TN in DC

Tennessee school board leaders met this week with Sen. Lamar Alexander. Here’s what they talked about.

Members of the Tennessee School Boards Association meet with lawmakers in Washington D.C., including U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

A contingent of school board members from across Tennessee traveled this week to Washington D.C., to talk with the state’s congressional delegation about three issues shaping public education in their home state.

Most notably, leaders of the Tennessee School Boards Association spoke with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee and helped to engineer the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind. The Tennessee Republican also has been at the forefront of Senate confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist and school choice advocate nominated by President Trump to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Here’s what they discussed:

School choice

As the Senate prepared to cast its confirmation vote on DeVos, TSBA leaders wanted to know Alexander’s definition of “school choice.”

“We were very pleased his definition were things we were already doing in Tennessee,” said Executive Director Tammy Grissom, citing magnet schools and open enrollment.

DeVos is a staunch proponent of tuition vouchers and has used part of her family fortune to advocate for them in her home state of Michigan as well as other states, including Tennessee. That’s a red flag for Tennessee school board members who have lobbied their state lawmakers against starting a voucher program. They argue that vouchers, which would enable some families to use public money to pay for private school, would siphon off badly needed resources from public schools.

“We want choice for disadvantaged students, but we already have it. We believe vouchers would create a system of the haves and have-nots,” Grissom said.

Alexander assured them that vouchers won’t be crammed down their throats from the federal government. The new Every Student Succeeds Act aims to give states greater flexibility in overseeing their schools.

“He is very much for local control. It’s all about giving control back to the states,” Grissom said. “The best form of governance of public education is the local school board.”

If DeVos is confirmed, she has said states would make their own decisions about whether to implement vouchers.

PHOTO: Tennessee School Boards Association
Alexander (left) talks with Wayne Blair and Tammy Grissom, president and executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association.

Career and technical education

An effort to reauthorize federal funding for career and technical education, known as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, stalled in the Senate last year. It was continued for one year for the 11 million U.S. high school and postsecondary students affected. But TSBA members urged Alexander to push for the act’s reauthorization.

“Districts depend on that funding to continue career and technical classes,” Grissom said.

Career and technical education is an important component of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks in part to increase participation in certificate programs.

Alexander listened to concerns about the need for federal funding but did not indicate if he would sponsor legislation to reauthorize it, said Ben Torres, staff attorney for the TSBA.

Special education funding

School services for students with disabilities receive federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but Congress currently funds less than half of the maximum 40 percent of cost.

That’s not enough, according to TSBA leaders.

In Memphis, for instance, Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District struggle to keep up with the demand for special education services. Both districts serve primarily minority and impoverished students.

The TSBA-sponsored group traveling to Washington included:

  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Boards Association and Rutherford County Schools board member
  • Tammy Grissom, executive director, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Ben Torres, staff attorney and director of government relations and policy, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Miska Clay Bibbs, Shelby County Board of Education
  • Bob Alvey, Jackson-Madison County Board of Education
  • Alicia Barker, Franklin Special Board of Education
  • Jimmie Garland, Clarksville-Montgomery Board of Education
  • Faye Heatherly, Campbell County Board of Education
  • Aaron Holladay, Rutherford County Board of Education
  • Tim Stillings, Franklin Special Board of Education

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

PHOTO: Creative Commons

Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.

full board

Adams 14 votes to appoint Sen. Dominick Moreno to fill board vacancy

State Sen. Dominick Moreno being sworn in Monday evening. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A state senator will be the newest member of the Adams 14 school board.

Sen. Dominick Moreno, a graduate of the district, was appointed Monday night on a 3-to-1 vote to fill a vacancy on the district’s school board.

“He has always, since I have known him, cared about this community,” said board member David Rolla, who recalled knowing Moreno since grade school.

Moreno will continue to serve in his position in the state legislature.

The vacancy on the five-member board was created last month, when the then-president, Timio Archuleta, resigned with more than a year left on his term.

Colorado law says when a vacancy is created, school board must appoint a new board member to serve out the remainder of the term.

In this case, Moreno will serve until the next election for that seat in November 2019.

The five member board will see the continued rollout of the district’s improvement efforts as it tries to avoid further state intervention.

Prior to Monday’s vote, the board interviewed four candidates including Joseph Dreiling, a former board member; Angela Vizzi; Andrew LaCrue; and Moreno. One woman, Cynthia Meyers, withdrew her application just as her interview was to begin. Candidate, Vizzi, a district parent and member of the district’s accountability committee, told the board she didn’t think she had been a registered voter for the last 12 months, which would make her ineligible for the position.

The board provided each candidate with eight general questions — each board member picked two from a predetermined list — about the reason the candidates wanted to serve on the board and what they saw as their role with relation to the superintendent. Board members and the public were barred from asking other questions during the interviews.

Moreno said during his interview that he was not coming to the board to spy for the state Department of Education, which is evaluating whether or not the district is improving. Nor, he added, was he applying for the seat because the district needs rescuing.

“I’m here because I think I have something to contribute,” Moreno said. “I got a good education in college and I came home. Education is the single most important issue in my life.”

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18, but Adams 14 appears to be falling short of expectations..

Many community members and parents have protested district initiatives this year, including cancelling parent-teacher conferences, (which will be restored by fall), and postponing the roll out of a biliteracy program for elementary school students.

Rolla, in nominating Moreno, said the board has been accused of not communicating well, and said he thought Moreno would help improve those relationships with the community.

Board member Harvest Thomas was the one vote against Moreno’s appointment. He did not discuss his reason for his vote.

If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.