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Education Featured

Legislature Passes Limits on Foreign Staffers at TN Charter Schools

The Tennessee Legislature has approved a bill limiting the number of non-U.S. citizens any Volunteer State charter school can hire while still maintaining eligibility for public funding.

Senate Bill 3345, which passed in the Tennessee Senate last week and in the House of Representatives on Monday night, would also require charter schools to disclose all their funding sources in addition to capping the number of foreign citizens on staff at 3.5 percent of the total number of the school’s employees.

House proponents of the measure portrayed it as a common-sense effort to increase charter-school transparency and encourage the hiring of American citizens as teachers — preferably Tennesseans.

“It simply puts more accountability in the charter school process,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill’s sponsor. The measure contains an exemption for foreign-language teachers who, if by hiring them, would cause a charter school to break the cap, Matheny added.

The measure passed April 12 in the Senate on an 18-13-1 vote. It cleared the House on a 63-29-1 vote. In both chambers votes were cast mostly along party lines, with Republicans for it and Democrats against.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Old Hickory suggested during floor debate Monday that the group chiefly responsible for pushing the bill, the Tennessee Eagle Forum, seems concerned more with limiting the influence of Islam than hiring homegrown teachers.

Turner noted that just last week Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the national Eagle Forum, penned an opinion column that sought to raise awareness about the growing influence in America of a “secretive and powerful” Turkish-based Islamic religious sect.

“Charter schools are able to hire and fire teachers, administrators and staff and avoid control by education department bureaucrats and the teachers unions,” wrote Schlafly. “No doubt there are some good charter schools, but loose controls have allowed a very different kind of school to emerge.”

Schlafly, a nationally syndicated conservative political commentator, cited a number of articles in major U.S. newspapers over the past year that have examined the activities of a movement led by a religious leader from Turkey named Fethullah Gülen.

According to a June 2011 New York Times article that Schlafly referenced in her column, Fethullah Gülen is “a charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam whose devotees have built a worldwide religious, social and nationalistic movement in his name. Gulen followers have been involved in starting similar schools around the country — there are about 120 in all, mostly in urban centers in 25 states, one of the largest collections of charter schools in America.”

The Times story continued:

The growth of these “Turkish schools,” as they are often called, has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia. Nationwide, the primary focus of complaints has been on hundreds of teachers and administrators imported from Turkey: in Ohio and Illinois, the federal Department of Labor is investigating union accusations that the schools have abused a special visa program in bringing in their expatriate employees.

But an examination by The New York Times of the Harmony Schools in Texas casts light on a different area: the way they spend public money. And it raises questions about whether, ultimately, the schools are using taxpayer dollars to benefit the Gulen movement — by giving business to Gulen followers, or through financial arrangements with local foundations that promote Gulen teachings and Turkish culture.

Schlafly wrote that the movement “has nurtured a close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants.”

“Most American taxpayers would be mighty surprised at what their money is financing,” Schlafly concluded.

Matheny acknowledged that indeed the foreigners-in-charter-schools measure came to him through the Tennessee Eagle Forum. He denied, though, that it is targeted at any one group or individual.

“This bill treats everybody equally who would be part of the charter school process, regardless of where they are from, what their religion is — it treats everybody equally,” Matheny said Monday.

Turner, who voted against the bill, suggested Matheny research the Eagle Forum’s views on the matter. “I think they have led you astray on what they asked you to carry on this bill,” Turner said.

A March 27 article in The Tennessean noted that top Democrats in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature filed bills earlier this session similar to the GOP-backed proposal. Senate Bill 2654 and House Bill 2831, sponsored by Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, sought to prohibit foreign nationals who are not lawful permanent residents of the United States from running or teaching in state-funded charter schools. Those bills stalled in the committee system.

Sen. Finney ultimately voted against SB3345, which was sponsored in the Senate by Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron. Rep. Fitzhugh didn’t cast a vote on the measure during the House vote Monday night, according to the Tennessee Legislature’s website, although he is listed as having voted against the measure when it passed out of the House Education Committee April 3.

Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, said he doesn’t see a particular need for the bill, that it creates unnecessary hoops for charter schools to jump through.

Often schools with higher percentages of foreign-born teachers are among the highest performing institutions academically, he said.

“The evidence suggests they’re really making positive contributions,” Throckmorton said.

