Report on high lead levels in school drinking water may boost ‘flushing’ bill in legislature

Reports of unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water at some Nashville schools may improve chances for passage of legislation that died in a House subcommittee earlier this year, reports WTVF-TV.

The TV station recently found data from a survey of Nashville school water, not previously made public, that showed 81 of 2,800 samples had lead levels higher than the 15 parts per billion, the “action level” established by the Environmental Protection Agency. The American Academy of Pediatrics says a child’s drinking water should have no more than one part per billion and about third of the samples were in excess of that level. At one high school, the level was 1,190 parts per billion.

Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, sponsored a bill this year (HB385) that would require daily “flushing” of water systems in school building built before 1986.

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Study criticizes TN law on school district secession, cites Shelby, Hamilton County examples

A new study on school district secession around the nation says Tennessee law makes it easier than most any other state for wealthy, predominantly-white small cities to set up separate school systems from predominantly-black poor areas.

It cites the formation of six new school systems in Shelby County under a 2011 law as a leading example and also uses as an example plans in the works for Signal Mountain to set up a school system separate from Hamilton County.

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Grading scandal triggers audit of all Shelby County high schools

The state Department of Education says a grading scandal at Trezevant High School in Memphis has triggered an audit of grade transcripts at all Shelby County Schools high schools, reports the Commercial Appeal.

An independent firm is handling the audit, and the timeline “will depend on the scope of the work required,” according to an email from the department. The district-wide audit was a “mutual” decision between SCS and the state, the email said.

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Billboards used to push Memphis funding for schools

A week after Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland largely dismissed a new coalition’s call for $10 million in city spending on schools, the group is taking its message to billboards, reports Chalkbeat Tennessee.

Fund Students First — comprised of elected officials, education advocates and public school leaders — posted two billboards Friday in high-trafficked streets in downtown and midtown Memphis. The campaign is being underwritten by Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group with offices in Memphis and Nashville.

One billboard says:


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TN submits new education plan with letter grades for schools

The state Department of Education has released its plan for bring Tennessee into compliance with the new federal education law called Every Student Succeeds Act.

Under the plan, all public schools will get a letter grade from A to F, making it easier for parents to evaluate how their local schools are doing.

Last year the Legislature passed a bill that called for schools to be given letter grades, notes the AP, but the new state education plan goes even further under the measurement system that takes effect in the fall of 2018.

The Department of Education news release is HERE.

‘Bathroom bill’ gets cold shoulder in Senate

The so-called “bathroom bill,” declaring that students in a school much use a restroom for the gender given on their birth certificate, could not get a motion for passage in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, leaving it dead for the year.

From The Tennessean’s report:

Opponents of the bill from the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBT Chamber of Commerce filled the committee room and held up signs in silent opposition to the bill (SB771), claiming it discriminates against transgender students and other members of the LGBT community.

When the bill was met with silence and dismissed by the committee, supporters let out happy gasps of surprise.

“It seems like we are making progress on teaching these legislators on what being transgender in Tennessee is like,” said Henry Seaton, the LGBT organizer for the ACLU of Tennessee said. “I was very shocked, but very proud that they did not hear it.”

…(Lt. Gov. Randy)  McNally praised the “diligent work” of the Senate Education Committee.

“Due to President Trump’s courageous action, the rationale for legislation no longer exists. The president’s reversal of the Obama administration’s overreaching cultural assault brings the issue back where it belongs: our local communities,” McNally said.

The Oak Ridge Republican said the “unneeded legislation” would have resulted in litigation that would have put school bathroom policies in the hands of federal judges rather than those on the local level. “This issue is best addressed by those closest to the community.

…(House sponsor Rep. Mark) Pody said he was disappointed by the Senate committee’s action, saying they did not have the backbone to protect Tennessee’s children.

… President of the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) David Fowler echoed Pody’s disappointment, saying in a statement that the committee insulted the values of thousands of Tennesseans.

“Today, nine members of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee, seven of whom voted for this same bill last year, decided that legislation on this topic did not even merit a motion or a second,” his statement said.

Shelby-only voucher bill gets House committee approval

A school voucher bill that targets Shelby County only moved through its first major House panel Tuesday amid testy debate among Memphis-area representatives, reports the Times-Free Press.

Education Administration and Planning Committee members spent nearly two hours fighting over the measure (HB126), which creates a five-year pilot project in which poorer parents in low-performing schools can use public tax dollars to send their children to private and religious schools.

Then they passed the bill, sponsored by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Memphis, the committee’s chairman. It now goes to other House panels. A similar bill is moving in the Senate. (Note: The bill itself was approved on voice vote; on an earlier key amendment backed by Brooks, the roll call vote was 11-5.)

Brooks’ bill retreats from the more ambitious, years-long effort by proponents to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers or “opportunity scholarships” to low-income students across Tennessee attending priority schools falling into the bottom 5 percent on academic performance.

Those previous efforts would have impacted Hamilton County, Knox County, Metro Nashville, Shelby County (Memphis) and Hardemann County.

But a version of the broader approach is in another bill that remains in committee.

Following the bill’s approval, Roy Herron, an attorney who represents Tennessee’s small school districts, said he’s concerned that if the voucher bill is approved for the Shelby County school system, other rural and urban systems like Hamilton’s will be under threat of similar treatment.

“Memphis is not Las Vegas,” said Herron, a former state senator. “What happens in Memphis won’t stay in Memphis.”

Proponents like to characterize vouchers as “opportunity scholarships,” saying they give parents with children “trapped” in failing public schools more choice. Critics say the loss of money is a harpoon into the side of public education.

Legislators compromise on school recess

The legislature is poised to revise a law enacted last year that put new restrictions on school recess, inspiring both complaints and praise in the education arena.  HB45, sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, was approved unanimously in the House on Thursday and is scheduled for a Senate floor vote Monday evening with Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, a sponsor.

The original version of the bill would have repealed last year’s physical activity requirements, but it’s been amended in a compromise that seems to have broad support. An excerpt from WPLN’s report on recess for kids:

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Bathroom bill stalled in House sub

A bill to make transgender students use the bathroom of their birth sex has been put on hold, reports WPLN, and it might not return for consideration this year in the Tennessee legislature.

The move comes amid a rapidly changing legal landscape for transgender people. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Mark Pody, cited that evolving debate over transgender rights as he withdrew his measure. (Note: Officially, he took it ‘off notice’ in a House Education sub.)

“An administration changing. Courts changing. So many things changing, so quickly, it is almost week to week,” the Lebanon Republican said. “And in fact things changed this week.”

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a Virginia case about transgender rights.

With that in mind, Pody said House Bill 888/Senate Bill 771, which proposes a statewide policy on which facilities transgender students can use, may no longer make sense.

Pody pledged to come up with a proposal that’s up to date. It’s not clear how long that will take.

McQueen goes ‘preachy,’ bashes TN school turnaround efforts

Start of a Chalkbeat Tennessee story:

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.


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