looking forward

Here are the education issues we’re watching in Tennessee’s statehouse in 2019

PHOTO: (Malcolm MacGregor | Getty Images)
A birds eye view of the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville.

With a new governor, a new education commissioner, and new lawmakers steering school policy, 2019 could be a big year for education in the Tennessee statehouse.

Exactly what’s coming isn’t yet clear, although recent hires by gov.-elect Bill Lee offer some possible clues. The newly elected lawmakers haven’t yet been sworn in, and a new education commissioner still hasn’t been named.

Still, we know that some issues will be on the table when the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 8. Here’s what we’ll be looking out for. As always, let us know what you think we should be watching at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org

1. New governor and legislature take charge

Lee will take office on Jan. 19. He’s taking the reins from Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican who once said he most wanted to be remembered for what he did to improve education. Haslam led the state for eight years, the maximum allowed.

Lee has promised “fresh ideas” but offered few specifics about his education plans, though it’s clear that he’s pro-voucher and open to making changes on testing. You can read his ideas in his own words here.

In the coming weeks, Lee is expected to appoint an education commissioner, which will offer big insights into the direction he wants to take the state’s schools. His priorities for his first proposed state budget also will be telling — for instance, if he includes more money for school safety as Haslam did last year, or seeks to increase teacher pay or beef up career and technical education, two priorities discussed on the campaign trail.

Lee will need support from the legislature to make many changes. How readily that might come is not yet clear: At least a fourth of the General Assembly’s members will be new to Capitol Hill.

Among those who did not seek reelection were the leaders of three of four House education panels — all East Tennessee Republicans who have wielded considerable power in controlling the flow of bills in their committees or subcommittee. Their successors will be chosen by the new House speaker, likely to be Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin who has the blessing of the majority caucus. The speaker also will decide if he wants to keep or change the current two-committee structure for education to handle the large volume of bills focused on education.

2. The voucher debate continues, with powerful new allies

Tennessee lawmakers have toyed for years with the idea of starting a school voucher program, which would allow families to use taxpayer money for private school tuition or services. But while such a program came close to passing in 2016, an unlikely coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have consistently fended off such legislation. (One exception: A voucher program for some students with disabilities launched in 2017).

Republican Bill Lee delivers his victory speech in Franklin after defeating Democrat Karl Dean in Tennessee’s race for governor.

One question now is how the makeup of the new legislature will play out on vouchers or bills for voucher-like programs like tuition tax credits.

Another question is how and when Lee, who campaigned actively for more school options for Tennessee families, will push the issue. Will he try to get a voucher program approved, or will he hold off until later in his administration when he’s got his first budget and legislative session under his belt? Either way, he has several of the state’s strongest voucher advocates in his corner, having hired the former Tennessee director of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children as his policy director and the former leader of another pro-voucher group as his legislative director.

3. Another year of TNReady, with changes looming

After three years of struggles, Tennessee’s embattled state test, TNReady, will be back this spring for most students. A new round of testing will start in the shadow of a recent state audit of the testing program and 1,700 pages of mostly negative feedback from teachers about its administration.

The audit was released as Tennessee prepares to invite more companies to submit proposals to take over TNReady testing beginning this fall. That request for proposals, which initially was to be released in late 2018, is now set for early 2019 and will include requirements for both online and paper testing.

Tennessee’s most recent testing woes – namely computer glitches – have largely been blamed on testing company Questar. But the audit also criticized the education department for inadequate oversight of the program and said the push to switch to online testing “may have been overly ambitious.”

Also at issue is whether Lee’s administration will move to further reduce testing that was central to Tennessee’s accountability system under Haslam’s administration. The education department already dropped two end-of-course exams for high schoolers this school year in its most significant reduction of state testing in recent years.

4. State funding lawsuit could see its day in court

One looming issue will advance first outside of the legislature. A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is closer to trial than it has ever been, with a tentative start date set for April in Davidson County Chancery Court. If successful, the lawsuit could ultimately force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which already is almost at $5 billion out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation in 2017.

So, as lawmakers look to draft a new budget this year with the possibility of more money for teacher pay, they’ll keep an eye on the bigger question of whether state funding for schools is adequate. That’s a different question from two earlier cases that ended up at the Tennessee Supreme Court and led to smaller and rural school systems receiving a greater share of school funding than they previously were getting.

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at EdReports.org and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.