Capitol Roundup

House panel advances modest teacher tax break

A bill that would allow teachers to take a $250 state tax deduction for school supplies and materials they pay for out of their own pockets passed the House Finance Committee Thursday on a 9-2 vote after members of both parties agreed it would be a nice gesture even if it wouldn’t make much financial difference.

Things didn’t look promising for sponsor Rep. Clarice Navarro as the hearing opened. Democrats peppered the Pueblo Republican with questions about the bill’s real impact and whether it would be better to use the revenue lost to the deduction for more K-12 funding.

Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, did some quick calculations and estimated the deduction would only save an individual teacher about $10 on state taxes. “I think it’s not a huge benefit to a teacher,” she said.

Navarro stood her ground, saying, “I absolutely do believe it’s worthwhile.”

Most Democrats eventually came around to that point of view, especially after House Bill 15-1104 was amended to eliminate an escalator clause that would have increased the deduction to $750 in a couple of years. (The legislative staff estimate for the bill projects that it would cost the state about $350,000 in lost revenue for the first year.)

As Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs put it, “This is truly a case of it’s the thought that counts.”

Only Becker and Rep. Michael Foote, D-Lafayette, remained unconvinced and voted no.

The bill goes next to the House Appropriations Committee, where it faces an uncertain future, as chair Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, noted.

If the bill passes, it would go into effect only if Congress does not reinstate a lapsed federal deduction for teacher purchases of school supplies. Teachers would be able to take the state deduction even if they don’t itemize other deducations.

Senate Education has long and ragged afternoon

The Senate Education Committee’s afternoon hearing ran for four and a half hours, and the panel didn’t even get to the most interesting bills.

Much of the hearing was devoted to Senate Bill 15-020, which would require the state’s School Safety Resource Center to provide materials and training for schools on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and assault. It also encourages districts and schools to adopt abuse and assault prevention plans.

The bill is a Colorado version of what’s called Erin’s Law, named after an Illinois woman who has made it her mission to get states to pass such laws. Erin Merryn, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, came to the hearing in person to support passage of the bill. The bill’s prime sponsor is Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, whose daughter is an abuse survivor.

Most of the hearing consisted of emotional and moving testimony from abuse survivors and advocates in support of the bill.

Before testimony started, chair Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, announced that a vote on the bill would be held at a later meeting because some amendments were in the works.

So, after testimony ended, the audience was surprised when Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, moved to pass the bill unamended. “I think not acting on this bill today is disrespectful to the people who came here today to testify, to bare their souls.” He also noted the bill still has to go to another committee, leaving plenty of time for amendments.

Kerr’s motion threw committee Republicans into confusion. Hill had to be hastily recalled from another committee where he was presenting a bill, and several Republican “passed” when their names came up in the roll call.

Ultimately Kerr’s motion failed on a 4-5 party-line vote, so the committee will consider the bill again later.

(The back story here is that Democrats suspect that Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, is going to use the bill to propose a broader rollback in state sex education requirements, an issue that prompted a hot partisan fight a couple of sessions ago.)

Marble was tight-lipped about her plans, telling her colleagues only, “The amendments being looked at are very important. … That’s all I can share with you.”

The committee also had trouble of a more technical kind with Senate Bill 15-117, which has the interesting title of “Concerning prohibiting discrimination in public financing of institutions of higher education.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, appears to be aimed primarily at the new higher education funding formula created under a 2014 law of which Lambert was a prime sponsor. That law and related formula base part of higher education funding on how well colleges perform on goals including the recruitment, retention, and graduation of minority students.

Lambert told the committee he thinks its discriminatory that the formula excludes Asian-heritage students from the group of minority students included in the formula.

The bill passed the committee on a somewhat surprising 9-0 vote, although several Democrats made it clear that they were yes votes “for now.” This is an issue that we haven’t heard the last of and which may resurface when the Joint Budget Committee decides on the higher education budget for 2015-16. The JBC is split 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans, and Lambert is chair for this session.

After the committee had finished Lambert’s bill, Hill abruptly announced that the two most interesting bills of the day were being “laid over” until a later meeting. (Lobbyists and others in the audience quietly breathed sighs of relief.)

Those two measures are Senate Bill 14-072, another Lambert measure that would raise admissions standards at Metropolitan State University, and Senate Bill 15-045, the annual Republican effort to create tax credits for parents who pay tuition at private schools. Look for those on next Thursday’s committee agenda.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts, fiscal notes and more details on the measures covered in this article.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: