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

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: