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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.

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.

More ‘Report Card’ Info Available from State Education Department

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, Dec 02, 2011:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Education today released complete results from the 2011 state Report Card. Today’s release includes district- and school-level data on a variety of indicators, from student achievement and growth on standardized tests, to attendance and behavior.

This is the department’s fourth major data release this year, following the summer release of statewide Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program and Adequate Yearly Progress results, as well as the recent list of Reward, Priority and Focus schools slated for state support under the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility request.

This year’s data release timeline aligns with the department’s strategic plan to get as much information as possible to parents and families, to help them be active participants in their children’s education, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said.

“Data-driven education reform only works when numbers and information can be used to make informed, timely decisions,” Huffman said. “We look forward to continuing to get data and information to the public in the most useful format possible.”

Tennessee submitted its flexibility request — a waiver from certain portions of the No Child Left Behind Act — on Nov. 14. Part of the state’s application included a proposed new accountability model and governance structure for the state’s schools and districts. If the U.S. Department of Education approves the waiver, the current accountability would be replaced with the department’s proposal, which can be found at: http://tn.gov/education/doc/ESEA_Flexibility_Request.pdf.

To see results from the 2011 Tennessee Report Card, visit: http://edu.reportcard.state.tn.us/pls/apex/f?p=200:1:7867592151504984.

Haslam Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Gov. Bill Haslam again Monday defended the use of the state’s new teacher evaluation system and reminded everyone that the whole idea didn’t start with his administration.

Haslam made the point during a press availability on Capitol Hill after a ceremony for veterans. He told the Rotary Club of Nashville later Monday that change is “painful,” and he said after the speech he was making a particular reference to the evaluations with that remark.

Haslam also said Monday he will not state a position on school vouchers until later this year, although he told the Rotary audience the voucher issue is “probably going to be one of the most contentious” when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The issue of teacher evaluations has been on the front burner in the Legislature with lengthy hearings on the process last week. The system has prompted many complaints among teachers and principals. The Haslam administration has basically stayed the course on the system, which is in its first year, even though Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman gained approval to tweak the system with some changes meant to make evaluations less time-consuming.

Tennessee’s success in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition included a plan to evaluate teachers every year. Tenured teachers will be evaluated with four observations, and those without tenure will be evaluated six times. Haslam pointed out that the process goes back to the application for the federal funds won by the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“Remember how we got here. This was part of the Race to the Top application,” Haslam said. “Everybody agreed evaluations were really at the heart of that. The evaluation process was a work in progress for a year before this.

“It spanned administrations.”

He said it’s still early.

“This is November. We started it in September. It’s not like we have a really long track record,” Haslam said. “It takes a little bit of adjusting to get used to the evaluation. The first evaluation, because it is the one with lesson plans, does have the most paperwork involved in it. When we get past that, the evaluations after that will look a little different.”

Legislators are hearing from their constituents about the impact the evaluation system is having on schools.

“I understand. Before, if you got evaluated twice every 10 years and now you’re looking at this new process, that’s not something necessarily, ‘Oh boy, I’m really excited about that,'” Haslam said.

“But I do think, again, back to what’s at the heart of the change we need, why we won Race to the Top, was this idea of making certain we’re doing everything we can to encourage great teachers to be in the classroom. And the evaluation piece is a key part of that.”

Disgruntlement over the evaluation system has been so pronounced some observers have suggested that the state should hold off on actually acknowledging the findings in this first year, but Haslam remains steadfast. At the same time he dismissed any notion that changes in the basic concept might jeopardize the $500 million the state won in the Race to the Top competition in 2010.

“I don’t want to cast the political argument, ‘If you all change it we’re going to lose our funds.’ I don’t think that’s a fair argument for us to be making,” Haslam said. “I think it’s more about putting in jeopardy the pace that we need to change.”

The Haslam administration has stayed in the background thus far on the school voucher issue. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would allow children in the state’s largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton — to apply for funds to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The issue has pitted those who favor school choice against those who are protective of the public school system.

Haslam was asked Monday why he has not taken a stand on vouchers yet.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do our homework to see: Do we know enough to make that call?” he said.

Haslam pointed to the need to study the experiences of other states who have tried vouchers in order to make the right decision. A voucher bill passed the Senate in the last legislative session and is expected to be considered in the House next year. The House version, HB388, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.

State Celebrates ‘Race to the Top’ First Anniversary

Press Release from the State of Tennessee; March 29, 2011:

TENNESSEE CELEBRATES FIRST YEAR OF RACE TO THE TOP

Nashville, TN – Time flies when you are making progress. Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee Department of Education commemorated the first anniversary of Tennessee’s Race to the Top win at an education roundtable discussion today. Key stakeholders in winning and executing Tennessee’s First to the Top plan participated in the discussion by taking stock of the great progress Tennessee has made and recognizing the work yet to be done for the children of Tennessee.

“Race to the Top has made Tennessee the focal point of education reform in the nation, and I am thankful to those who worked so hard for this incredible opportunity,” Haslam said. “After a year we are in a position to bring real reform to our schools, and I am very encouraged about where we are and where we are going.”

