Category Archives: education

For TN students, taking civics test is mandatory; passing it is not

In a “guidance” message sent to public school system directors last week, the state Department of Education declares – contrary to some suggestions – a new law requiring high school students to take a civics test does not require they get a passing grade for graduation.

“All public high school students, including the class of 2017, are expected to participate in the civics test; however, a passing grade is not a requirement for graduation,” said the guidance sent by email on Thursday.

As reported by the Kingsport Times-News, there has been confusion over whether passage of the test was required for a high school student to graduate under the law, which was approved in the Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last year, though it doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2017. Continue reading

On education PAC money in Memphis legislative races

Start of a Chalkbeat Tennessee report on campaign financing in Memphis area legislative races:

In Memphis, where efforts to improve schools are helping to reshape the city, at least six candidates running in contested races for the Tennessee House of Representatives are attracting money from groups and individuals with education policy goals.

The candidates, all of whom are running in the Democratic primary election on Thursday, received tens of thousands of dollars from political action committees attached to advocacy organizations including Tennessee Federation for Children and the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, according to campaign finance disclosure reports released late last week by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

And one candidate, Tami Sawyer, has attracted the financial support of high-profile individuals including Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Keith Williams, a pastor who testified this year at the state Capitol in favor of school vouchers, is running for the District 85 seat against incumbent Johnnie Turner, a former Memphis teacher who has voted against vouchers.

In District 90, which stretches from Frayser and North Memphis to South Memphis, Teach For America community organizer Tami Sawyer is running against incumbent John DeBerry, perhaps the legislature’s most vocal proponent of vouchers. Sawyer, who has called for “comprehensive public education reform,” said she does not have a position on vouchers at this time.

And in District 98, Johnnie Hatten, a leader with the parent group called Memphis Lift, which is tied to the Achievement School District, is facing off against Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a vocal critic of the state-run school turnaround district who has advocated for stemming its expansion. The district includes Raleigh and parts of Bartlett and North Memphis.

Williams, Hatten and DeBerry all have the backing of political action committees attached to advocacy groups including the Tennessee Federation for Children and StudentsFirst Tennessee, which aim to increase school choice options across the state, particularly in the form of vouchers. Williams also has received $5,000 from his employer, Campaign for School Equity, formerly known as the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Those candidates also have benefitted from thousands of dollars worth of mailers and advertisements paid for by those group. Tennessee Federation for Children, for example, has spent about $27,000 on materials supporting DeBerry, $15,000 on materials supporting Williams, $17,000 on materials opposing Turner, Williams’ opponent.

In separate statements, Tennessee Federation for Children and StudentsFirst said they chose to support candidates based on their qualifications in education, deep ties to the community, and openness to school choice policies, including vouchers, that the organizations believe will improve educational opportunities in Memphis. A proposal to offer private school tuition vouchers to low-income students has divided the legislature for almost a decade and this year advanced the farthest it’s ever come before fizzling on the House floor.

On the other hand, Turner and Parkinson have received relatively small amounts from the state teacher union’s political action committee in recognition of their stances against vouchers and their cautious approach to expanding the ASD.

Sawyer hasn’t garnered support from education advocacy organizations, but she has received small donations from individuals involved in Memphis education such as Hopson.

Note: Commercial Appeal columnist David Waters lives in state Rep. Antonio Parkinson’s district and is not impressed with the direct mail pieces he’s been getting from special interest PACs. An interesting read, HERE.

State accepting IEA voucher applications; TEA fretting

Press release from state Department of Education
NASHVILLE— The Tennessee Department of Education announced today the launch of applications for its new Individualized Education Account (IEA) Program that provides the opportunity for parents of eligible students with disabilities to access public education funds to choose the education opportunities that best meet their child’s own unique needs.

“The Tennessee Department of Education strives to ensure that every Tennessee student has access to the tools they need to maximize learning,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “We believe this program is a unique opportunity to empower families to make decisions for their individual children as we continue our commitment to supporting all students as one of our five transformative priorities under under Tennessee Succeeds.”

