charters have shown mixed results. K12 Inc., a for-profit company operating a statewide virtual academy, is in the bottom 11 percent of schools.

“We need to slow down, take stock of the changes we’ve made to education in Tennessee over the past couple of years, and stop pushing for charters just for the sake of charters,” Finney said. “At some point we need to support the public schools we have.”

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Press Releases

TCSA to Address Operational Issues

Newsletter from Tennessee Charter School Association; Jan. 30, 2012: 

It’s finally here, legislative season!

This year should be a solid year for charter schools as we work to ensure operational stability. Last year the big philosophical issues were addressed, primarily Open Enrollment and removing the Caps on the number of charter schools allowed. At this point we are looking to address simple operational issues. Smaller issues that impact the day-to-day operations of our charter schools. We should have our bills drafted and ready for review by the first week of February, stay tuned!

Related to this we need volunteers up at the state capitol. We plan to have four small bills though we will be watching dozens of other bills that potentially impact charter schools. Everything from teacher evaluations, to seemingly random finance and transportation issues. With half a dozen committees to work we need volunteers for every Tuesday and Wednesday at the capitol. If you are interested in helping us work the legislature please send an email to our Program Director Jennifer Gentry: jennifer@tncharterschools.org. She and I will then reach out and help schedule committees, providing a little training and get rolling!

Finally, if you recall last year legislation was passed that requires charter school boards to go through an annual training session. This session must be certified by us, though we do not have to provide it. We are scheduling several training sessions throughout the year in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga though let me stress, you can find your own board training. In fact, I strongly encourage you to do so. In fact, so does the law.

To help make this law a success we are doing a few things. First, we will publish the guidelines for compliance with this law the first week of February. Second, we are creating a page on our website that will host these guidelines and keep a calendar of board training events we will hold and contact information to three excellent board training groups. Finally, we are going to list those charter school boards that have completed training for the 2011/2012 year, and those that have not. We are public schools and as such everything we do is open for public scrutiny. Your training for this year (we are following the budget year of July 1 to June 30) must be completed by June 30. Failure to do so means you are not in compliance with State Law. Send me an email if you have questions or want to schedule a training for your board: matt@tncharterschools.org.

Warmest,

Matt

 

Mark Your Calendars!

We are pleased to announce the First Annual TCSA Gala. It will be held Friday, May 11th. During the Gala, we will present awards to teachers and school leaders in a series of categories. Watch for more information regarding nominations! The Gala will be held in Nashville, and the venue will be announced soon! We can say that it will be held at one of the most historic spots in town! Stay tuned for more information.

Watch our EVENTS page for updated workshops, conferences, etc. We will be holding numerous charter school 101 workshops, and school leader meetings.

As always, if you have any questions regarding any news or events, contact Jennifer Gentry, Jennifer@tncharterschools.org or by calling our office at (615) 891-1090.

 

It’s Time For You To Get Involved!

Legislative session has officially begun, meaning the time has come for us to fully engage in advocating for sound legislation that promotes high-quality charter school operation in Tennessee. The focus of the advocacy team this session will be to equip parents and charter school supporters with the information, tools, and confidence to advocate to state legislators. We are conducting advocacy workshops, speaking at parent meetings, and sitting down one-on-one with parents and community members who are excited to get involved.

Additionally, we are polishing the online advocacy tools and will soon roll out new interactive pieces of our website so that you can stay up-to-date on charter school bills and quickly contact legislators following our action alerts. Hundreds of supporters are currently signed up for our Advocacy Network, though we aim to involve thousands more. Please encourage friends to join the network by visiting the Get Involvedsection of our website and check the Eventstab for announcements of upcoming workshops and other ways to get involved.

Finally, remember to mark your calendar for Day on the Hill on March 6th. We will be organizing small group meetings between legislators and hundreds of students, parents, and administrators throughout the day. You can register on our website, but stay tuned – more information will be coming out soon!

To contact Lauren Hayes, Advocacy Director for TCSA, email her at lauren@tncharterschools.org

Calling all Technology and IT Departments!

We are building a contact list of all technology departments at each school to create a Tech/IT network. If you are that person (or school leaders, if you would forward that info to me), please send a quick email to Mackey Brownlee, mackey@tncharterschools.org with your name and school affiliation.

We have lots of things in the works to interface with all of the technology departments. We will send out more information in the near future.

Categories
Education Featured News

Haslam Cool to State ‘Authorizer’ for Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam led the movement this year to take the shackles off Tennessee charter schools so they can play a bigger role in education, but he says he’s as yet unwilling to grant them their next wish — a statewide board to OK their applications.

Charter school advocates argue they’d rather have the state or some independent body OK their applications instead of local school boards, which they see as too hesitant to embrace nontraditional education initiatives.

But Haslam said he won’t give away powers now reserved for local school districts to anyone else — at least until he can gauge how successful his developing charter school reforms turn out.

“I’m comfortable with what we’ve put in place. Let’s see how this works for a year or two before we do anything else,” the governor said.

