In a letter to superintendents sent Monday, the governor said he was “disappointed” to learn of a petition drive that had collected signatures from some 60 superintendents alleging Commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Department of Education had “no interest” in working with district leaders.
“The bottom line is that we are at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms that I believe will lead to continued progress in education, and this work is simply too important to get sidetracked,” he said to superintendents in a letter dated Monday.
Gov. Bill Haslam dabbled in the chicken-and-egg debate about education and poverty this morning, a topic he’s rarely broached during this nearly three years in office.
Haslam typically uses public speeches on education to link policy changes to goals of filling unmet needs of the workforce, but he deviated from his traditional talking points during his keynote speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s summit on education and the workforce this morning in Washington, D.C.
Here’s what he had to say, after the jump:
UPDATE, 9:41 a.m.: MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register has signed the petition, according to Tullahoma superintendent Lawson, as have Williamson County Superintendent Mike Looney and Franklin Special School District Director of Schools David Snowden. Lawson denied requests to share the full list of signatures, saying the list is incomplete. "I expect added signatures and I expect some to want to remove their names from the letter" within the next week, he said.
Almost half of the state’s superintendents have signed a petition criticizing the Tennessee Department of Education for having “no interest” in working with school district leaders.
Tullahoma School District superintendent Dan Lawson circulated the letter and began collecting signatures at the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents' fall conference this week that concluded yesterday. He says, however, that it is not a product of TOSS.
“This is not a vote of no-confidence. This is not a statement to any litigation or anything like that. This is a letter of concern,” says Lawson, who points to recent changes in teacher licensure, the state fining Metro Nashville Public Schools for denying Great Hearts Charter School, and the fast pace the department is pushing change as reasons for his petition.
The message, which he said he will leave open until next week for other superintendents to sign, says district leaders’ “efforts to acquire a voice within this administration is futile” and that they feel Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman “considers school teachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners.”
School consolidations, staff layoffs, buyouts and larger class sizes could be in the works under next school year’s district budget given a $23 million projected deficit next year.
“It’s not so much a scare tactic. When I look at where we can save $10 to $15 to $20 million, those are big ticket items. Those are the places that I would look first,” MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register told reporters.
The school board began scratching the surface on those options last night during the board’s budget committee meeting. The board also re-elected its leadership, whose chairwoman promptly refuted recent attacks on the school board asserting members are hostile to charter schools. The board also approved a district calendar for the 2014-15 year and a five-year district strategic plan, took up the new grading policy that assigns students grades no lower than 50, and spoke about some structural changes to admissions at Martin Luther King, Jr. Magnet School.
Here’s the play-by-play:
When Metro Schools board members begin considering “high leverage” parts of the budget to cut so they can afford charter schools, closing underperforming schools will be one of their options, board member Will Pinkston tells the Scene in advance of today's Budget and Finance Committee meeting.
“The development of charters over the last decade has brought us to a point to consider big options,” explains Pinkston, the board’s budget chair. Closing schools, he says, "is a big option.
“The question is how prepared [House Speaker Beth] Harwell and others who want charters so badly are to have these conversations.”
In its Budget and Finance Committee meeting today, the board will consider ways to fix their $24 million expected budget shortfall for the 2014-15 school year. The board is also scheduled to meet for executive session after the budget meeting.
“As it stands, we’re feeding charter schools every dime of new revenue and starving existing schools and teachers. That’s just not fiscally sustainable or responsible,” Pinkston says.
The meeting comes as a local clash over charter schools simmers at both the school board and Metro Council level. Speaker Harwell, a fan of the charter school movement, has gotten involved on both ends, first in requesting a legal opinion by the state attorney general that ultimately defended the state’s charter school law, and by convincing Metro Councilman Steve Glover to slow down a moratorium on approving new charter schools.
Contrary to a legal opinion some Metro school board and council members were banking on, the state’s charter school law does not impose unconstitutional financial burdens on local school districts, according to Attorney General Bob Cooper.