The department is now accepting applications online for the program, which was sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Representative Debra Moody, R-Covington, and adopted by the General Assembly in 2015. Continue reading

TN student testing time reduced by 30 percent

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Education officials say changes in standardized testing in Tennessee are expected to reduce testing time for students and teachers by about 30 percent.

The state has cut the first part of spring standardized testing to create only one assessment window at the end of the school year, The Tennessean ( reported.

The changes stem from the Tennessee Department of Education’s two-year, $60 million contract with Minnesota-based Questar Assessment, which was finalized Thursday.

The changes mean that in grades 3-8, students will spend about three-and-a-half hours less time on state-mandated standardized testing each year. High school students will also see a cut in year-end tests with a typical 11th-grader seeing about the same reduction in testing time. Continue reading

State picks Questar for new student testing contract

News release from state Department of Education
NASHVILLE — Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced today that the department intends to award Questar, a national leader in large-scale assessment, a contract to develop and administer Tennessee’s annual state assessments for the 2016-17 school year.

In addition, McQueen announced that Tennessee will phase in online administration over multiple years to ensure state, district, and vendor technology readiness. For the upcoming school year, the state assessment for grades 3–8 will be administered via paper and pencil. However, the department will work closely with Questar to provide an online option for high school End of Course exams if both schools and the testing platform demonstrate early proof of successful online administration. Even if schools demonstrate readiness for online administration, districts will still have the option to choose paper and pencil assessments for their high school students. Continue reading

Nashville suing state for more school funding, too

The Metro Nashville Public Schools board voted Tuesday evening to sue the state for a greater share of education funding, reports The Tennessean. Members said Tennessee is not providing enough money to help teach English to children for whom it is a second language.

The board approved the lawsuit, with six members in favor and two — Elissa Kim and Mary Pierce — abstaining. Board member Jo Ann Brannon was unable to attend the meeting.

The subject of suing the state for education funds has been a topic for the past year, and the issue came to a head after Metro Law Director Jon Cooper sent a letter June 1 asking the state why Nashville received less money for its English language learners, or ELL, this year.

In a June 3 response, Maryanne Durski, the Tennessee Department of Education’s local finance office director, notified Cooper that the funding allocation through the fiscal year general appropriations act provided adequate funds.

Board Vice Chairwoman Anna Shepherd said the letter was the last straw for her.

“This is state law, and they are just being flippant about it,” she said. “And I don’t think this is a flippant topic.”

Board member Will Pinkston, who has advocated to sue the state for the past year, said Nashville schools have the highest ELL population in the state and the district has a unique opportunity to teach those students.

“The idea that these schools — which literally sit in the shadow of the state Capitol — are getting intentionally short-shrifted by the state is frankly maddening,” he said. “Local taxpayers are doing our part, and the state Department of Education sends us a blow-off letter.”

…With the district suing the state for education funding, it joins Shelby County Schools and seven Hamilton County-area districts in their pursuit of more Basic Education Program funds.

Legislators grill education commissioner on TNReady foulup

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen spent a lot of time Wednesday explaining what went wrong with the state’s $108 million TNReady contract for online testing of public school students, reports The Tennessean.

McQueen said she hopes to have a new contract in place within weeks… the department will not need any approval from lawmakers for the contract.

That alarmed Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, one of several lawmakers on the Fiscal Review Committee who repeatedly referred to the past year’s testing problems as a “debacle” and pressed McQueen and Mike Perry, Tennessee’s chief procurement officer, to explain what went wrong.

“My personal opinion is $105 million is a lot of money for an agency to be making a decision on without public scrutiny,” Gilmore said, citing the need for transparency after such a massive failure.

Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, said he had received a lot of feedback from constituents in his home district, who hold lawmakers accountable for the testing problems.

