Guess who's back

Meet the Tennessee lawmakers setting this year’s course on education policy

The same leaders and mostly the same faces are returning to the Tennessee legislature’s education committees this year, offering some hints to how education policy might shake out this session.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, will return as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, whose membership remains unchanged from the previous General Assembly.

The House will maintain two education panels for the second consecutive General Assembly. Rep. Harry Brooks, a Republican from Knoxville, will again chair the chamber’s education administration and planning committee, while Rep. John Forgety will return as leader of the committee on education instruction and programs.

Committee appointments were announced Thursday in Nashville by House Speaker Beth Harwell and newly elected Lt. Gov. Randy McNally during the first week of the 110th General Assembly.


 Here are four education issues to watch as Tennessee’s legislature kicks off


While it’s a new session, the education committees are expected to face familiar questions about the state’s testing system, the Achievement School District, and tuition vouchers. And with few new members, it will take changing minds to proffer different results on issues like vouchers, which sailed easily through House committees last session, only to stall on the House floor.

All four of House’s new education committee members have served in the legislature in the past, on other committees.

Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, has strong feelings about testing, having opted out his own child from taking the state’s new TNReady assessment last year.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from Lancaster, filed a bill last session to repeal the Common Core State Standards. Her proposal was unsuccessful, though separate legislation eventually resulted in the standards being revised.

Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, writes on his website that he does not believe in “one-size-fits-all education ideas from the federal government.”

And Rep. Andy Holt, a Republican from Dresden, identifies as a strong proponent of school choice.

Here’s the full list of committee appointments. (Members who are new to the panels are identified with an asterisk.)

Senate Education

Chairwoman: Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville)

Vice-chairmen: Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga)

Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City)

Sen. Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville)

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown)

Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville)

Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin)

Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald)

House Education, Administration and Planning

Chairman: Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville)

Vice-chairman: Rep. Eddie Smith (R-Knoxville)

Rep. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis)

Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis)

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (R-Ripley)

Rep. Roger Kane (R-Knoxville)

Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett)

Rep. Jimmy Matlock (R-Lenoir City)*

Rep. Debra Moody (R-Covington)

Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Memphis)

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster)*

Rep. Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro)

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis)

House- Education, Instruction and Programs

Chairman: Rep. John Forgety (R)

Vice chairman: Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro)

Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia)

Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville)

Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden)*

Rep. Roger Kane (R-Knoxville)

Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar (R-Springfield)

Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville)

Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville)

Rep. Jay Reedy (R- Erin)*

Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville)*

Rep. Joe Towns (D-Memphis)

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”