The Homestretch

It’s past the halfway point at the Tennessee legislature. Here are proposals that still could change the state’s schools.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The Tennessee House of Representatives is in its final week of the 2018 legislative session.

Only time will tell which bills passed by the Tennessee legislature will end up altering the lives of the state’s students and teachers.

Sometimes, like in the case of a bill requiring more recess last year, the impact is accidental, and lawmakers have to rush back to undo what they did the year before. And other times, bills end up barely making ripples, like a 2015 law that created a voucher-like program with special education students — that as of now, has only 35 participants.

After nearly three months of meetings, less than half of the more than 150 separate education proposals originally filed with the Tennessee General Assembly are still standing. They touch on issues ranging from school discipline to the Achievement School District.

And 10 measures have already passed both chambers. Of those, four have received Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature, making them law.

Here are some of the topics we’ve been watching, and where they stand.

School vouchers still face cost questions

The biggest decision legislators will likely face in the next few weeks is whether to widen the door for school vouchers by creating a Memphis pilot program. The committees in charge of keeping state spending in check still have to approve the program before it’s considered by the full House and Senate, and opponents won’t let the proposal through without a fight. The proposal would cost the state $300,000 a year — and potentially up to $18 million a year for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, whose students would be the only ones eligible to use the public funds used on them to pay private school tuition. Still, more expensive voucher programs have made it through the finance committees in years past, and limiting the program to Memphis has also limited the overall cost.

A bill to expand Tennessee’s special education voucher program is also still alive. The proposal from Rep. Roger Kane, a Republican from Knoxville, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Somerville Republican, also awaits votes in the House Finance committees. The fiscal review committee has not yet posted the potential cost to the state.

The state is changing its approach to low-performing schools

A bill to change the way the state intervenes in low-performing schools has already passed both chambers, and the governor’s signature on it is a foregone conclusion. The proposal from the Tennessee Department of Education came out of its plan to comply with the new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, and significantly curbs the authority of the Achievement School District, the state’s turnaround district.

The weight of test scores in teacher evaluations is (temporarily) going down (again)

Due to the rockier-than-expected transition to Tennessee’s new state test, TNReady, the Department of Education went to lawmakers with another proposal to temporarily tweak how much students’ improvement on standardized tests counts in teacher evaluations. Under the measure, which has already passed both chambers, student growth from TNReady would count for only 10 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores this year and 20 percent next year. That’s compared to the 35 to 50 percent, depending on the subject, that test scores counted in 2014-15 before the state switched to its more rigorous test.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how often kids should be playing at school

Haslam has signed a law that rolls back a year-old recess requirement for multiple sessions of “unstructured” play a day. Now Tennessee teachers will have weekly requirements, instead of daily ones: 130 minutes of physical activity per week for elementary schools, and 90 minutes for middle and high schools. Meanwhile, a bill to require elementary school students have physical education instruction at least twice a week still awaits votes in finance committees.

The state wants to strike a compromise between school districts and charter schools

The fight over Haslam’s proposed gas tax has continually delayed the House Finance Committee’s vote on the High-Quality Charter Act, a wide-ranging bill written by the State Department of Education in an attempt to address the often rocky relationships between the state’s 105 charter schools and the districts that oversee them. It’s also almost through the Senate, where it’s awaiting placement on the calendar. 

Are schools about to get a $250 million bonus from the state?

A bill to increase school spending by $250 million sounds almost outlandish, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, both Democrats, are receiving a surprising amount of traction for their K-12 Block Grant Act, which reallocates excess tax revenue to the state’s public schools. The money wouldn’t be able to cover salaries or other recurring expenditures. Instead, it would go to the extra school improvement projects that the state’s education funding formula, called the Basic Education Program, doesn’t cover. The bill awaits a vote in the House and Senate finance committees. It doesn’t yet have Haslam’s support, but Fitzhugh says he’s in talks with the governor.

College Access

In-state tuition bill for Tennessee’s undocumented immigrants clears first legislative hurdle

PHOTO: TIRRC
Undocumented students from across Tennessee pose Tuesday on the steps of the State Capitol with Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark White, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Brought to Nashville by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the students met with lawmakers and lobbied for a bill that would give them access to in-state college tuition, regardless of their immigration status. The students came from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Johnson City, Memphis, Murfreesboro, Nashville, and Sevierville. White and Gardenhire are the bill's sponsors.

Seventeen-year-old Nellely Garcia watched with elation Tuesday as a bill that would make it easier for her to attend college cleared its first hurdle in Tennessee’s legislature.

Nellely Garcia is a senior at Wooddale High School in Memphis and does not have legal status to receive in-state college tuition when she graduates.

An immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Memphis since she was a baby, Garcia traveled to Nashville during her spring break to support legislation that would provide in-state tuition to any student who attends a Tennessee high school for at least three years, regardless of their immigration status. The bill is aimed at students like Garcia, who has attended public school in Tennessee since kindergarten after her parents moved their family to Memphis without legal permission.

The measure passed 4-1 in the House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee, with Rep. Dawn White, a Republican from Murfreesboro, casting the sole nay vote. It’s sponsored by Rep. Mark White, a Germantown Republican, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Republican from Chattanooga, who have championed the proposal since 2015. That year, it passed in the Senate but fell one vote short of clearing the House.

“This bill will give us a fair chance to have a higher education and pursue our dreams,” said Garcia, a senior at Wooddale High School. “We have the ability to contribute. We want the opportunity to give back.”

But Garcia understands that the legislative process is a marathon and not a sprint. The measure must pass a full House committee and a Senate panel before heading to both chambers. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

“This is the first step. We’ve got several more committees to pass, but certainly this is an amazing start,” said Stephanie Teatro, a leader with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, speaking to dozens of cheering high school students after Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is supported by most of the state’s public colleges and universities and, based on a 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University, about 72 percent of Tennesseans favor it, too.

Rep. Dawn White voted against the measure, arguing that Tennessee taxpayers should not give a tuition break to students who are in the country illegally.

Garcia has a different perspective. “I’ve lived here all my life. I may not have the papers, but I’m as American as my other classmates,” she told Chalkbeat.

But she likely won’t be able to afford college, she said, without in-state tuition, which cuts the cost of attending a public college or university by a third. Garcia hopes to study psychology or American history at the University of Memphis or Christian Brothers University.

“If I don’t go to college, my choices are really to work or get married. That’s not what I want to do right now,” she said. “I want to get in-state tuition like my other classmates.”

changeup

School vouchers hit snag in Tennessee as sponsor announces he won’t advance bill

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, has sponsored several voucher bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The push to allow some Tennesseans to use private-school vouchers has hit a roadblock that could stall voucher legislation for a fourth year.

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

“I listen to my community. Right now, there’s not enough parental support,” the Germantown Republican lawmaker told Chalkbeat after sharing the news with Shelby County’s legislative delegation.

Rep. Harry Brooks, who sponsors the proposal in the House, did not immediately return phone calls about whether he will seek a new Senate sponsor. Kelsey would not comment if he would support the legislation if another state senator picked up the mantle.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

This year, the proposal reached as far as the Senate finance committee and a House finance subcommittee before Brooks asked to delay a vote until 2018. At the time, he cited the need to work out details about private school accountability, specifically for high school students.

Kelsey said Monday he would not withdraw the bill or his sponsorship, but also doesn’t plan to bring the measure to a vote in the finance committee, which would halt the proposal in its tracks unless a new sponsor comes aboard.

This week’s development signals that the momentum for vouchers may be shifting for now.

Nationally, recent studies show that achievement dropped, at least initially, for students using vouchers in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C. And in Tennessee, one group that has lobbied annually for vouchers is taking a step back from the issue, according to its executive director.

“I can tell you that Campaign for School Equity will not be pursuing or supporting any voucher legislation this year. It’s a shift in focus for us …,” Mendell Grinter said, adding that the Memphis-based black advocacy group is switching emphasis to student discipline and other issues of more concern to its supporters.

Even so, DeVos urged Tennessee lawmakers to pass vouchers during her first visit to the state last month. “Too many students today … are stuck in schools that are not working for them,” she told reporters. (The U.S. Department of Education cannot mandate voucher programs, but could offer incentives to states to pass them.)

Vouchers have passed three times in Tennessee’s Senate, only to stall each time in the House. Proponents had thought that limiting vouchers to Memphis would garner the legislative support needed this year, but the Kelsey-Brooks bill didn’t sit well in the city that would be most impacted. Opposition swelled among county commissioners, local legislators, and numerous school boards across Greater Memphis.

During discussions Monday with Shelby County lawmakers, Bartlett Superintendent David Stephens said vouchers would be a blow to districts already unsteady from years of reform efforts.

“Any time we take dollars out of public schools, we’re hurting public schools,” Stephens told Chalkbeat later. “We don’t need to do anything to hurt or cut funding there. When we talk in Shelby County about school choice, we have the municipal districts, charter schools, the county school system. That’s choice.”

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said opposition from the Bartlett district appeared to carry more weight with Kelsey than did Shelby County Schools, which has publically been on the record against the legislation from the start.

“Challenges (that Stephens) talked about were challenges we’ve been screaming about from SCS’ standpoint for years,” Parkinson said.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican who has championed vouchers for years, said he’ll be disappointed if a bill doesn’t come up for a vote in 2018. “The whole reason for vouchers is to give a chance to these kids who are doomed unless they get in a different educational environment,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature reconvenes on Jan. 9.

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.