School Choice Expansion Continues to be a Priority for Tennessee Lawmakers

Governor Bill Lee took to social media on Wednesday to proclaim the week of January 22 – 28, 2023, School Choice Week in Tennessee.

He further tweeted that “Every parent should have the opportunity to pick the best school for their child.” The governor added, “[W]e continue to advocate for high-quality education that meets the needs of every individual student.”

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MNPS Provides Marketing Budget for Individual Schools in Wake of Recent Enrollment Declines

Over the past several years, Tennessee lawmakers have increased school choice options for families. In an effort to influence parents’ educational choices, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is providing each school with a stipend designed to entice families to make zoned schools their first choice. It’s a continuation of a strategy first implemented last year, and one that the district feels was successful.

In an email, MNPS spokesman Sean Braisted tells The Tennessee Star, “Our goal as a district is to get as many families as possible to choose MNPS as their first option for student success.”

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Local Tennessee School Districts Navigating Changes in State Funding Formula

Tennesse’s school districts have started preparing their individual budgets for the 2023-2024 school year. They are doing it while contending with a new state funding formula and with limited guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education(TDOE). The change in formula completely alters how district allocations from the state are calculated. In the past, the state has provided calculations for local districts. This year, that too will change.

In notes obtained by The Tennessee Star from a call between the TDOE and the Superintendent Study Council, local officials were informed that the department will soon be sending out Data Verification Packets to districts that will include district-specific data from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd 20-day reporting periods. Districts are required to report attendance counts at 20-day intervals throughout the year.

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Tennessee Senate Education Chair Files Bill That Gives Local Districts Flexibility on Class Size

State Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), who serves as chair of the Senate Education Committee, filed legislation that would lift classroom size limits for k-12 schools.

SB0197, if made law, would repeal the existing maximum class sizes, maximum class size averages, student-teacher ratios, and the prohibition against split-grade classes established by law. It would authorize each local education agency (LEA) and public charter school with authority to establish the maximum class sizes for schools under its control and jurisdiction. Transferring power from the Tennessee Department of Education(TDOE) back to local school boards while still requiring the department to set recommendations.

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Metro Nashville Public Schools Limits What the Public May Say at Board Meetings

The Metro Nashville Public School Board is changing the way that it hears from its constituents. In Chairwoman Rachael Elrod’s view, this is less a change in policy and more of enforcing a policy already in existence. As a result of this new interpretation, the public will be granted more opportunities to publicly address board members but less leeway in what they can talk about. Public participation is scheduled at every meeting, but the only topics open during public participation, are those included in the published agenda. 

In a Facebook post dated January 10, Elrod lays out her reasoning to constituents. She writes, “Our public participation policy has been in place since 2017 (before I was on the board) and was most recently updated in March 2022. It has said, since 2017, that public participation should “address the board on an item on the agenda,” she continues with, “After making sure that internal teams could manage this change in enforcement and with no colleague proposing changes to the policy, I announced that I will begin enforcing this policy in 2023.”

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Metro Nashville Public Schools Provides District Students with School Options for the 2023-24 School Year

On January 23rd, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) will open the School Options Application period for the 2023 – 2024 school year. The open period will be extended until February 10th. Students, and their families, can choose to pursue enrollment in a district school outside their zoned school, a charter school, or in one of the district’s magnet and art school options.

Through this application process, MNPS provides families with an opportunity to find a school that might better suit their needs as compared to their zoned option. Not all district schools are considered eligible for outside-zone enrollment, due to capacity issues. All MNPS students have a guaranteed pathway to their zoned school.

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McNally and Sexton Announce Appointments for Tennessee’s 113th General Assembly Education Committees

Lt Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) have announced the list of member appointments to the education committees for the 113th General Assembly. It’s a list populated by both old stalwarts and new blood.

In the Senate, there is one education committee that will continue to be filled with familiar faces. McNally appointed only two new members – Senator Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) and Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) – for the upcoming session. Senator John Lundberg (R-Bristol) remains chair, with Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) as the 2nd Vice-Chair.  Sen. Senator Bill Powers (R-Clarksville) assumes the role of 1st Vice-Chair.

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Tennessee State Senator Introduces Bill Aimed at Prohibiting School District from Mandating Implied Bias Training

State Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) introduced legislation that would prohibit Tennessee public schools and universities from mandating “implicit bias” training. If passed, SB102 would also extend to state agencies, including the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) and The State Board of Education (SBE). Neither of these agencies currently requires employees to participate in training as a condition of employment.

The National Institutes of Health defines implicit bias as a form of bias that occurs automatically and unintentionally, but nevertheless affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors. Research has shown implicit bias can pose a barrier to schools creating a diverse workforce and negatively impact student learning.  In an effort to mitigate the negative effects, schools and businesses have implemented mandatory training for employees, Gardenhire’s law would work to end these mandates.

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Metro Nashville Public Schools Board of Education Unanimously Passes Resolution in Opposition to State Third Grade Retention Law

The Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Board of Education has joined the ranks of school districts that have passed referendums opposing Tennessee’s 3rd-grade retention law. The law, which goes into effect this year, mandates that all 3rd-graders who fail to achieve a score of “meets expectations” on the state’s annual  TCAP test repeat third grade unless they avail themselves of one of the state’s options.

Those options include achieving a required score after retaking the test, enrolling in Summer School, or enrolling in a tutoring program for the next year. Parents, if they choose to, have the opportunity to file an appeal. 

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Tennessee State Board of Education Considers Rule Change That Would Result in Change to Value of Education Savings Accounts

On January 30th the Tennessee State Board of Education will hold a rulemaking hearing on BEP to TISA transition rules. Included is a provision that could serve to increase the value of state Education Saving Accounts (ESA), potentially even doubling that value. This could ultimately lead to increased investment by state lawmakers. 

Item number 7 under proposed rule 0520-01-16 governing ESAs reads as follows:

“The maximum annual amount to which a participating student is entitled under the Program shall be equal to the amount representing the per-pupil state and local funds generated and required through the state’s K-12 education funding formula Basic Education Program (“BEP”) for the LEA in which the participating student resides, or the statewide per pupil average of required state and local funds as determined through the state’s K-12 education funding formulaBEP funds, whichever amount is less.”

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‘Chiefs for Change’ Names Newest Member Cohort, Includes Two Candidates from Tennessee

A national education policy advocacy group founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has named its newest cohort of future members. Among them are Tennesseans, Eve Carney of the Tennessee Department of Education and Hamilton County’s Deputy Superintendent, Sonia Stewart. The two are part of the Chiefs for Change seventh cohort of its Future Chiefs ​leadership development program.

Eve Carney, per the Tennessee Department of Education’s organizational chart, serves as the Chief of Districts and Schools, despite the Chiefs for Change press release identifying her as Deputy Commissioner. Carney, a graduate of the University of Tennessee, has served with the TDOE since 2014. 

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Middle Tennessee Schools Take 7 of the Top 10 State Spots in 2023 Public School Ranking

Niche has released its annual school rankings for 2023. This year’s list shows that 7 of the top 10 public high schools in Tennessee are located in the mid-state region. Nashville’s Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School holds the top spot, closely followed by Williamson County’s Ravenwood and Rutherford County’s Central Magnet. It isn’t until the 7th slot that a high school outside middle Tennessee is recognized – Knox County’s Farragut High School. 

The middle school rankings tell a similar story. Once again, 7 out of the top 10 schools are located in the state’s central region. The top public middle school, per Niche, is Rutherford County’s Central Magnet (a 6 – 12 school), followed by Merroll Hyde Magnet School (a k – 12 school) in Sumner County and Thompson Station Middle School in Williamson County. Coulter Grove Intermediate School is the highest-ranked middle school located outside of Middle Tennessee. The Maryville City School is ranked 5th. 

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Governor Lee Appoints Three to State Charter School Commission

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has reappointed Alan Levine to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission. Along with Levine, Michael Carter of Davidson County and Chris Tutor of Shelby County have been submitted for approval as members. The two new members will represent Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee respectively, replacing Dr. Derwin Signet and Dave Hanson as board members. Appointments come from the governor, but must be confirmed by the General Assembly.

