Last year the General Assembly broadened the charter schools law in Tennessee giving hope to many more students in struggling schools. This year, what was working out to be a pretty disappointing piece of legislation on education reform has ended up providing genuine promise for the children of our state.
The first few sections of the Race to the Top bill may read well, but by comparison to current law, they do not vest the Commissioner of Education with any revolutionary new powers or responsibility for failing schools. The major item is that a name is coined for state governance over failing schools; “Achievement School District.”
The next part has an appearance of conflict of interest; a full 80% of the committee charged with creating new guidelines and criteria for which teachers and principals will be evaluated is made up of teachers and principals, and a few other education policy makers…no sweeping change here either. Quickly abandoned was the idea of a large group of assorted citizens such as parents and business people playing a role in education by developing an objective and effective standard outside the status quo.
Further, the new standard doesn’t have to lead to the dismissal of a poor teacher…it could, but only if a local school will actually act to dismiss him or her for a poor evaluation - that hasn’t been happening in low achieving areas and this bill won’t ensure that it does…or maybe it will…more on that later.
So where is the revolutionary change that will not just win $485,000,000 in grant money but much more importantly, will actually help students in low performing schools; raising Tennessee from the bottom of national education rankings to nearer the top?
The state has had the ability to take over a failing school for a very long time. But the threat of that actually happening was virtually zero because of funding - if the state did actually take over a school, the state’s taxpayers would have to foot the entire cost of running the school because there was no mechanism in the law to make the locals pay their portion of the cost for educating their students from a failed school that was taken over by the state.
Saving the day was a discrete amendment added to the bill that will allow for the Achievement School District to use state BEP funds and local funds to operate a school placed in alternative governance. Not only does this make it much more probable that the state will take over a failing school but the threat of takeover will more than likely force administrators whose teachers do not achieve annual yearly progress to make key changes about who should be teaching their students in order to avoid takeover.
Further, an “Achievement School District” breaks out of the status quo by not only allowing schools to be run by another governmental entity, but also by non-profits (opening the door to the Gates Foundation and others) and, strikingly, the DOE can even contract with individuals.
Including individuals was a curious provision which never really seemed to receive an answer that revealed a logical purpose in committee. Not until the funding amendment created the possibility that a school could really be placed in alternative governance and that the governance could be provided by an individual was it realized late last night that this seems to be assembling the parts for a voucher system for these long suffering students. If individuals can contract with the state to educate a student, that may mean that parents could be the contractor and use those funds to seek their choice of desired education for their child.
Although provided few clear answers, probably so as to leave the legislation sufficiently vague and aiding passage, this bill could be one of the most sweeping reforms that Tennessee has ever undertaken.
The hope of federal money is no reason to vote for a bill but it is no reason to vote against it either. In fact, until I realized what the assembling of these parts could do, I voted against the bill because I didn't like several parts of the bill. As I stated on the radio last week, the only reason to vote for a bill is if it is good policy for the people of our state which in the end HB5 turns out to be.
State governments are the great laboratories of reform, and many states will vouch that charter schools and vouchers give children trapped in low performing schools, or with special needs or learning disabilities real options for their education and their future. Why not break out of politics and status quo? Why not use education dollars as efficiently as possible by matching the needs of the child to the school that can best meet those needs?