Lawmakers this year removed the caps limiting the number of charter schools operating in the state and opened up enrollment to any student who wants to attend. Critics of charter-school expansion, like Jerry Winters, executive director of Tennessee’s largest teachers union, charge that the state is essentially writing charters a “blank check” to do what they want.

Officials also gave the state’s Achievement School District the power to approve charters in areas serving students who attend the state’s 13 lowest-performing schools.

But leaders in the charter school community, who met on Capitol Hill Friday, want more. They say a state-level process for “authorizing” or approving charters will create the operational stability the current system lacks. Applicants now who are denied locally can appeal the decision to the state Board of Education.

“We have a number of districts that don’t like charter schools but they have applications,” said Matt Throckmorton, who heads up the Tennessee Charter School Association. “It’s a situation where if we had a statewide authorizer, we could have a very consistent high-standard, high-quality application process, and therefore the applicants that are approved in those communities will be good charter schools and will be accepted much quicker.”

About a dozen charter school leaders rallied around that idea, although final details of what the association will pitch next legislative session will be worked out by the end of the year.

Sister Sandra Smithson of the Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville made it clear the authority shouldn’t rest with those in charge of failing schools.

“We need multiple authorizers, or at least one or two other choices as possibilities, and people with proven track records in education for bringing about substantive change,” she said. “I do have a problem trusting myself to a system that doesn’t work.”

The decision to authorize charter schools should stay within the district, Lee Harrell, a lobbyist with the Tennessee School Boards Association, told TNReport. He said he’s afraid the discussion is beginning to pin one type of school against the other.

“I fear we would abandon the mentality of traditional schools and charter schools working together,” said Harrell.

The Volunteer State is home to 41 operating charter schools with four others preparing to launch next school year.

Mike Morrow contributed to this report.

Categories
Education News

School Choice a Hot Topic at Legislators’ Conference

Tennessee lawmakers, who approved a slew of sweeping education reforms this spring, hinted this week at the Southern Legislative Conference that they’re not done yet.

The next battle appears to be over school choice.

“It is blatantly unfair that just because a parent doesn’t have the means that another parent might have, that they’re stuck in a failing school,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told TNReport while attending the conference in Memphis, which has drawn lawmakers from 15 states. “I hope we’ll be able to pass that next year.”

The Senate passed a plan in April to offer low-income students in the state’s largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — vouchers to put toward their education at another public school in the district, a charter school or private school.

But leadership in the House refused to advance the bill last session and instead parked the measure in a study committee over the summer. Legislators have yet to tackle that issue, also known as “equal opportunity scholarships.”

The reason for the holdup on the legislation was that House lawmakers weren’t entirely familiar or comfortable with the voucher concept, said Rep. Richard Montgomery, the chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know the impact of what that type of legislation would be, and we need to know that before we start moving forward,” the Sevierville Republican said.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is leading the charge for school vouchers, contends that Republicans still have the political will to pass another wave of education reforms despite this year’s contentious debates over removing teachers unions’ collective bargaining leverage, lifting restrictions on charter schools and making teacher tenure harder to earn.

“This is not the time to sit on our laurels,” said Kelsey, R-Germantown. “I think once the House takes a look at equal opportunity scholarships in particular, they’re going to see how successful it’s been and how popular it is in other states.”

Kelsey’s been teaming up with Michelle Rhee, a controversial and vocal education reformer who won her claim to fame by putting in place a tougher evaluation system and firing dozens of teachers who didn’t meet standards while chancellor of the D.C. public schools. She’s the founder of Students First, a nonprofit seeking to mobilize a national movement to improve education by focusing on good teachers, school choice, smart spending and family involvement.

Rhee, a major proponent of school choice, recently moved to Nashville so her two children can be closer to their father, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

“I think the most important thing with any kind of choice, whether it be vouchers, whether it be charter schools, home schools, it has to be around accountability. We have to make sure that the kids are meeting a minimum threshold in terms of their learning gains,” she advised a room full of lawmakers at the legislative conference Sunday.

Vouchers are the most contentious aspects of the school choice debate, said Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University.

A lot of the disagreement is over whether taxpayer dollars should be used to support private schools, 80 percent of which nationally are religiously based, according to Raymond.

Another point of contention is giving families free reign to leave traditional public schools in favor of charter schools which will shift government funding from one part of the district to another.

After examining charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, Raymond’s office found that 17 percent of them performed better than public schools. Another 46 percent reported the same academic achievement as their public school counterparts, while 37 percent were worse.

States that kept failing charter schools open longer were worse off than those that closed schools faster, according to the study.

“You have to think about the fact that in states where the results are really bad, it’s because there are schools that are open for years and years and years that do not have high performance and are not being addressed,” Raymond said.

Raymond is running numbers on Tennessee schools, but that data won’t be available for another six months, she said.

Memphis Rep. Lois DeBerry, formerly the Tennessee House speaker pro tem before Republicans swept Democrats to the sidelines, says she’s in favor of school choice and charter schools, but she’s not ready for the state to pass out vouchers — especially once charter school enrollment is opened to all students under the bill the legislature passed.

“I don’t think we need to pass any more reform right now. I think we’ve over-reformed, so I think we just need to see if it’s working,” she said.