From the Statehouse

Larger K-12 cuts may be looming

Reductions in state support for K-12 schools in 2010-11 may be larger than previously proposed, based on new state revenue predictions issued Friday.

Additional cuts could be between $65 and $70 million.

Gov. Bill Ritter’s previously announced K-12 spending plan would cut aid by 4.56 percent, or $260 million, from the amount of school aid in the current 2009-10 budget. But, the proposed cut would be $374.1 million, or 6.12 percent, when calculated against the full amount school districts would otherwise have expected to receive in 2010-11.

The $65-$70 million figure is derived from a grid of options prepared by Todd Herreid, a legislative finance analyst. The grid lists possible K-12 cuts based on different increases or decreases in state general fund support.

Todd Saliman, director of the State Office of Planning and Budgeting, told EdNews Friday that Herreid’s estimate of an additional $67 million cut is probably in the ballpark. Speaking earlier to lawmakers, Saliman said, “I suspect our model will produce a similar result” to what Herreid concluded.

But, Saliman and his boss, the governor, both stressed Friday that the executive branch needs to carefully study the latest revenue forecasts before adjusting its 2010-11 budget-cutting proposals.

“We have no sense [yet] what role K-12 will play” in an adjusted budget plan, Ritter told reporters Friday afternoon.

“We have more tough choices to make,” Ritter said, even as he found some hope in the conclusion by legislative economists that the recession in Colorado is over – but that recovery will be long and slow.

Earlier in the day, legislative chief economist Natalie Mullis told legislative leaders, budget committee members and other lawmakers, “In Colorado the recession is over; the recovery is beginning.” But, she added, “The end of the recession does not mean the end of troubles.”

Mullis and her colleagues now estimate that state tax revenue available to spending in 2010-11 will be $1.5 billion less than what’s budgeted to be spent in the current, 2009-10 budget.

That estimate is difficult to translate into possible specific cuts, because it doesn’t take into account the governor’s proposed reductions nor any changes in inflation or caseloads such as school enrollment, prison inmates or Medicaid patients.

The recession and declining state revenues have set school districts up for a potential triple financial whammy.

  • Lawmakers are expected to cut current school aid by $110 million (a little under 2 percent) after they convene next month.
  • Overall enrollment and enrollment of at-risk students has risen faster than was predicted when school funding was set last spring. In a “normal” budget year, the legislature would reimburse districts for such increases with a mid-year budget addition. But, there are fears the legislature won’t do that this year. Saliman told EdNews that the administration hasn’t yet decided what to recommend on the growth issue.
  • And, 2010-11 spending could be cut by 6 percent or more, depending on what lawmakers decide to do with Ritter’s plan. Cuts of that magnitude are unprecedented and would rely on a narrow interpretation of Amendment 23. Many education interest groups disagree with Ritter’s interpretation but see little or no way to avoid using it. School boards around the state already are looking at budget cuts for the 2010-11 school year. The situation has worrisome implications for class sizes, teacher pay and even the length of the school year.

The revenue forecasts sparked some black humor by legislators Friday.

“I think we’re going to take the entire state budget to Black Hawk and put it on No. 7,” joked Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, a member of the Joint Budget Committee.

“We haven’t decided on 7 yet,” replied Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder and JBC chair.

Do your homework

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.