From the Statehouse

Sex ed bill advances in Senate

The “comprehensive sex education” bill passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on a narrow party-line vote Thursday, following a lengthy hearing full of the same kinds of arguments that marked debate in the House.

Colorado CapitolThe measure, House Bill 1081, would set requirements for school sex education programs that receive funding from a to-be-created grant program. The bill would not mandate statewide standards for sex education nor replace existing programs. (See this EdNews story for more background on this issue.)

Supporters of the bill argue that it’s needed to improve sex education for Colorado students and to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

But the bill has proved to be a lightning rod for conservative lawmakers and citizens, who fear it would usurp parent rights, downplay abstinence education and encourage teen sexual activity.

Daily roundup

Use the Education Bill Tracker to read texts of bills mentioned in this article.

“I suspect an agenda,” said committee member Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud and one of the Senate’s more socially conservative members. Sex education “is none of the state’s business in the first place. This is one of reasons why I have never let the state have a moment with my children in their education.”

A long parade of witnesses testified on the bill. Students, directors of sex education and teen service agencies, and public health officials supported it; several parents opposed it.

Lundberg proposed an amendment that would have required parents to opt in to the program – it was defeated. The current language of the bill allows parents to opt out of any programs created under the bill. Lundberg also proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would allow the State Board of Education to appoint two members to the grant program’s oversight committee.

There also are some turf issues involved in the bill. Although it deals with programs that would operate in schools, the program would be run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, not the Department of Education.

After sitting through more than three hours of testimony, the committee passed the bill 4-3, with majority Democrats prevailing.

Salazar wins Senate confirmation

The Senate Thursday voted 21-14 to confirm Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, as a trustee of the University of Northern Colorado, which has one of the state’s largest educator preparation programs.

Tony Salazar, with UNC President Kay Norton at left
Tony Salazar, with UNC President Kay Norton at left

Some Republican senators had opposed the nomination because they felt Salazar has a conflict of interest in advocating for K-12 funding in his job while needing to support adequate financing of higher education in his trustee role.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, led the criticism of Salazar, noting the state’s constant struggle between funding K-12 and higher education. “The question I posed to Mr. Salazar was ‘how can you balance this conflict.’ … His answer was a bigger pie [of funding], but that’s not reality.”

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, took mild umbrage at the whole conflict-of-interest argument, noting that several legislators, like him, are teachers and are able to balance K-12 and higher ed needs.

There have been several education-related appointments considered by the Senate this session, but only Salazar’s has been controversial.

School board election bill stalls

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, is known for some unconventional ideas, and one of his interesting bills ended up in the Senate Education Committee Thursday.

Senate Bill 13-164 proposed to eliminate residency requirements for school board candidates, allowing someone who lives in one district to run for the school board in another.

Actually the bill was a little more complicated in that it wouldn’t have applied to districts where board members represent specific geographic areas within a district.

Brophy argued loosening residency requirements make sense in an era of cross-district choice for students and when district-run online programs serve students from many districts.

Some committee members had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea, and representatives of the Colorado Association of School Boards opposed the bill.

“We found absolutely no support from our members and plenty of concern,” said lobbyist Jane Urschel.

A motion to pass the bill stalled on a 4-4 vote. A fifth committee Democrat, Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora, was across the hall presenting the sex ed bill. That leaves the bill technically in limbo, but it’s expected to formally die one way or the other.

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.