“We can’t be proud of this,” Wirgau said. “My question is: Did we move too fast making this transition? And now that we have had this debacle, are we trying to move too fast again?”

In response to repeated questions about what went wrong, McQueen outlined in detail the missteps leading to the canceled contract.

…”We believed by Feb. 8 most of those fixes had been done,” McQueen said. Then, she said, “multiple new problems” emerged on Feb. 8.

“At the end of the day, this was about a vendor who said they could do certain things and could not do those things,” she said.

State paying for college counselors at 30 TN high schools

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam has announced the launch of a $2.4 million program that will provide college counselors to 30 public high schools across the state.

The aim of Advise TN is to realize the state’s goal to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree to 55 percent by 2025, the governor’s office said in a statement last Thursday.

“Research tells us that having a school-wide culture … of students knowing that college isn’t only an option for them but it’s an expectation — is one of the best indicators of whether students will pursue higher education,” Haslam said in the statement. “This program will provide schools across the state with one more adult in students’ lives, focused on helping them navigate the transition from high school to college.”

Counselors will be hired and trained in the summer and will work with about 10,000 juniors and seniors statewide. They will help students prepare for the ACT, work on college applications and take advantage of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid program offered by the U.S. Department of Education.

To be eligible, high schools must have average college-going rates that fall below the state average. Public high schools must apply to participate and will be selected by the Tennessee Higher Education Committee based on their commitment to creating a college-going culture.

Advise TN was included in Haslam’s 2016-17 budget with funding of $2.5 million. High schools selected to participate in Advise TN are expected to develop plans to continue the program after state funding has ended.

ACLU files civil rights complaint against transgender bathroom policy

News release from American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee
NASHVILLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee today filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights stating that Sumner County Schools’ policy prohibiting transgender students from using restrooms that correspond with their gender identity violates the requirements of federal anti-discrimination law and the United States Constitution. The complaint was filed on behalf of a transgender high school freshman and her parents.

“No student should have to endure the stigma and marginalization of being segregated from the rest of the student body,” said ACLU-TN cooperating attorney Abby R. Rubenfeld of the Rubenfeld Law Office, PC. “These kinds of blanket bans prevent transgender students from being treated fairly and equally at school. This policy is not only misguided, it’s a direct violation of Title IX and the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The complaint was filed on behalf of the Sumner County public high school student and her parents using pseudonyms, in order to avoid further stigmatization and bullying of the student because of the school district policy. The complaint seeks the Department of Education’s assistance in enforcing federal law regarding the treatment of transgender students in public schools. Continue reading

Another letter on Obama’s bathroom directive from TN GOP legislators

A day a group of Republican state senators sent a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam urging action against an Obama administration directive on transgender bathrooms, a group of 33 Republican state lawmakers — representatives as well as senators — have sent a similar missive to Attorney General Herbert Slatery. It calls on Slatery to “challenge the legal authority” of the federal government to enforce its directive.

Further, from The Tennessean:

State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, wrote the new letter and circulated it to her colleagues for signatures. In the letter, she accuses the Obama administration of “mobocracy” and “bullying” to “accommodate students with gender identify disorder at the expense of the mentally healthy enrollment.”

Bowling is up for re-election this year, with one opponent in the August Republican primary and two Democrats running for their party’s nomination in the 16th state senate district, which includes Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren counties in southeastern Middle Tennessee.

The letter was signed by her and 12 of her Republican colleagues in the Senate and 20 Republicans in the House of Representatives — a minority of the GOP’s 28 state senators and 73 state representatives.

…”Our Office is just as concerned with the joint guidance letter issued by the Education Department and the DOJ as the Governor and many state legislators are. It is the most recent, and all too familiar, example of federal agencies (not Congress) telling states and now universities and local education boards what to do,” Slatery’s office said in a statement.

“We are monitoring the predictable litigation that has resulted. To the extent that our Office can assist and advance the best interests of our State, we will do so.”

Text of the letter available by clicking on this link: Letter to AG Slatery