From the Statehouse

Critics pan arts education mandate

Senate Ed’s big day
Outdoor ed grants
Bicycle helmets

The Senate Education Committee Thursday cut Rep. Mike Merrifield’s big legislative finale down to a word of encouragement and a few lines of advice to the State Board of Education.

But, faced with big choruses of witnesses on both sides of the issue, dealing with House Bill 10-1273 took the committee two hours, about as long as a high school production of “Our Town.”

And, that debate was only one part of a five-act committee meeting that stretched out for 5 ½ hours, longer than some Wagner operas.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, listened to Senate Education Committee debate on his arts education bill on April 1, 2010.

Merrifield, a retired music teacher, is chair of the House Education Committee and is serving his last term. He’s long been a critic of the shrinking amounts of time and money schools are able to devote to the arts and other parts of a well-rounded curriculum.

As Merrifield originally unveiled the bill, which he titled “Concerning Improved Workforce Development Through Increased Participation In Arts Education In Public Schools,” it would have required all schools to offer arts and made demonstrated proficiency in visual and performing arts a condition of high school graduation.

Merrifield’s misfortune was to introduce the bill in a year when state revenues were plummeting and legislators had no choice but to cut basic school aid.

So, school board interests, always touchy about what they see as infringements on local control, have been on heightened alert for any bill that might impose additional costs on districts.

Merrifield trimmed his sails even before the bill left the House, changing the proficiency requirement to mere completion of an arts class, and defining class as broadly as possible.

That wasn’t enough for the Colorado Association of School Boards, which helped craft an amendment that said schools districts are “strongly encouraged” to provide arts courses. In the original bill the verb was “shall.” The new language also directs the State Board of Education to recognize the importance of the arts in development of future graduation guidelines.

The amendment ultimately was approved by the committee, but not until after CASB lobbyist Jane Urschel said, “We think this bill is bad policy” and then detailed everything she saw that was wrong with the bill without the amendment.

“Jane, Jane, Jane,” responded Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, who’s carrying the bill in the Senate. “I don’t mean to be confrontational, but I think your testimony was more antagonistic than I expected. We’ve already said uncle.” (A few moments earlier, Spence and cosponsor Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, had made it clear they’d accept the amendment.)

“I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but many of my members were offended by the bill,” Urschel responded.

There were many more witnesses who spoke before the amended bill passed 7-1.

Merrifield sat through the hearing, something that sponsors don’t often do when their bills are being considered in the other House. Spence said Merrifield “reluctantly” supported the amendment.

Get those kids outdoors

The committee voted 5-3 to pass House Bill 10-1131, which is being championed by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. She made a brief appearance at the witness table to say, “We hope kids will get real involvement in the Colorado experience. It’s also good for Colorado economic development.”

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien testified in favor of an outdoor education bill April 1, 2010.

The bill would set up a grant program – dependent on private donations and still-in-the-future federal grants – that would award money to programs that involve kids in outdoor activities and environmental education programs.

Sponsor Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, had lined up a big cast of witnesses to support the bill, ranging from economic development executive Tom Clark to a ski resort spokesman and lots of outdoor education and recreation types.

As was the case in the House Education Committee, Republican senators were unhappy with the bill’s reliance on federal cash and seemed suspicious about the agenda of environmental education programs.

The bill passed on a 5-3 party-line vote.

Get helmets on those kids

The committee also split 5-3 to pass House Bill 10-1147, which would require kids aged 2 to 18 to wear helmets when using non-motorized vehicles – tricycles, bikes, skates, scooters, skateboards and the like – on public streets.

The bill proposes no penalties for kids or parents; it’s meant to be an encouragement for wearing helmets and a way to educate the public. Other provisions of the bill require the Department of Education and other state agencies to help provide safety education materials to schools.

The witness list was shorter for this bill, with testimony highlighted with accident statistics and the effects of crash injuries on children.

This bill wasn’t an education issue in the House, where the transportation committee handled the measure. The only Senate sponsor right now is Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and he’s chair of Senate Ed.

The committee Thursday also approved nominations of some college trustees and discussed but took no action on a charter schools bill.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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.