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Press Releases

Woodson-Sponsored Charter School Legislation Headed to Haslam

Press Release from the GOP Caucus of the Tennessee Senate, May 20, 2011:

(NASHVILLE, TN), May 20, 2011 – The State Senate approved major public charter schools legislation on Friday to create an environment that promotes the growth of high quality public charter schools in Tennessee. The bill is sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson (R-Knoxville) and was one of three education reform measures proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to improve student achievement by giving students the resources and opportunities they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“Public charter schools are a critical tool to improve public education and provide every child in Tennessee the opportunity to receive a great education,” said Speaker Woodson. “This bill creates an environment that promotes the growth of high quality charter schools, allows districts access to innovative tools to address their unique challenges, and gives many more parents the option of sending their child to a school that better suits his or her needs.”

Key provisions of Senate Bill 1523 include:

  • Removes the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state
  • Allows for open enrollment in charter schools (removes eligibility restrictions while maintaining current system that gives preference to certain applicants and provides for a lottery system when applications exceed the number of seats available in the school)
  • Gives preference in the application process to proposed charter schools that demonstrate a capability to support certain high-need populations
  • Provides the Achievement School District with the ability to authorize charter schools within the district
  • Allows for appeal of charter revocation or nonrenewal to State Board of Education except when those decisions are based on the current AYP accountability guidelines for charters (maintains high accountability standards)
  • Removes “automatic repeal” provision so that there is no automatic sunset date on the charter law
  • Allows a local education agency to deny charter school applications if a local education agency demonstrates that opening the school would create a substantial negative fiscal impact that would be contrary to the best interest of their students, district or community.

Recently, Tennessee was awarded $40 million in investments to support new charter schools in Tennessee. The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam and will become effective upon his signature.

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Education Featured News

Education Reform Mood a Likely Boon to Tennessee Charter Schools

It’s boom times for charter schools in Tennessee.

With a sympathetic GOP controlling state government and several proposals in the Legislature aiming to lift restrictions on the alternative public schools, charter school advocates appear to have the political wind at their backs.

Not only do charter schools have solid scores of Republicans in their corner, but they have Gov. Bill Haslam spearheading the very ideas that top their legislative wish list, plus a new education commissioner who comes from a background that parallels the kind of outside-the-box thinking they thrive on.

“Over the next four or five years, I think statewide we’re probably going to average eight to 10, maybe 12 charter schools a year,” says Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.

Advocates for charter schools and the school-choice model are scheduled to spend Wednesday at Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers who have over the last month considered other policy changes for Tennessee’s education system.

On the association’s agenda: lift the cap on number of charter schools, allow the state to OK new schools and open up student eligibility. They also want to make it easier for the schools to borrow money to purchase larger school spaces and create more flexibility around application deadlines.

Next school year, Tennessee will be home to some 40 public charter schools – 25 in Memphis, 11 more in Nashville, three in Chattanooga and one in Knoxville. The big four cities will drive most of the growth in charters, according to Throckmorton, but their suburbs may also host a few.

Charter schools are relatively new to Tennessee. The Legislature only began allowing them at all in 2002 and has cautiously limited their growth, at least up to now.

They’re funded the same way traditional public schools are, on a per-pupil basis – that is, for each student enrolled, the school receives a fixed amount. Those funds are a mix of state and local dollars, totaling $8,100 per pupil in Nashville, $7,500 in Memphis, and $7,100 in Chattanooga, according to the association.

Charter schools are still public schools, staffed by certified teachers and required to make adequate yearly progress – in other words, they have to meet federal testing benchmarks or be shut down by the state.

But charter schools don’t have to adhere to the same curriculum or classroom approach as a traditional public school, meaning they can be more flexible and autonomous. That commonly translates to longer school days, Saturday classes or a longer school year. Custom lesson plans and more parental involvement factor in as well.

Getting permission to start a charter in Tennessee is a rigorous process – among the nation’s toughest, Throckmorton said. Applications to local school districts typically span hundreds of pages, while the majority of applicants are denied.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Throckmorton says.

“When it was put into place, it was actually put in by those who were very skeptical of charter schools. It’s become one of the best things – it keeps all of our schools really focused on academic performance,” he said.

While the political winds are currently blowing in charter schools’ direction, he said he doesn’t see them dominating the state’s education system.

“I don’t see a charter school on every street corner,” he said. “There is a niche. And in some districts that are really stubborn, you’re going to need more charter schools before they begin to really change and allow flexibility within their own schools and professionals.”

