From the Statehouse

Enrollment study will be a sprint

A new state study of how to count K-12 students formally got going Wednesday – only about six weeks before the effort is supposed to produce a report.

And discussion at the first meeting of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee highlighted fears that changing the way the state counts students will cost school districts money and create more work for them.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

The author of the legislation that spurred the study sought to calm those fears. “Our belief was [changing the count method] leaves the same amount of money in the system,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, with “less amount of work.”

Witnesses and panel members also sparred a bit over whether the current system makes it too easy for schools to let problem students drop out of school after enrollment is counted every October.

The long lead-up to Wednesday’s meeting is an interesting case study in the pitfalls of legislating in a time of state budget cuts.

Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 and awarding state aid to districts based on those counts. (The actual system is rather more complicated. There is a “window” around Oct. 1 in which students can be counted, and there’s extensive checking and adjustment of counts submitted by districts.)

In the summer of 2009 a legislative committee proposed a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies students based on average enrollment in districts over a school year. What educators call “ADM” is not to be confused with average daily attendance, a method that compiles enrollment figures from actual attendance stats.

The 2010 legislature took up the study panel’s suggestion, added the 17-member advisory committee and passed Senate Bill 10-008, which was signed into law more than months ago, on April 21.

So why didn’t the committee meet before Wednesday?

SB 10-008 forbid the use of tax dollars to fund the study, instead saying the project couldn’t start until the Department of Education raised sufficient “gifts, grants and donations” to fund the effort. Given the state budget crunch in recent years, using gifts and grants has become a favorite tactic for legislators who want to pass pet bills, especially relating to education.

CDE didn’t put together sufficient grants until near the end of October, according to Vody Herrmann, department school finance chief. A total of $45,000 was raised from the Donnell-Kay Foundation ($20,000), the Carson Foundation ($12,500) and the Daniels Fund ($12,500).

With the money in hand, the department put out a bid request and hired Denver-based education research and consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to do the study. Justin Silverstein of APA, Mark Fermanich of the University of Colorado-Denver and Tracie Rainey of the Colorado School Finance Project are working on the study.

Those three outlined the project Wednesday to members of the committee, which is scheduled to meet only two more times before the report is finished.

Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts that need it most. Some advocates, like the Colorado Children’s Campaign, also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school and will therefore lower dropout rates. The campaign has made reducing dropout rates a major initiative and on Wednesday issued a new report on the subject.

School districts worry that use of ADM could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, and they resent implications that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count.

Those conflicting views flared at Wednesday’s meeting.

Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, told the panel any switch in counting methods should be done carefully, and “the idea that our school districts don’t have the right incentives [to retain students] is offensive to me.”

Scott Groginsky, lobbying for the Children’s Campaign, replied that “we’re not” impugning the integrity of school districts but “We’re hearing this does happen … There are attempts to have kids leave school after the Oct. 1 count.”

Renee Howell, a Littleton school board member, raised financial concerns about a change in count methods, saying, “We’ve just gone through three years of massive cuts. … There’s a limit to how much people can do. … There’s reality and there’s what we’d like to build. Please be respectful of the reality.” (Fermanich said most districts gather ADM information now but acknowledged that creating and running a new audit and verification system could be difficult.)

Johnston tried to smooth things over, saying there’s no intent to decrease overall school funding by changing the count method. But he cautioned, “There is, of course, the possibility of redistribution. … We want these dollars to go where the kids are.”

Fermanich had stressed that point earlier, saying, “There may be shifts between districts. Some districts will be winners, and some will be losers.”

The advisory committee next meets on Dec. 15. The consultants said they plan to have the report finished by Jan. 14. The law authorizing the study contains a Dec. 15 deadline, but Johnston said he’d written to legislative leadership explaining why the document will be a month late.

legal opinion

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

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.

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.