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.

NO DEAL

Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.

counter-point

Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.