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Urge Gov. Haslam to Veto the IEP Voucher Bill

On Wednesday, the Tennessee House approved HB 138/SB 27 by a slim, three-vote margin. This IEP Voucher Bill puts our most vulnerable children at risk and lacks any mechanism to ensure academic achievement or the safety of the children who are eligible to access it. We would like to thank the following state representatives who recognized that this bill is bad policy and voted against it:

Akabari, Alexander, Armstrong, Beck, Byrd, Cafee, Camper, Carr, Clemmons, Coley, Cooper, Doss, Dunlap, Eldridge, Farmer, Favors, Fitzhugh, Forgety, Gilmore, Halford, Hardaway, M. Hill, Hulsey, Jones, Keisling, Love, McDaniel, Miller, Mitchell, Parkinson, Pitts, Powell, Ramsey, Sanderson, Shaw, Shepard, Stewart, Swann, Towns, Travis, Turner, and Windle.

Now is the time to contact Governor Haslam and ask him to veto this bill, which sets the stage for potential abuse, fraud, and neglect of our most vulnerable children.


4/13/2015 Update on Education Bills in the Legislature

This year’s legislative session is drawing to a close over the next couple weeks, and we can’t thank you enough for speaking out against vouchers. We know we’ve asked you to contact legislators several times but it’s so important that our lawmakers hear voices other than the big money organizations that attempt to pit elected officials against our schools.

A Couple Questions We Hear

Why do we hear almost exclusively about what’s happening in the House instead of the Senate?
The Senate, quite frankly, is a lost cause in many cases. The composition of the Senate is such that bad education legislation rarely gets robust debate let alone a competitive vote. Vouchers, for example, passed the Senate Education Committee 8-0, the Senate Finance Committee 9-2, and the full Senate 23-9. It racked up similar tallies last year. As a result, we choose to focus primarily on the House.

Why are we asked to contact legislators so many times about the same bill?
Not only do bills often go through several committees and subcommittees, but votes can be delayed several times for any reason. As a result, we make multiple asks both because different requests go to a different group of legislators and because we want to keep the issue fresh on legislators’ minds.

Here’s where various pieces of harmful legislation stand:

Vouchers (HB 1049)
This bill creates a statewide school voucher program that the legislature estimates will cost local schools $70 million per year. In the House, the bill passed the reform-friendly Education Administration Committee. It later went through Government Operations Committee (which does not have the power to kill a bill), who amended the bill to delay its effective date. It next goes to the Finance Subcommittee (a/k/a Budget Subcommittee) on April 14. The Senate passed this bill, slightly amended, on March 30. (It also passed vouchers last year.)

IEP Supervouchers (HB 138)
This bill creates a supervoucher program for all 120,000 students who have a special education IEP – an individualized education plan. (Some children receive IEPs for relatively simple – and easily correctable – issues, such as incorrectly producing the /r/ sound.) These supervouchers allow parents to pull the education dollars intended for their child’s education and put it toward any unaccredited, unproven, and unaccountable use that can be argued is educating or treating the child. In the House, the bill sneaked through the reform-friendly Education Programming Committee 7-6. It was heard in Government Operations Committee on April 7 but a vote was delayed until April 14. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hear this bill as well.

ASD Expansion (HB 473)
This bill allows ASD charter schools to recruit high-achieving students from high-quality public schools to help make ASD schools not look like a failure. In the House, the bill will be heard in Finance Committee on April 14. It is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate.

For-Profit Charter Schools (HB 781)
This bill allows charter schools to be run by for-profit corporations. In the House, the bill was delayed until 2016 in the Education Programming Committee. The bill made it to the floor in the Senate but will not be voted on this year.

Parent Trigger (HB 651)
This bill makes it easier for a group of parents to have their school converted into a charter school. In the House, the bill was pulled from consideration for this year. In the Senate, the bill is awaiting a Finance Committee vote.

Here’s where various pieces of helpful legislation stand:

Second Chance for Priority Schools (HB 921)
This bill prohibits the ASD from taking over a school if a priority list school not yet marked for ASD takeover either a) quantifiably improves its test scores and assigns a new principal or b) converts the school to a community school. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Raumesh Akbari and in the Senate by Sen. Reginald Tate (co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Dickerson), this legislation passed the Senate unanimously and is scheduled for a vote in the House Finance Committee on April 14.

