TN in DC

Tennessee school board leaders met this week with Sen. Lamar Alexander. Here’s what they talked about.

Members of the Tennessee School Boards Association meet with lawmakers in Washington D.C., including U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

A contingent of school board members from across Tennessee traveled this week to Washington D.C., to talk with the state’s congressional delegation about three issues shaping public education in their home state.

Most notably, leaders of the Tennessee School Boards Association spoke with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee and helped to engineer the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind. The Tennessee Republican also has been at the forefront of Senate confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist and school choice advocate nominated by President Trump to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Here’s what they discussed:

School choice

As the Senate prepared to cast its confirmation vote on DeVos, TSBA leaders wanted to know Alexander’s definition of “school choice.”

“We were very pleased his definition were things we were already doing in Tennessee,” said Executive Director Tammy Grissom, citing magnet schools and open enrollment.

DeVos is a staunch proponent of tuition vouchers and has used part of her family fortune to advocate for them in her home state of Michigan as well as other states, including Tennessee. That’s a red flag for Tennessee school board members who have lobbied their state lawmakers against starting a voucher program. They argue that vouchers, which would enable some families to use public money to pay for private school, would siphon off badly needed resources from public schools.

“We want choice for disadvantaged students, but we already have it. We believe vouchers would create a system of the haves and have-nots,” Grissom said.

Alexander assured them that vouchers won’t be crammed down their throats from the federal government. The new Every Student Succeeds Act aims to give states greater flexibility in overseeing their schools.

“He is very much for local control. It’s all about giving control back to the states,” Grissom said. “The best form of governance of public education is the local school board.”

If DeVos is confirmed, she has said states would make their own decisions about whether to implement vouchers.

PHOTO: Tennessee School Boards Association
Alexander (left) talks with Wayne Blair and Tammy Grissom, president and executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association.

Career and technical education

An effort to reauthorize federal funding for career and technical education, known as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, stalled in the Senate last year. It was continued for one year for the 11 million U.S. high school and postsecondary students affected. But TSBA members urged Alexander to push for the act’s reauthorization.

“Districts depend on that funding to continue career and technical classes,” Grissom said.

Career and technical education is an important component of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks in part to increase participation in certificate programs.

Alexander listened to concerns about the need for federal funding but did not indicate if he would sponsor legislation to reauthorize it, said Ben Torres, staff attorney for the TSBA.

Special education funding

School services for students with disabilities receive federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but Congress currently funds less than half of the maximum 40 percent of cost.

That’s not enough, according to TSBA leaders.

In Memphis, for instance, Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District struggle to keep up with the demand for special education services. Both districts serve primarily minority and impoverished students.

The TSBA-sponsored group traveling to Washington included:

  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Boards Association and Rutherford County Schools board member
  • Tammy Grissom, executive director, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Ben Torres, staff attorney and director of government relations and policy, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Miska Clay Bibbs, Shelby County Board of Education
  • Bob Alvey, Jackson-Madison County Board of Education
  • Alicia Barker, Franklin Special Board of Education
  • Jimmie Garland, Clarksville-Montgomery Board of Education
  • Faye Heatherly, Campbell County Board of Education
  • Aaron Holladay, Rutherford County Board of Education
  • Tim Stillings, Franklin Special Board of Education


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”