From the Statehouse

Senate Ed gets into the weeds

Thursday roundup
Higher ed bills advance
For the record

The Senate Education Committee Thursday gave 8-0 approval to the least-liked bill of the session, House Bill 10-1369.

That’s the 2010-11 school finance bill, which would cut state support of education by 6.3 percent, a reduction that seems unavoidable because of the state’s weak revenue picture.

Committee members echoed the unhappy comments made earlier as the bill went through the House:

“I think someone needs to say it’s a sad day when we’re cutting education,” said chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, who’s Senate prime sponsor of the measure.

“This is the most horrible aye [vote] I’ve ever cast,” said vice chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, never one to hide her feelings.

“This is criminal in many respects,” sighed Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

The comments came as the committee voted. For most of the meeting before that, panel members delved more into the complex details of the bill than did their counterparts in the House.

One seemingly minor provision got special attention. A primary goal of the bill is ensuring that all districts receive an equal percentage cut – the 6.3 percent.

But a handful of the state’s 178 school districts – seven, to be exact – have higher-than-average local revenues and therefore receive relatively small amounts of state aid. As currently written, HB 10-1369 would force those districts to temporarily reduce local revenue in order to realize overall cuts of 6.3 percent.

(The districts are Clear Creek, West Grand, Gunnison, Estes Park, Park, Aspen and Summit.)

That idea unsettled some committee members, because doing that would effectively mean taking away extra revenue that local district voters had approved in the form of mill levy overrides.

“I find this really distasteful,” said Bacon.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, also criticized the forced cut for the seven districts.

“You shouldn’t be surprised that we have to do amazing and weird things,” given the financial situation, quipped Hudak.

Members kicked around various ideas for changing the way the seven districts should take their cuts but reached no agreement except to work on an amendment for consideration when the bill is up for preliminary Senate floor consideration.

The committee also was reminded by a witness of a fact that’s often forgotten in the school finance discussion – school districts have bigger problems than just loss of state aid.

Wil Hatcher, former chief financial officer of the Academy 20 district in Colorado Springs, said that even as revenue is being cut, “We still have this continued mandate on the spending side” – pensions contributions, utilities costs and health insurance. “It’s a double impact in some school districts,” said Hatcher, because increases in those fixed costs sometimes are the same amount as cuts in state aid. (Hatcher’s affiliation was corrected on March 26.)

The committee also spent some time sorting through just exactly what the cuts total, a subject of considerable confusion in many quarters.

HB 10-1369 proposes a floor of $5.44 million in school total program funding for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, meaning state support couldn’t drop below that. Total program funding is the total of state aid and local revenues. (Even if HB 10-1369 is passed this year, the 2011 legislature could change the floor.)

That amount compares to $5.7 billion in 2009-10 total program approved by the 2009 legislature. That was reduced to $5.55 million by legislative action earlier this session.

Legislative economists estimate that full total program funding in 2010-11 would be $5.8 if the full Amendment 23 formula was applied.

Legislative staff fiscal note explaining HB 10-1369

Higher education bills advance

The House Education Committee Thursday unanimously approved three higher education bills:

• Senate Bill 10-079, which would allow Mesa State College to offer a limited number of graduate degrees. The college wants to offer nursing, education and criminal justice graduate degrees to meet local workforce needs. The bill has been on a fast track through the legislature, despite initial concern by the Department of Higher Education that such expansion should be delayed until after the higher ed strategic plan is finished.

• Senate Bill 10-088, which would allow community college students to pursue associate’s degrees with specific academic “designations,” similar to majors. The theory behind this bill is that allowing students to focus early on their interests will improve retention and make it easier for students to move on to four-year colleges. The bill, however, limits the number of designations that can be offered.

• Senate Bill 10-108, which would allow private and proprietary colleges to participate if they chose in the system of common core courses used by state colleges. Common core courses are transferrable between colleges. Private colleges would have to pay fees to cover the costs of course review. According to previous testimony, Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs is the institution most interested in this.

The committee also approved Senate Bill 10-111, which makes various changes in law governing the Charter School Institute, including allowing institute-governed charter schools to contract for services with boards of cooperative education services.

For the record

The full Senate gave preliminary approval to House Bill 10-HB 1183, which would authorize a study of alternative school finance methods, and House Bill 10-1026, which would create a grant-funded incentive program for quality early childhood programs.

The House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 10-154, which changes accreditation rules for alternative schools, which serve very high percentages of at-risk students.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.