Ban on Mandated Standardized Tests for K-2 (HB 983)
This bill bans state or locally mandated standardized testing on students in kindergarten through second grade. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Matthew Hill (co-sponsored by Rep. Bo Mitchell) and in the Senate by Sen. Frank Niceley, this legislation did not come up for a vote.

ASD Abolition (HB 508)
This bill eliminates the achievement school district (ASD) at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Bo Mitchell and in the Senate by Sen. Thelma Harper, this legislation did not come up for a vote.

Banning ASD Mission Creep (HB 856)
The bill prohibits an ASD school from expanding to additional grades (e.g., converting from a high school to a middle and high school) and prohibits the ASD from recruiting students from other zones. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Bill Beck and in the Senate by Sen. Thelma Harper, this legislation was killed by the House Education Administration Committee.

Regulating ASD Takeovers (HB 920)
This bill prohibits new ASD schools from taking over a single grade at a time, causing conflict by having two schools in the same building. Sponsored in the House by Rep. Raumesh Akbari and in the Senate by Sen. Reginald Tate, this legislation did not come up for a vote.

The legislature is expected to shut down for the year after a couple fast and furious weeks of bill shuffling. We’ll keep you posted and continue to ask for your support of our schools!

Vanderbilt Attrition Study – What it Does and Doesn’t Tell Us

Earlier this summer, four Vanderbilt graduate students released a report, “Examining Student Mobility and Attrition in MNPS.” These students looked at a set of data provided by Metro Nashville Public Schools to find patterns in student mobility during the school year. The report was immediately hailed by charter school advocates as putting to rest questions about student attrition, particularly movement from charter schools to traditional district schools. It was reported as such by the local media. But is that the full picture? What did the lauded Vanderbilt attrition report really say? In this blog post, TREE takes a closer look.

Limited Scope

First, we note that the authors repeatedly stress that their research and conclusions were very limited in scope. They were confined to the data set that they received from MNPS. The authors looked only at student movement from one school to another during one academic year, 2012-13, and they limited their review to grades 3-8. They did not look into students leaving a school after the end of the academic year to enroll in another for the next grade level or into student movement during years other than 2012-13. They did not look at high schools or early grades. Further, they make clear that the data they received were very incomplete. Indeed, one of their primary suggestions to MNPS is that the district maintain better information on student mobility, so that more meaningful conclusions can be drawn and so that the district is better able to address the negative effects of student mobility. They offer helpful suggestions for improving the MNPS enrollment and transfer processes in order to facilitate communication between schools and the keeping of more useful information.

Highly Mobile Students Score Lower, and Mobility Harms Student Learning

Students who change schools during an academic year “scored an average of fifteen percent or more below the below the district average TCAP Reading, Math, and Science Exams. The percentage of transfer students that score in the Below Basic range is nearly double that of the MNPS average.” (Report, page 31). “Simply put, a student who transfers school during the year is likely to score nearly half an achievement lever lower on TCAP.” (Report, page 34).

The report note that the increase in school choice options increases student mobility across the district during the year. (Report, page 5). It also states that moving between schools has a negative effect in student learning. If increased mobility is an unintended byproduct of increased school choice, then the district must move to curb mobility and work harder to keep students in a school. (Report, page 53).

Burden of Student Mobility Falls Mostly on Traditional Zoned Schools

The most reported aspect of the study is that students are highly mobile across the district and exit all types of schools mid-year, including zoned, charter, and other choice schools. This does not mean, however, that the impact of students movement is the same across school type. The authors discuss the “challenge of helping transfer students adapt to a new school culture after the start of the year.” (Report, page 40). The beginning of a school year is a time when school expectations, procedures, and communities are built and set. When a student arrives mid-year, that student has missed out on this process and has a harder time adjusting to the new environment. This creates additional work for school faculty and can disrupt the classroom environment, and the authors suggest that MNPS provide more resources to schools to assist in this process.

The work of acclimating transfer students to a new classroom falls most heavily on traditional zoned schools. When a student who lives within the attendance zone shows up at a zoned school, the school must admit them. Such students may arrive with no notice to school personnel, and sometimes with no parent accompanying them. In contrast, charter and other choice schools have the option of deciding whether to admit a new student during the year. If school officials deem it disruptive to the academic year to bring in a transferring student, they can decline to do so. Further, if they decide to accept a student transferring in, then they can set a date at which the student will enroll and can prepare for the new student.

While it may be true that students are leaving schools regardless of school type during the year, the work of serving and acclimating these vulnerable students mid-year falls heavily on zoned schools. Further, since mobile students tend to be lower scoring than their peers, as noted above, and most transferring students are transferring INTO zoned schools, it is reasonable to ask whether student mobility over time has a negative effect on zoned school performance on state assessments.

Same Students?

The report did not draw any conclusions about the million dollar question surrounding school choice in Nashville. Do charter schools really enroll the “same students” as their neighboring zoned schools? There are, however, a few reasons to believe the answer is no. This question takes on increasing importance as test scores are used in a simplistic fashion to label which schools are “better” and merit replication and resources, and which schools are “worse” and therefore, some argue, should be wound down and closed. If there are key differences in the student bodies of the schools being compared, then the logic for this simplistic use of test scores falls apart.

For starters, there is the obvious fact that choice schools, whether charter or district, enroll only those students whose parents have proactively filled out a choice school application in advance. Indeed, some charter schools mandate parent attendance at orientations and conferences. Enrollment at these schools requires a certain degree of parental involvement and ability to navigate a choice system that not every student or parent has.

Further, as previously noted, transferring students, who tend to be lower-scoring on state assessments, move OUT of both zoned and choice schools during the school year, but primarily IN to zoned schools. So one type of school has these lower scoring students leaving and coming, and another type primarily has them leaving.

The report states that choice schools have a different point at which “the school can say enough is enough” when it comes to student behavior. (Report, page 39). Choice schools are able to remove students from the school for behavior at a lower threshold than traditional schools. When this occurs, and disruptive students are sent “back” to their zoned school, what impact does this have on the comparative makeup of the student bodies with regard to discipline issues and behavior? As the authors note, “For these school leaders, the behavior of students who transfer from schools of choice impacts their ability to develop a positive school culture where all students can learn.” (Report, page 38). The authors also noted that in charter schools, students who enroll after 5th grade struggle to meet behavior and academic expectations, and often leave, creating a “revolving door” of students until the school fills the seat with a “student who adapts quickly.” (Report, page 40).

Interestingly, authors state that “[s]upporting choice should include educating school staff throughout the district about the key differences between traditional and choice schools, and explain the rationale for allowing schools of choice to operate differently than traditional schools.” (Report, page 54). No details are offered as to what differences are being referenced, but certainly the public, in addition to school staff, needs to hear about these differences, their justifications, and their impact.

A Starting Point

In short, the Vanderbilt attrition student is a multi-faceted, complex first look at students mobility in a high poverty school district. It offers useful suggestions for further data collection and study, and presents interesting ideas for MNPS to consider in sharing information among schools and supporting highly mobile students. It emphasizes the importance of helping traditional schools market their successes and offerings and compete for students in a choice environment, and acknowledges that often a negative perception of a traditional school is undeserved. It finds no evidence of nefarious intent or practice among schools leaders. It does not, however, neatly resolve all questions about the impact of school choice and the validity of comparing scores of different schools, nor does it claim to do so. If you’d like to read it in its entirety, you can find it here.

Thank You for Making a Difference in Tennessee’s Schools!

The Tennessee General Assembly has completed its work for the year. We didn’t win all the battles we fought, but given the millions of dollars and dozens of lobbyists anti-public school groups spent, it’s nothing short of incredible what the parents, teachers, and concerned citizens who support public schools accomplished.

The school voucher program championed by Governor Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, Speaker Beth Harwell, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, and Majority Leaders in the House & Senate was unable to pass out of the Finance Committee due to a lack of support.

