Who Is In Charge

House education panel takes first step to amend state constitution over school funding

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn is the sponsor of a joint resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution's provisions over school funding.

It’s a long process to amend the state constitution, but lawmakers in Nashville took the first step Tuesday by approving a resolution that would give the legislature more control — and the courts less say — over the state’s level of education funding.

A House education subcommittee voted 5-2 in favor of a resolution that the sponsor says is designed to protect educational policy from “activist judges” ruling against state governments on issues ranging from charter schools to the adequacy of school funding.

“What I’m trying to get to is to emphasize and clarify that the General Assembly is the body that makes educational policy in the state of Tennessee,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican.

Local school boards have often gone to court over the state’s formula for funding public education in Tennessee, which historically has ranked near the bottom in the nation for per-pupil funding. Since 1993, the courts have ordered the legislature three times to provide more funding to rural school districts.

Questions about state education funding came to a head again last year as eight school boards, including Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed lawsuits against the state. At issue are the adequacy and equity of the state’s funding levels given its constitutional duty to provide “a system of free public schools” for children in Tennessee,

Dunn said that the courts potentially could order the state to increase its education spending by $500 million. He wants the constitution amended to curb the courts’ authority and ensure that the legislature controls Tennessee education policies.

Specifically, the resolution would amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding the phrases in italics to a sentence in Article XI, Section 12 so that it reads: “The General Assembly as the elected representatives of the people shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools in such manner as the General Assembly may determine.”

Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Democrat from Rock Island, argued that such a bill could infringe on students’ rights to an equitable education. As a former public school student in Warren County, he reflected on how the Tennessee Supreme Court’s 1993 ruling impacted him by ordering the General Assembly to increase funding for its rural schools.

“I’m sitting in this august body — I am sitting in the Tennessee Capitol as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives — because that small schools lawsuit helped Warren County’s schools,” he said.

Dunn said that he is fairly sure that the proposed constitutional amendment wouldn’t impact the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which was key in the lawsuits of the 1990s that led to large-scale public education funding changes. He read aloud a text message to that effect from a staff member of the state attorney general.

Asked about seeking a formal opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery III, Dunn said he did not want to wait for the formal opinion because the process to amend the constitution is lengthy. Both houses would have to approve the resolution this session, and then approve the amendment by a two-thirds majority next year in order for the amendment to go before Tennessee voters in the next gubernatorial election.

Dunlap suggested that it would be prudent to seek a formal opinion first.

“I respect that you’ve read from your cell phone a text message,” Dunlap said, “but I would not feel comfortable voting on a constitutional amendment from a text message.”

The bill now goes before the full House Education Administration & Planning Committee.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”