From the Statehouse

“Felon-free” bill gets panel endorsement

The Felon-Free Schools Act of 2011 got out of the Senate Education Committee Monday with only one vote against it, but not before losing its stern-sounding title.

A bill on parental involvement in schools also got House Ed approval – but it also was significantly amended. And it passed only when committee chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, sided with the committee’s six Democrats to create a 7-6 majority.

Among the day’s fatalities was House Bill 11-1057 in House Ed, which would have provided some due process rights to the estimated 10,000 adjunct faculty at state colleges and universities, In the Senate State Affairs Committee two bills designed to radically change parts of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association met with their expected demise.

Also at the Capitol Monday, the big package of 2010-11 budget balancing bills got final Senate approval and headed to an early morning date with the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

Felon-free schools fixed to almost everyone’s satisfaction

Freshman Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, worked hard to blunt opposition to his House Bill 11-1121, and his work paid off when House Ed passed it 12-1.

The bill, an earlier version of which died in a House committee last year, mostly codifies existing school district practice in barring employment to people convicted of violent crimes and sexual felonies. Ramirez’ original bill added drug felonies to the list, but his key amendment limited application of that to a five-year window. So, if a teacher was convicted of a drug felony within the last five years, he or she can be fired. In the future, a teacher convicted of a drug felony can reapply for a teaching job after five years. (There’s also a five-year window for domestic violence convictions.)

The Colorado Association of Schools Boards supported the bill while the Colorado Association of School Executives softened its opposition to neutral because of Ramirez’ amendment.

But, witnesses representing legal groups, including the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Colorado ACLU opposed the bill, saying the broader issue of denying felons access to employment needs to studied by the legislature.

That prompted several members of ask if the bill also should be considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Massey said he would talk to the chair of that committee.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and the only no vote on the bill, also complained about the title. “It makes me feel like there are a lot of felons in our schools. … Would you mind amending that to just take that out?” she asked Ramirez. He was happy to oblige, and the title was stricken from the bill.

Parent involvement bill slenderized

Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver
Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver

As originally proposed by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, House Bill 11-1126 would have required school districts to adopt parent involvement policies by July 1, 2012, and review those annually. The bill also required that if a school is designated for turnaround by the Colorado Department of Education the school must notify parents of that and hold a public meeting.

Witnesses representing a variety of education groups – the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, Education Reform Now, the Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association and Stand for Children – testified in support, as did Arturo Jimenez, vice chair of the Denver school board.

The original draft of the bill, however, made some school districts nervous about potential costs, and Duran came armed with amendments, which the committee approved.

The key change was an amendment that merely encourages districts to develop formal parent involvement plan, softening the original mandate. The bill’s provisions for public notice at turnaround schools remain.

No go for adjunct faculty bill

Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, offered a big amendment to his HB 11-1057, but that wasn’t enough to persuade House Ed. The original bill would have extended some due process rights to adjunct faculty when they were terminated. He proposed an amendment the left the bill requiring only that those instructors receive letters explaining why they were being let go.

The bill mustered only three yes votes before it was postponed indefinitely on a 7-6 vote, meaning some members who voted against the bill also voted against killing it. (There seemed to be a fair amount of confusion in House Ed Monday, with several members passing on roll call votes to gain time to make up their minds and some pausing several moments before casting their votes.)

The higher ed lobby worked hard against this one, concerned about the potential legal costs if it passed. The fiscal analysis by legislative staff estimated annual costs of $140,000 to $1.4 million, depending on how many of the estimated 2,000 adjuncts terminated annually filed appeals.

PERA bills get required hearing and no more

In each House the State Affairs Committee is where majority leaders send bills that they want killed. That was the case Monday in the Senate committee, where party-line votes of 3-2 killed Senate Bill 11-074 and Senate Bill 11-127.

The first would have allowed school boards and local governments to require higher PERA contributions from employees, offset by lower government contributions. The second would have required new PERA members to join a defined contribution plan rather than the traditional defined benefit system.

“Recess” bill moves along

The House Monday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require elementary schools to provides students with 600 minutes a month of “physical activity” – broadly defined.

The bill was amended earlier in the House Education Committee to remove some aspects that school districts opposed, such as extensive reporting requirements.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs

Aside from three supporters speaking briefly in favor of the bill, consideration moved quickly, and there were no speakers in opposition. Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, has estimated that 90 percent of elementary schools already provide the amount of activity called for in the bill.

The House also gave a quick preliminary OK to House Bill 11-1053, which encourages school districts to exhaust other alternatives before going to court to have truant students jailed. The bill leaves intact the ability of districts to go to court and of judges to jail students.

Budget balancing package moves quickly

The Senate this morning gave final approval to a package of 2010-11 budget balancing bill, including three of interest to education. Amendments to the package restored funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps and the Start Smart school breakfast program. A separate measure that proposed closing the Read-to-Achieve program (Senate Bill 11-158) and using its funds for budget balancing was killed at the request of Senate leadership.

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.