Did you catch that? Everybody in a position of power in our state government backed this bill, and lobbyists and “reform” groups pushed for it hard–and it still failed. Why? You! TREE is proud of the hundreds of phone calls and thousands of e-mails that poured into Legislative Plaza telling House members to say no! There is no doubt his bill would have passed without your help.

Status: Victory!

Speaker Harwell’s pet project, which replaces local elected officials with a state bureaucracy, passed the House in 2013. The Senate, which is closely aligned with Governor Haslam and Kevin Huffman, passed the bill this year. That left the House with a final vote on a minor change, which seemed to opened the door for reevaluation of the House’s passage of the bill. However, Speaker Harwell quashed all attempts by legislators to have a discussion on the virtues of the bill.

Status: Stay tuned for litigation when an unwanted (i.e., unnecessary, redundant, or poor quality) school attempts to force its way into a community using this tactic.

Big time national money got behind the movement to expose Tennessee to profit-driven school operators, but reason won. A House committee voted down the bill.

Status: Victory!

Supporters of public education had a lot of success stopping bad legislation this year, but this was a unique victory in that this was GOOD legislation that passed overwhelmingly. The parental notification bill requires the Tennessee Department of Education and local school districts to provide parents with information about mandated tests. Included will be each test’s date, purpose, use, and method of informing parents and teachers of the results.

Status: Victory!

The Achievement School District (ASD) is a group of schools with lower test scores that have been placed under state control with the goal of helping the kids in those schools. This year, in clear violation of that supposed intent, legislation was put forward permitting the ASD to pull in students from other schools in an attempt to widen the Department of Education’s reach into local communities, increase the prevalence of charter schools, and obsure the ASD’s failure to make any progress. The Education Committee voted in favor of the legislation, but the bill’s sponsor couldn’t get a single member of the House Finance Committee to support the bill and, consequently, it died.

Status: Victory!

This year’s “parent trigger” bill sought to make it easier for parents to force the conversion of their neighborhood school into a charter school, fire the principal, and fire or reassign at least 50% of the school’s teachers. The law, which purports to give parents a voice in the direction of their schools, has in practice led to incidents of bullying, harassment, and misinformation as well-funded “reform” groups swoop into the affected community to campaign for the solution that benefits them. This bill was passed by the Education Committee, but not a single member of the Finance Committee supported it.

Status: Victory!

Legislation was proposed to increase the clout of “education reform” groups at the state legislature–organizations whose lobbyists outnumber public school advocates by a margin of 8:1. The legislation would have hampered the voice of our elected school boards in the legislative process, and further skewed this imbalance. This bill failed on the House floor when Republicans and Democrats joined forces to defeat the bill.

Status: Victory!

A series of bills that would have done great things for our schools were killed in the House Education Subcommittee without the opportunity for real debate. Among them: allowing parents to opt-out of some testing; requiring the Department of Education to fund the standardized tests that local school districts are required to administer; requiring the Commissioner of Education to be qualified.

Status: We’ll be back next year!

Thank you for all of your efforts over the past several months! The children of Tennessee will be well served by the fact that we have parents who are keeping careful watch over the policies that affect our teachers, the quality of our schools, and the future of our state.

TREE has been thrilled to work with individuals and groups across the state and are proud of the impact our coordinated efforts have had. We’re confident we’ll be able to accomplish much more, but to do so, we need your support. A contribution to TREE will help us to continue to educate and inform concerned citizens across the state of Tennesseee about important education issues. Please take a moment to contribute $5, $10, or whatever you can offer to help our efforts. We look forward to continuing our work with you and building on our strong network of engaged parents, teachers, and citizens. Onward!

The Latest on the Voucher Bill

Act Now!

Contact legislators NOW and ask them to vote NO on ineffective and damaging school voucher programs!

Enter your name and e-mail address here. This e-mail will automatically be sent to House Finance Committee members on your behalf.

Your Name:

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Or, if you’d rather, e-mail committee members directly by following this link.

At the House Finance Subcommittee meeting last week, several important questions were asked of the chairman and the sponsor of the voucher bill. Sadly, neither of the representatives had answers to many of them.

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