Haslam has made one of his top priorities giving the charter school community a shot in the arm.

The governor, who offered up an agenda to the Legislature last month, included a handful of charter school reforms, which would lift the 90-school cap on the number of charters granted in the state, allow open enrollment and involve a planned state school district in approving new schools.

Those proposals are encapsulated in HB1989, a bill carried by House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick that is awaiting a committee hearing.

“(It’s) all about giving more flexibility,” Haslam told a conference room full of Nashville Chamber of Commerce members Tuesday morning. “We think every child should have the ability to go to a great school regardless of economic background, so we have focused hard on doing that.”

Haslam’s new right-hand man in the Department of Education, Commissioner Kevin Huffman, will help push that agenda.

Huffman grew through the ranks of the education profession nontraditionally, first by earning his teaching degree through the Teach for America alternative teaching program, then by touting the group’s message as its vice-president for public affairs. He at one point was married to Michelle Rhee, the former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., and a celebrity of sorts in the education reform community who appeared in the movie Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The administration’s bill would open up charter eligibility to all students, instead of exclusively those deemed “at-risk” — those students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. However, needy students would still receive top priority for enrollment.

The measure would also allow charter applications to sidestep applying with local school districts by allowing them to hook up with the state’s achievement school district, which is chiefly responsible for turning around failing state schools.

The achievement school district is still in its infancy — because it was born out of legislation approved last year that led to the state’s Race to the Top win, the virtual school district that has the authority to take over operations of under-performing schools won’t launch until the 2011 school year.

“We have to seize on this moment if we’re going to be who we want to be as a state,” Haslam said.

Some House and Senate Republicans are trying to do just that. They’re initiating a slew of education reforms. The most controversial would halt a teachers unions’ ability to collectively bargain labor contracts with local districts. Other would eliminate the union’s power to recommend appointees to key state retirement boards, ban educators from setting up automatic payroll deductions to pay union dues, and restrict the union from contributing to political candidates.

The Tennessee Education Association, a teachers union representing more than 50,000 educators, is no fan of charter schools, chiefly because they threaten to steer state and local dollars away from traditional public schools. This is a big worry in Nashville and Memphis, which house the most charter schools, according to the group’s chief lobbyist.

Jerry Winters, who has been fighting the heavier-hitting education reforms, said the TEA probably won’t spent much energy trying to fight charter school expansions.

“I don’t see us spending as much time on charter schools this year as we have in the past,” he said. “I think it’s to everybody’s advantage to make sure that these charter schools, once they get into expansion mode, are high-quality schools. I think even the people in the charter school movement, they get a black eye if you have schools that go out of business.”

Even if they don’t put up much of a fight against charter schools, Nashville Democratic Rep. Mike Stewart might.

“People who are interested in education should very carefully scrutinize the charter school bill because it goes to the very core of how our state education system is funded and who controls it,” said Stewart, who dislikes the idea of charter schools opening up under the umbrella of the state’s achievement school district instead of through local boards of education.

“Right now, we have local authorities that control most of what happens in our local schools,” Stewart said, “and the charter bill dramatically changes the structure of control in Tennessee, and we all have to look at that very carefully.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this story.

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Education Featured News

No More Waiting: Huffman Named Haslam’s Top Education Official

Gov. Bill Haslam has often positioned himself as a supporter of bold innovation in the realm of education reform.

The Republican governor has also said that in order to “capitalize on the momentum that exists right now in education,” his administration will energetically institute the “First to the Top” K-12 reforms initiated in 2010 by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee General Assembly. That bipartisan legislative effort positioned Tennessee to later win $501 million from the U.S. Department of Education as part of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program designed to entice states to adopt higher education standards.

On Thursday, after a nationwide search, the governor named a prominent national advocate of bold and dynamic education reform efforts to oversee the state’s public schools and serve as the governor’s point man on “First to the Top.”

Kevin Huffman, an executive with the Teach for America program, is the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. He replaces Patrick Smith, who had been serving as interim commissioner.

“There is a national conversation going on right now about how to improve our schools and how to ensure that American kids can compete with kids anywhere in the world,” Huffman told reporters gathered for his introductory press conference Thursday. “Tennessee is at the epicenter of that conversation. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m excited to take this job.”

Huffman’s experiences and accomplishments with the innovation-focused Teach for America, where he worked for the past 11 years, uniquely qualify him to lead the department, said Haslam.

The governor said that in the process of searching the country for suitable candidates for the post, he discovered that education experts everywhere are paying close attention to what’s happening in Tennessee.

“At the end of the day I chose Kevin for three reasons,” said Haslam. “Number one, he is committed to the idea that every child can learn. Number two, he understands that having great teachers in the classroom, and great principals in the school, are the key. And he is going to do everything he can to encourage those great teachers to be in the classrooms in Tennessee. Third, is this: He understands a lot of the great things that are happening in Tennessee and wants to be a part of continuing that momentum.”

Teach for America places ambitious young teachers in troubled American classrooms where they commit themselves to “going above and beyond traditional expectations” in order to inspire students to learn. Tennessee currently has more than 250 Teach for America members reaching 18,000 students in high-need public schools, according to the state education department.

Launched in 1990, Teach for America has “become one of the nation’s largest providers of teachers for low-income communities” and is dedicated to “building a pipeline of leaders committed to educational equity and excellence,” the organization’s website says. Teach for America founder and CEO, Wendy Kopp, wrote in a September 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “We are the top employer of graduating seniors at over 40 colleges and universities across the country, including Yale, Spelman and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.”

Huffman, who was Teach for America’s vice president for public affairs and a member of the 28,000-strong organization’s “leadership team” before accepting his new assignment, is taking the job of education commissioner in the middle of a rancorous debate between the state’s powerful teachers’ union and politically energized GOP lawmakers, the most contentious aspect of which is a battle over a Republican proposal to prohibit local Tennessee school districts from engaging in collective bargaining with union negotiators.

The governor is also leading an effort to expand opportunities for children to enroll in charter schools, as well as lengthen the time a teacher has to work in a public school before becoming eligible for tenure — an idea that, while worrisome to some teachers, is popular among Tennesseans, according to a recent MTSU poll.

Huffman, who accepted the position on Wednesday, said Thursday he had not had a chance yet to meet with the Tennessee Education Association.

Asked if he believes the state needs to end collective bargaining with teachers, Huffman wouldn’t say. He said his priorities are aligned with those already articulated by Haslam, who himself has thus far refused to publicly jump in the middle of the collective bargaining brouhaha.

“I’m excited about the focus on tenure reform,” said Huffman. “I’m excited about the opportunity to bring in high-performing charter schools. I’m excited about the chance to improve the level of performance of administrators, teachers and students across the state.”

Huffman was also asked about the state’s pre-K program. Haslam has staked out a position that the state would try to maintain the pre-K program it currently has, but he does not wish to expand it to a universal program.

“My thought isn’t that different than it is on K-12,” Huffman said. “It’s got to be academically focused and focused on measurable results.

“Simply having access to a program that doesn’t actually advance learning isn’t good enough. But every kid should have access to something that readies them to go into kindergarten on an equal playing field. It’s important to look at the outcomes, not just what the access is.”

Huffman has been quite clear in the past that he supports much of what marches under the “school-choice” reform banner.

“In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school,” Huffman wrote recently in the Washington Post — where, incidentally, in 2009 Huffman won the paper’s America’s Next Great Pundit Contest.

“But if you are poor,” Huffman continued, “you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment ‘choice’ school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.”

He further declared in the Post piece, which appeared Jan. 31:

The intellectual argument against school choice is thin and generally propagated by people with myriad options. If we let the most astute families opt out of neighborhood schools, the thinking goes, those schools lose the best parents and the best students. The children stuck behind in failing schools really get hurt.

But kids are getting hurt right now, every day, in ways that take years to play out but limit their life prospects as surgically as many segregation-era laws. We can debate whether lying on school paperwork is the same as refusing to move to the back of the bus, but the harsh reality is this: We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

Former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who has himself taken a keen interest in Tennessee education reform, issued a statement Thursday applauding Haslam’s selection of Huffman.

“Kevin Huffman is exactly the type of reform-minded individual that Tennessee needs to lead its public school system,” Frist said.

“Kevin’s experience in the classroom, in education law, and in leadership at one of our nation’s most innovative education organizations give him the unique knowledge and background to make a significant positive impact on behalf of our state’s children.”

Huffman is originally from Ohio. He’s worked as a lawyer specializing in education matters and was a bilingual first- and second-grade teacher for Teach for America in Houston. He was previously married to Michelle Rhee, a prominent school reformer who was featured in the film Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which a number of Tennessee General Assembly members watched during a special screening at Legislative Plaza last month.

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Press Releases

‘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.