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Legislative Session Finds Tennessee Lawmakers Poised to Expand and Amend Existing Education Policies

The 113th Tennessee State General Assembly is set to convene at noon on Tuesday, January 10, and preliminary indications are that the state’s Department of Education (TDOE) will not be supporting any new initiatives this year. The official position of the TDOE is that the administration sets the legislative agenda for state agencies, but in the past, the department has led the charge on several occasions – including, but not limited to, literacy, high-quality materials, and school funding.

For their part, legislators appear to be looking to amend – and in some cases expand – past efforts to improve student educational opportunities. This year’s legislative agenda forsakes the bold initiatives of the recent past in order to tweak and expand existing laws. Education Savings Accounts (ESA), TISA, and the 3rd-grade retention policy are all on the table for modification this year.

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Metro Nashville Government Files Notice of Appeal on ESA Ruling

Metro Nashville Government, along with Shelby County Government, has filed a notice of appeal on a court ruling dismissing their lawsuit over education savings accounts (ESA) legislation. This is the latest round in a series of legal actions brought forth in response to legislation passed in 2019. The filing of an appeal indicates that Nashville Government plans to continue its fight against legislation narrowly passed in 2019.

 On November 23rd, of this year, a three-judge panel – made up of Chancellor Anne Martin, Judge Tammy Harrington, and Judge Valerie Smith – released a ruling in response to the initial lawsuit denying standing to the plaintiffs. In the court’s opinion, adjustments made by the state to offset potential losses in school funding for impacted districts, make any article arguments for lost funding purely hypothetical. That ruling cleared the plate of all legislation filed in opposition to the go signature legislation. 

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Under Proposed New Legislation, Tennessee Students Would Wait Until Age 7 to Start First Grade

Last week on 99.7 WTN, Tennessee House Representative Scott Cepicky R – Culleoka outlined to host Matt Murphy, legislation he intended to file to change the eligibility age for students entering first grade. Under Cepicky’s proposal, students would not be able to enter first grade until age 7, unless they could pass a local assessment showing that they could do grade-level work. The bill would allow younger students to take a “redshirt” year to adequately prepare for the increased academic demands of first grade. 

Cepicky’s legislation is derived from a legislative brief on Kindergarten Readiness and Academic Performance, written by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA). This brief shows that Tennessee students who were older at kindergarten enrollment performed better on 3rd-grade literacy tests than their peers. Forty-two percent of students aged 6 to 6.49 (older students) were on or above grade level in 3rd-grade literacy, compared to 33 percent of younger students aged 4.5 to 4.99 years old. The trend of older students outperforming their younger peers was also reflected on 6th-grade literacy tests. 

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23 Charter Schools File Letters of Intent with Local Tennessee School Districts

The state Department of Education received 23 letters of intent from charter school operators seeking to open new schools in eight districts across Tennessee. The deadline to apply for approval for the 2023-24 academic year was December 3. Formal applications are due February 1, 2023.

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U.S. and State Education Departments Announce Title 1 Funding Cuts as Schools Approach Second Semester

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) notified school districts of modifications in their federal financial allocations this past week. These annual adjustments are typically made earlier in the school year, giving districts time to recalculate local budgets. While districts should have been aware that changes were coming, the timing of this year’s adjustments arrived unexpectedly and created confusion.

Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) spokesperson Sean Braisted told The Tennessee Star in an email, “We expected to receive our final allocation at some point in the fiscal year, so this is not unexpected.  Our original allocation is a preliminary allocation, and the determination of a final allocation amount (and subsequent budget revision) happens annually.”

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Tennessee Department of Education Releases ACT Scores for 2022 Graduates

This week, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) released the ACT state results and participation rate for the 2022 graduating class, two months after national data was released by ACT. The results show that Tennessee is not moving the needle in student outcomes.

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Analysis: Tennessee State Report Card Scores for Cannon, Williamson, and Nashville Metro School Districts

The recently released Tennessee State Report Card for schools and districts offers a means for parents to gather information about their children’s schools and compare and contrast neighboring school districts. The report focuses on performance, but also provides data on student demographics, student funding, staffing levels, and other pertinent information required by parents to make informed judgments about their children’s education opportunities.

“With the release of the State Report Card, Tennessee continues our firm commitment to providing families with clear, actionable information on how our districts and schools are serving students,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “The Report Card allows stakeholders to access years’ worth of meaningful data through an interactive, easy-to-navigate online platform, and now the latest data is available to help Tennesseans to explore and learn about their local schools and districts.”

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State-Mandated Since 2021, the Third Grade Retention Law Has Tennessee State Legislators and Parents Calling for a Change

Lawmakers and parents are increasingly questioning Tennessee’s third-grade retention law. While Tennessee has long had legislation in place allowing districts the ability to retain third-grade students who did not score “proficient” on TCAP, the previous law left the decision up to local districts. Legislation passed during 2021’s Special Session took that decision out of local districts’ hands and made it state-mandated. A move that state lawmakers are now openly questioning.

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TDOE Announces Partnership to Deliver Foundational Reading Books to Young Children Through the Christmas Season

The Tennessee Department of Education announced a partnership with the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation (GELF) on Wednesday aimed to deliver books to the parents of young elementary school-aged children this winter. The books are offered at no cost and are for kindergarten through second grade children. The effort is part of the state’s increased commitment to early childhood literacy under Governor Lee.

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New TDOE State Report Card Shows Improvement in Some Areas, but Falls Short of Lawmakers’ Standard

The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) released the 2021-22 State Report Card on Monday. The Report Card serves as an annual reflection of lawmakers’ desires to bring greater transparency into how Tennessee’s schools are serving students and families.

State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement about the report, “With the release of the State Report Card, Tennessee continues our firm commitment to providing families with clear, actionable information on how our districts and schools are serving students.”

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Textbook Commission Hears from School Librarians as They Develop Guidelines for Schools and Reading Materials

In an effort to assist the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission with crafting a library policy mandated by state law, the Tennessee Department of Education pulled together state school librarians to craft a set of recommendations. Kate Capshaw, the current president of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL), and Blake Hopper, a past president, presented their recommendations in a workshop session on Friday.

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Governor Lee’s Voucher Program Clears Another Legal Hurdle

Tennessee’s Education Savings Account (ESA) plan, often portrayed as a voucher program, won another legal challenge filed by opponents of the controversial legislation that targets Memphis and Nashville schools. A three-judge panel appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court and made up of Chancellor Anne Martin, Judge Tammy Harrington, and Judge Valerie Smith, has ruled that the parties challenging the legislation have no legal standing. As a result, all challenges are dismissed.

This action, at least temporarily, removes all legal hurdles facing the 2019 Education Savings Account law. The law provides money for families to offset private school tuition, should they choose to pursue that option due to inadequate traditional school options.

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Titans Pair with MNPS on Major Investment to Benefit High School Sports

There are benefits to sharing a city with an NFL franchise. There are even more benefits to sharing a city with an NFL franchise in pursuit of a new stadium. But are the benefits real, or simply a PR deal geared towards facilitating a new stadium for the NFL franchise? One that also benefits local officials.

This week Nashville’s Mayor Cooper announced via  a press release,  “Every Metro Nashville Public High School (MNPS) athletic program will receive a new sports field, an initiative made possible through an innovative partnership with the Tennessee Titans and The Foundation for Athletics in Nashville Schools, Inc. (The Fans Inc), a non-profit organization dedicated to endow athletic programming at MNPS schools.”

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Commissioner Schwinn Presents Department of Education Budget for Coming Year, Promising More of the Same

An optimistic Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, presented the department’s2023/2024 proposed budget to Governor Lee and his advisors. For his part, the Governor was cordial, congratulatory, and to the point – often raising questions during the 30-minute presentation.

With confidence in his re-election bid running high, Governor Lee scheduled state departmental budget hearings for November 9th. A day after Tuesday’s statewide election that awarded him four more years as Governor. In the wake of securing his job for another term, Governor Lee indicated that education would remain a top priority going forth.

