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What you need to know on education as the 2016 legislature begins

Following a year when the Tennessee legislature tackled Common Core and increased state funding for teacher pay, its 2016 legislative session has the potential to be equally transformative for public schools.

When the General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 12 for the second half of its 109th session, legislators are expected to grapple with two powerful perennial questions — whether the state should overhaul its school funding system, and whether it should allow public money to follow students to private schools through a voucher system.

Either measure would drastically change education across the state, while a number of other issues also have the potential to impact Tennessee schools and classrooms.

Here’s what you need to know as the opening gavel falls:

This could be the year when vouchers become a reality in Tennessee.

For six years running, vouchers have been on the table — passing the Senate three of those years, only to be stymied in the House. Some observers believe that 2016 will yield a different outcome amid increasing calls for school choice by advocates who favor letting low-income students use public school funding for a private school education.

Known as “The Opportunity Scholarship Act,” the bill would make vouchers available to students zoned to the bottom 5 percent of public schools. Since the measure passed the Senate last spring, all it has to do is clear the House finance committee and the full House this spring. Gov. Bill Haslam has indicated he would sign voucher legislation into law.

Brent Easley, director of the pro-vouchers advocacy group StudentsFirst Tennessee, notes that the chairpersons of the House finance subcommittee, where the vouchers proposal currently sits, are co-sponsors of the bill — along with more than 30 other legislators, surpassing the number of sponsors in years past. “We’re energized by the momentum we have this year,” he said.

But voucher opponents say not so fast.

“Our schools are being lauded as the fastest improving in the nation,” said Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a public school teacher and Democrat from Rock Island. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to be putting investments into our public school, and then pulling out millions (for vouchers).”

Another voucher-related proposal is championed by The Beacon Center, a conservative think tank, that would allow public school students to use some state money to pay for individual courses at nearby public schools, private schools or online. The proposal is essentially a voucher system — only for a course at a time.

“We want to give kids the flexibility, the opportunity, to thrive in their public school, but also make sure that they’re given the option to expand educational horizons,” said Lindsay Boyd, Beacon’s policy director.

Local school districts mounting charges of inadequate state funding for K-12 education will generate discussion — if not legislation.

Last year, eight school systems filed two lawsuits against the state, charging that state funding for schools is inadequate. The last time the legislature updated the state’s school funding plan — called the Basic Education Program, or BEP — was in 2007, under the leadership of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. School district leaders say that formula is now outdated too, particularly when it comes to serving growing populations of high-needs students, like those learning English. The state’s BEP review committee, which includes local and state education officials and elected representatives, repeatedly has urged the legislature to update the BEP formula to help equalize teacher pay across the state and funnel more money to high-needs schools.

Last year, Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Jason Powell, both Nashville Democrats, introduced a bill that would alter the formula, allocating enough money to districts so that all teachers could be paid at least $50,000. The bill didn’t make it out of subcommittee and was instead tabled for study last summer. There, lawmakers tried to understand the BEP, a complex formula that uses 45 components to determine how state education dollars are generated and distributed to schools. However, there was little talk of dramatically altering the formula until the lawsuits run their course.

Even so, lawmakers voted last year to increase education funding to pay for 11 months of teachers’ health insurance, versus only 10 months in years past.

The governor said recently that he hopes to boost state allocations for teacher pay for a second year in a row, and that his proposed budget likely will include an increase in education spending.

New research on the Achievement School District and pre-kindergarten will inform debates on the floor.

Two reports issued last year by researchers at Vanderbilt University have given new ammunition to critics of the state’s school turnaround district and pre-kindergarten program.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District already has been under fire in the legislature — the target of 22 bills last year aimed at eliminating or curtailing the state’s initiative for improving low-performing schools. Known as the ASD, the district survived the legislative barrage virtually unscathed as then-superintendent Chris Barbic pleaded for patience and time for the district to prove its worth. But following its third year of operation, test scores from the district’s first cohort of schools in Memphis were generally mixed. And in December, a Vanderbilt report suggested that the ASD was less effective at school turnaround work than innovation zones operated by local districts — although researchers cautioned against scrapping the state-run district altogether.

Now members of the legislature’s black caucus are taking concerns about the ASD’s continued expansion to the state Capitol. Following a vote from the Shelby County school board calling for a moratorium on ASD expansion until its results improve, caucus members say they stand ready to pick up that cause if necessary.

“I hope this doesn’t have to be resolved legislatively,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis. “The best scenario would be for the ASD to voluntarily hit the pause button and reevaluate and work on the schools they already have.”

Expect robust legislative debates as well about Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program based on the surprising results of a Vanderbilt study that calls into question the power of pre-K. The five-year study of Tennessee’s public pre-K program showed that while economically disadvantaged participants fared better at first than their non-participating counterparts, their performance faded out in early elementary grades, eventually even being outperformed by those same peers.

Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican, has attempted to cut the state’s pre-K program for years, and now has more evidence than ever to back his stance that it’s not worth the money. But the state Department of Education is more committed to early learning than ever, urging that existing programs be improved rather than scrapped.

Concerns about over-testing will resurface.

Standardized testing has become a dominant topic in education conversations in Tennessee and across the nation. While those conversations have reached a boiling point in many states, especially related to concerns about over-testing, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has tried to stay ahead of the controversy, creating a testing task force that recommended moves to limit tests administered by districts.

But will it be enough?

“I know members (of the legislature) are hearing from constituents regarding testing policies, so that could be something that is also at the forefront,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said this week.


Some of the task force’s recommendations aim to increase testing transparency — such as allowing test questions from past state achievement tests to be released to the public — which would require legislative action and additional funding to pay for the development of new questions.

The new U.S. education law replacing the No Child Left Behind Act also allows states to set their own opt-out policies to allow students to choose not to take their end-of-year tests. Several states already have laws allowing parents to opt their children out of tests, and some parents have called for a similar measure in Tennessee.

Vouchers won’t be the only bill to make a comeback.

Last year, a bill that would require the state Department of Education to assign letter grades to schools unanimously passed the Senate, but was held up in the House finance subcommittee. Its proponents — most of whom also support vouchers and other “school choice” measures that make it easier for students to go to charter or private schools — think this year it will pass the House. However, opponents contend that such grades would lack nuance and could further stigmatize struggling schools.