Since being awarded upward of $501 million, the state and local school districts have begun executing a dramatic set of school reforms. At the heart of improving student achievement is a focus on three main student performance goals: young students’ academic readiness, high school graduates’ readiness for college and careers, and higher rates of graduates enrolling and succeeding in post-secondary education.The first year has been a combination of planning and successes, amongst these initiatives:

  • Re-engineering Tennessee’s accountability system, revamping tenure expectations in connection with a new teacher and principal evaluation system, and refocusing education opportunities through changes to charter school laws.
  • Establishing and emphasizing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education across the state through the focus of the STEM Innovation Network.
  • Renewing the focus on the classroom teacher and a more dedicated focus on encouraging student achievement.
  • Building support and creating success for students through increased professional development opportunities for educators such as Value-Added Data Specialists, formative assessment practices training, and online course availability.
  • Providing all with the feedback and support they need to succeed through increased engagement and communication.

“We all understand that we are still near the starting point of this process, and as we go forward, it is our responsibility to make certain we are moving toward better outcomes for students,” Haslam said. “Tennessee’s best long-term job growth strategy is to improve the education we offer Tennesseans and ensure they are prepared to compete in the 21st Century workforce.”

One year ago, Tennessee was one of just two states selected to receive millions of dollars for education in the federal government’s Race to the Top competition. Tennessee’s First to the Top plan is built on the strong foundation and commitment of key stakeholders, including elected officials, teacher’s union leaders, business leaders, and educators with the aggressive goal to improve teacher and principal evaluation, use data to inform instructional decisions, and turn around their lowest-performing schools. Tennessee’s complete Race to the Top proposal and other First to the Top accomplishments are detailed on the Tennessee First to the Top website at www.tn.gov/firsttothetop.

Also, join the First to the Top education conversation on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TNFirsttotheTop or Facebook at www.facebook.com/TNFirsttotheTop.

For more information, contact Amanda Maynord Anderson at (615) 532-7817 or Amanda.Anderson@tn.gov.

SCORE Releases Yearly Education Assessment

Press Release from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, March 24, 2011:

Frist: Tremendous Progress Has Been Made – Important Work Still Remains

(Nashville) – The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) today released its annual State of Education in Tennessee report. SCORE Chairman and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist presented the report during SCORE’s quarterly Steering Committee meeting of major education stakeholders from across Tennessee.

“To be economically competitive and increase job growth, Tennessee must improve its public education system,” said SCORE Chairman Bill Frist. “This annual report gives a comprehensive look at education reform in Tennessee, highlights innovative successes across the state, and gives clear recommendations and direction for improvement in public K-12 education. Tremendous progress has been made in the Volunteer State in the last year. But this report clearly shows that important work remains to ensure that every Tennessee child graduates high school prepared for college or the workforce.”

The report includes a Year In Review, outlining the significant progress that Tennessee made in education in 2010, and highlights four “Promising Practices” of innovative reform efforts in different regions of the state.

In addition, the report outlines four priorities that SCORE believes will be crucial to continued progress in 2011. These priorities include:

  • Sustained policy leadership in education reform from state leaders, including legislators, educators, and business and community leaders. These leaders must ensure that recent reforms are successfully implemented and push forward with other reforms, especially those related to more directly connecting the state’s new teacher evaluations system to hiring, tenure, and compensation decisions.
  • A comprehensive strategy for improving the pipeline of district and school leaders through the launching of a statewide initiative to create a network of high quality school leadership programs. These programs would recruit, train, and support highly effective school leaders.
  • A relentless focus on instructional quality by ensuring that there is an effective teacher at the front of every classroom. This requires connecting the state’s new teacher evaluation system to high-quality feedback and professional development opportunities, and by creating and expanding mentoring programs for new and low-performing teachers.
  • Increasing the capacity of the Tennessee Department of Education by aggressively recruiting high-quality staff to the Department, and strengthening the Department’s regional offices so they can support individual local districts in implementing reforms

“These four priorities are crucial to maintaining the historic momentum in education that Tennessee has experienced,” said Senator Frist. “They are based in the belief that successful implementation, and not just policy change, is critical to seeing real improvement in student achievement.”

The full report can be viewed here: http://www.tnscore.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Score-2010-Annual-Report-Full.pdf

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with state and local governments to encourage sound policy decisions in public education and advance innovative reform on a statewide basis.

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.

Vanderbilt Research Group Releases New Pre-K Study

Press Release from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute, Feb. 24, 2011:

Children who attended state-funded prekindergarten classes gained an average of 82 percent more on early literacy and math skills than comparable children who did not attend, researchers from the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University have found.

The initial results are from the first rigorous longitudinal study that has been conducted on the effects of public prekindergarten attendance on a statewide scale.

“This research is difficult to do but critically important to evaluating the effects of Tennessee’s investment in pre-k,” study leaders Mark Lipsey and Dale Farran said. “Such evidence is especially important in the context of the current budgetary constraints in Tennessee and other states that have made commitments to pre-k education.”