The opinion seemingly blows a hole through a legal opinion issued to the Metro Nashville school board last month that suggested the district may have a case to prove the state’s 2002 Charter Schools Act is unconstitutional. Key officials at the school board and Metro council level were looking to use that opinion as leverage as they push for a moratorium on new charter schools in a game of tug-of-war over financial resources.
The legal opinion issued Monday specifically addresses whether the state’s 2002 Charter Schools Act imposes “financial burdens on local school districts in violation of Article II, Section 24 of the Tennessee Constitution.”
Amidst another flare-up in the debate about the present state and future course of Nashville's public schools, Councilman Steve Glover says he will defer a Metro Council resolution calling for a moratorium on the approval of new charter schools in Metro.
Glover tells Pith he agreed to delay the memorializing resolution after House Speaker Beth Harwell reached out to him, through an intermediary, with concerns about the measure, which would be non-binding and, thus, largely symbolic.
"I got a phone call from an individual asking for me to meet with the Speaker of the House," Glover says. "She requested I pull it, according to this individual, but I'm not going to pull it. I will defer it, until we have a conversation. But I will be kind enough to meet with the speaker and have a conversation about my concerns."
Harwell confirms to Pith that the two are planning to meet and says she wants to hear his "legitimate concerns." She says that although the non-binding resolution has no legislative teeth, she worried about the message it would send.
"My concern was that it sends a negative message to potential public charter schools that may want to open here in Nashville," she says.
School officials embroiled in debate with charter school advocates plan to make the case Tuesday that they can’t afford to approve more of the publicly-funded privately-run schools.
Budget Chairman of the Metro School Board Will Pinkston plans to highlight how offering more charter school seats next year is expected to suck up $22.7 million, while revenue growth for the next school year is projected to be $15 million — leaving little to accommodate other district needs.
“I don’t see how we avoid talking about it when it’s so much a part of the projected growth,” Pinkston said about charter schools. “We’ll have to start looking at what our options are.”
The 2014-15 budget discussion, which began last month, rekindles the district’s debate from earlier this year when board members and top school officials argued for “guardrails” at the state level to protect the district from opening charter schools they can’t afford.
In today's New York Times, there's a pretty fascinating series of articles examining what has worked in education.
The lead piece examines Massachusetts' rise in math and science proficiency. If the state were a country, it would be second only to Singapore according to one well-respected international survey.
Tennessee, and Nashville in particular, are grappling with education reform in all of its dimensions, from standards to school models to teacher evaluations, so this series should be of particular interest.
Frogge and Will Pinkston were the two board members singled out by the Tennessee Charter School Center as charter school opponents. Here's an excerpt from Frogge's response, in which she pushes back against the idea that she, or Pinkston, or the board as a whole are hostile to charter schools:
Since my election last year, six charter schools have come before the board for approval. I voted to approve four of the six.
I voted to deny the first charter school application because our board was ordered to ensure that this school provided a sufficient diversity plan, and in my opinion, it did not. This school had no real history of serving poor children, different races, special needs students, or English learners. This school, which would have been located in an affluent, predominately white area of Nashville, also refused to offer transportation beyond two years to children who could not have attended the school otherwise. Finally, this school charged high prices for lunches, books and other necessities, which would have prohibited most MNPS students from attending the school.
I voted to deny our most recent charter school application because we have learned that charter school costs are rapidly driving up our district costs. I believe that the cost of charter schools, which this year will serve only 5% of our student population, has or will begin to impact the schools that serve the other 95% of our students. I also believe it is fiscally irresponsible to continue to approve new schools until we have determined how we plan to pay for them. While we may be able to shave off some of our district expenses, I think it will be difficult to shave off the tens of million dollars per year necessary to sustain our current charter growth without damaging the operations of our school system, but this is something to discuss and work out before moving forward. For those who doubt the financial realities of our current situation, take a brief look at what is happening in NY, Chicago and Philadelphia. That is exactly where we are heading if we don’t exercise caution.
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