Funding fight

Does Tennessee have to follow its own school spending plan? Court prepares to weigh in

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
A first grader does his work while sitting on a bilingual rug at Enlace Academy, Tuesday, April 14, 2014. The charter school, with 55 percent English-language learners, uses a blended language learning approach.

Tennessee lawmakers voted this year to give local school districts more funding for the state’s growing population of English language learners.

Now, the state’s lawyers say Tennessee doesn’t have to follow through on its own plan.

At a hearing Friday at the Davidson County Chancery Court, attorneys for the state and Metropolitan Nashville government faced off on the issue, the latest development in a series of legal challenges by local districts over education dollars from the state.

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves about a third of the state’s ELL population, is seeking a court order demanding that the state provide the district with funds promised under its recently revised funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

State lawmakers voted this year to increase ELL funding based on a 1:20 student-teacher ratio instead of the previous 1:30 ration, but only provided Nashville with money for a 1:25 ratio. That’s about $4 million short of what was promised this school year, say Nashville school leaders.

Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman is scheduled on Sept. 26 to decide the matter. She can issue the order, deny the city’s petition, or instruct Nashville to refile its challenge as a declaratory suit, as two of Tennessee’s other large school districts have done. Should she side with Nashville, she’d likely give the state a long deadline that allows the legislature to appropriate the additional funds at its session next year.

The state says Tennessee isn’t legally required to follow the BEP, and that it provided Nashville with enough money for now, with intentions to phase in more funding eventually to meet the new BEP ratio. It says Nashville cannot prove it has a right to the additional funding, and that the courts cannot compel the legislature to appropriate more money.

Nashville’s Sept. 1 petition differs from the lawsuits spearheaded last year by Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, because it directly demands the state to pay based on the BEP formula. The other districts’ lawsuits charge that the state isn’t adequately funding public education in Tennessee and ask the court to decide what districts have a right to receive, potentially impacting districts statewide.

In its response to Nashville’s petition, the state says Nashville should follow the other districts in asking the court to address their right to education funding, rather than for a direct order to pay more money. “(Nashville) seeks a writ of mandamus that would require the General Assembly to provide funding to ELL teachers and translators in the ratios provided in (Tennessee Code),” the response reads. “… However, (Nashville) is not entitled to that writ.”

Nashville’s lawyers countered that a court order is appropriate, and that its funding case is different from those of the other large districts.

At the heart of the other lawsuits is the question of the BEP’s adequacy. Nashville’s lawyers say they’re willing to maintain for now that the state’s current funding plan is adequate; they’re just demanding that the state comply with it.

“What (the state’s lawyers) fail to understand is that (Nashville) accepts, for purposes of this lawsuit, the BEP in its current form — but demands (the state) live up to the Supreme Court’s directive that the BEP is fully funded,” Nashville attorneys wrote in their response to the state’s objection filed this week.

A 1995 Tennessee Supreme Court decision declared that the state must fund the BEP regardless of revenue.

Shelby County Schools’ case against the state is currently in discovery, meaning both sides are gathering evidence and building their cases for trial. Hamilton County’s case is also continuing since Bonnyman denied the state’s request for dismissal.

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.