For the study, 23 schools in 14 Tennessee school districts randomly admitted children to their pre-k program. All of the schools received applications from more students than they could accommodate. The children admitted to pre-k were then compared to the children whose families applied but were not admitted. A total of 303 children were involved in this phase of the study.

Assessments at the beginning and end of the prekindergarten year found that the pre-k children had a 98 percent greater gain in literacy skills than children who did not attend a state pre-k program, a 145 percent greater gain in vocabulary and a 109 percent greater gain in comprehension. They also made strong, but more moderate, gains in early math skills (33 percent to 63 percent greater gains). Overall, the average gain across the board was 82 percent more than for the children who did not attend state pre-k.

Results from a second parallel study corroborated these findings. That study compared 682 children who attended 36 pre-k classes in rural and urban middle Tennessee schools to 676 children who had to enter a year later because of the birth date cutoff for pre-k eligibility.

The second study also found that children enrolled in state-funded pre-k classes scored significantly higher on emergent literacy and math assessments than the children who had not yet attended pre-k once the age difference was accounted for.

The strongest differences were again in the areas of literacy and language skills, with more modest gains in math skills.

Both studies will continue collecting data for the next four years. The second study will continue collecting data in waves across the state until every region is represented.

“These studies were possible only because of a strong partnership with the Division of School Readiness and Early Learning in the Tennessee Department of Education and the commitment of school districts across the state to learning about the effects of pre-k,” Lipsey said.

The studies are led by Lipsey, research professor of human and organizational development and Peabody Research Institute director, and Dale Farran, professor of education and psychology. Carol Bilbrey, research associate at the Peabody Research Institute, directed data collection.

The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The researchers will report on these and other findings March 4 at the annual meeting of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness in Washington, D.C.

Memphis Charter Schools Face Uncharted Waters

Amid the uncertainties surrounding the proposed merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems is the question of what would happen to the city’s 25 charter schools.

The answer changes depending on who you talk to.

It would be up to the county school board to decide the future of those charter schools contracted with Memphis City Schools, Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken said.

“Our understanding of the laws as they exist today is if the city school board goes out of business due to the referendum … then that would become a decision of our board, the existing Shelby County School Board, and they would have to make that determination in terms of the charter schools,” he told TNReport.

But Sen. Reginald Tate, a Memphis Democrat and the Senate Education Committee’s vice-chairman, struck a more hopeful note — saying that in the event of a merger, there’s a chance nothing would dramatically change with existing charter schools.

Those schools would likely have to meet with Shelby County officials and may have to tweak some terms of their contracts with the school district, but the issue of their continued operations shouldn’t automatically or necessarily be jeopardized, he said.

According to Tennessee state law, a charter school can be discontinued for only three reasons: violating the conditions, standards or procedures of the charter agreement; failing to meet adequate yearly progress towards achievement; or failing to meet financial standards of operation.

While the language suggests the charter schools would continue to function, the Tennessee Department of Education wouldn’t comment on whether those guidelines mean that Shelby County Schools would have to accept the schools in the event Memphis ultimately hands over the school system.

“The state wants to ensure the least amount of disruption for students and staff,” Department of Education spokeswoman Amanda Maynord Anderson said in an e-mailed statement. “Obviously, we are anticipating the plan forthcoming from Shelby and Memphis. It is our hope the plan will lay out the best course of action for all involved.”

Voters in Memphis will go to the polls March 8 to decide whether the 103,000-student Memphis City Schools will merge with Shelby County Schools, home to 47,000 students.

The already touchy issue heated up this week when Gov. Bill Haslam and Acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith directed local schools officials to submit a plan for the merger’s transition and for how teachers would be affected.

Charter school backers say the schools would remain intact regardless of any changes to the district structure, but have noticed that nervous parents and teachers are already considering applying to new schools.

“It’s difficult enough to run these schools in these environments without having these politics chasing them around,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter School Association. “These schools need to not focus on politics but on academics.”

Sen. Mark Norris, who is spearheading an effort to delay the potential takeover by two and a half years with a piece of legislation that zipped through the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, said he isn’t sure exactly that the future holds for the charter schools.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Norris. “I mean, in the final analysis, there may be some need to renegotiate the contracts given some of the financial realities, but I don’t know enough about the contracts or how they interact to really say.”

The drama surrounding the merger began late last year when the Memphis City School Board decided to dissolve the school district in hopes to merge with Shelby County. Since then, the situation has been in constant flux and is now heading to Memphis voters in a referendum.

Norris’ bill calls for the two school districts to develop a comprehensive transition plan with the help of a state-appointed commission before the actual merger could take place. Under the plan, the districts could merge no earlier than 2013.

Some Democrats are criticizing the plan, saying it represents an unwanted state government attempt to butt in on a local issue. The transition plan and its timeline should be left to the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, they say.

“It seems to me that I’ve listened for the last several years to people complaining about Washington controlling us. And here we are, Nashville, trying to control Memphis. That’s a serious issue,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, just moments before a party-line 6-3 vote of Republicans approving the legislation.

The measure will go before the House Education Committee Thursday and is expected to be voted on in the House and Senate chambers Monday.