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The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office Issues Report Providing Optimism, While Raising Questions Around K-3 Student Reading

A recently released report from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office shows that Tennessee K-3 students are making positive, albeit slight, growth in acquiring reading skills. Those conclusions were drawn from state-mandated K-3 universal reading screeners (URS), which all school districts are required to administer as part of legislation passed in 2021 during a Special Session of the General Assembly on education.

Legislators passed the Tennessee Literacy Success Act (TLSA), with the intent to ensure that students were on track to become proficient readers by the end of grade 3. The URS requirement was embedded in the bill as a means to safeguard taxpayer investment while delivering on promises made to Tennessee students.

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Nationally Recognized School Funding Experts Pair with State Advocates to Advise Charter School Leaders

Afton Partners, a national organization specializing in school funding and education policy, has announced via social media a new partnership with the Tennessee State Collaborative for Reforming Education(SCORE) and  The Tennessee Charter School Center(TCSC). The stated purpose of the budding collaboration is to help Tennessee’s charter school leaders better understand the operational and financial implications of Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement(TISA) – the state’s new funding formula for public schools. 

TISA was passed by legislators during the last General Assembly and is slated to replace the current funding formula for the 2023-2024 school year. Touted as a formula that funds students over systems, the bill establishes a base funding rate of $6,860 per pupil, then distributes additional funding for students considered as being economically disadvantaged, having unique learning needs, or living in rural or impoverished communities. Tennessee charter schools are considered public schools and therefore receive funding through their charter authorizer at the same rate as traditional schools. 

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Florida NAEP Results Offer a Potential Harbinger for Tennessee

The release of the “Nation’s Report Card” on October 24th has led to a variety of pronouncements from a variety of experts. Many have expressed grave concerns over the potential effects on students, due to lost instructional time during the recent COVID pandemic. The value of this national test, designed to measure fourth and eighth-grade student learning, is in of itself a hotly debated issue. While the interpretation of the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which supplies the data for the Report Card, may be open to debate, they do offer a large trove of valuable information that can be used in the consideration and evaluation of policy. In some cases, providing a warning of future outcomes. 

This year, Florida is publically celebrating its successful outcomes. In the wake of the positive results, Governor DeSantis sent out a press release using NEAP results to defend his response to COVID and his commitment to keeping schools open,

“We also knew that younger and at-risk students would be the most impacted if schools were closed, and the results speak for themselves. In Florida our 4thgrade students rank #3 in Reading and #4 in Math, achieving top 4 in both English and Math for the first time in state history, while lockdown California and New York aren’t even in the top 30.”.

While Florida’s fourth-grade results are exceptionally positive, they don’t tell the whole story. 

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Tennessee State Board of Education Approves List of Math Materials Eligible for Adoption by Local Districts

At its regularly scheduled meeting Friday, the Tennessee State Board of Education approved a list of eligible materials for K-12 instruction of mathematics by local districts. The list is compiled by the Tennessee Textbook Commission and presented to the state board by the Tennessee Department of Education (TNDOE).

The submission and subsequent approval are part of a legally mandated review process conducted by the state. Every six years, one core subject is slated for review, and districts must select materials they intend to purchase and implement to educate students in that core subject for the next six years. English language arts went through the process in 2019, and social studies in 2020. Math was slated for review in 2021 but was delayed for two years, so as not to conflict with a state review of math standards.

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Former School Board Member and Bredesen Advisor Climbs Back in the Ring with New Advocacy Group

During his tenure on the MNPS School Board, former Bredesen advisor Will Pinkston worked with a laser-like focus to prevent the growth of charter schools in Tennessee. Though he is no longer a board member, he is leading a new effort to continue that fight by drawing attention to the financial cost charter schools impose on local school districts. Pinkston, a Democrat, has joined forces with former Wilson County Schools Director Donna Wright, a Republican, to create a new nonprofit, nonpartisan group advocating for traditional public schools.

The stated focus of the new group is to shed a light on the fiscal cost of charter schools on local districts’ budgets. Visitors to the fledging group’s website will find a series of research studies including one by Derek W. Black. Black is considered one of the nation’s leading experts in public education funding and is the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law and director of the Constitutional Law Center at the University of South Carolina. He argues that charter schools have a negative impact on the budgets of local school districts due to fixed costs.

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