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Rep. Cameron Sexton

State Rep. Cameron Sexton expressed his opposition to school voucher bills as he briefed the Cumberland County Board of Education on actions during the 110th Tennessee General Assembly.

“When I look at vouchers, it’s a false hope in the end,” Sexton said. 

A voucher bill specifically for Shelby County schools remains active in the Tennessee General Assembly, advancing from the House Government Operations Committee to the House Finance Committee. 

The bill would create a pilot school voucher program solely in Memphis. The pilot program would last five years and would provide publicly funded scholarships for students to attend private schools.

Under state rules, the Tennessee General Assembly sessions span two years and bills that are active at the close of one session can be taken up again when legislators return to Nashville in January. Two other voucher bills proposed earlier in the session failed and were pulled from their committees. 

Sexton said there had been attempts to implement school vouchers in Tennessee each of the seven years he has represented the county. The matter only reached the House floor for a vote once.

“That’s one piece of legislation that, when you talk to members [of the House], there’s six different ideas. That’s part of the problem that they’re having,” Sexton said. “Everybody has a different need or a different thought or a different direction.”

For Sexton, the vouchers offer “false hope” because the vouchers can’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition. He said the bill as currently written would also require private school accepting vouchers to discount all tuition to the same cost.

“Which is never going to happen,” he said.

That could lead to a boom of private for-profit schools opening that would accept the voucher funds, “which may or may not be great schools,” Sexton said.

Instead, Sexton said the state should be looking at how to improve failing schools.

“It may mean state control. It may mean coming in and doing some other things,” he said. 

Voucher bills have also included income limits, which Sexton believes penalizes parents who may have children attending a substandard school yet whose income precludes them from taking advantage of the voucher program. 

He added the voucher bills were focused on the “bottom 10 percent” of schools in a county, and that needed to be better defined, he said.

“We’ve improved education in the state of Tennessee, but they’re still being harmed because the bottom 10 has improved,” Sexton said.

 

Ongoing education reform

Sexton said he believed the state had made some headway in education reform and funding. The state has added $200 million to state Basic Education Program funding the past two years, about half of that earmarked for teacher salaries. Tennessee also began paying the state portion of health insurance premiums for all 12 months. In the past, the state paid only 10 months of premiums.

“That has helped the local education associations, we hope, to have money to put in other places,” Sexton said.

Education in Tennessee has been through numerous reforms, from implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2002 through Race to the Top in 2010, and the most recent federal legislation for the Every Student Succeeds Act. Those sweeping federal reforms have been followed by new programs, mandates and requirements at the state level.

Tennessee was granted the Race to the Top federal grant in March 2010. The state’s proposal included sweeping changes to how teachers are evaluated and how student test data is used for both teacher evaluations and student grades. The grant included new academic standards, new testing methods and new accountability standards. 

“I think we’ve had enough change for a while,” Sexton told the board.

Sexton said the near yearly change made it impossible to determine which changes were effective in improving education.

“When you have constant change, you don’t know what’s good and what’s bad,” Sexton said. “And it doesn’t allow the teachers and administrators and others to adapt because every year they come back, there’s something else they have to do and they can’t find their consistency, which hurts in the classroom.”

Sexton said the state needed about four or five years to see if the reforms to date have been successful.

“I kid on this, but I’m also serious,” Sexton said. “I would like for the next governor’s priority not to be education. I’d like it to be something else and let education work itself out.”

Sexton sees parent accountability as the final piece needed for education reform in Tennessee.

“That’s really where the key is,” he said. “Once the parents get involved, you see those school systems really turning around.”

The problem is how to measure and hold parents accountable to school systems.

“We’re open to trying to do something on that, but what does that look like?” Sexton said, adding suggestions on that matter were welcome.

In addition to parent involvement and accountability, Sexton said successful schools also had local government support.

“Whether it’s the city or the county and having an investment and some skin in the game — not just the state minimum money — they’re involved in putting some money in, and there is buy-in on both sides,” Sexton said. 

He pointed to Williamson County schools and Oak Ridge and Maryville city school systems.

“There’s a lot of engaged parents in those communities, as well, but you have that recognition from the local government and the school board that there is an investment that is going to benefit us in the long run,” Sexton said. “You can’t just allow for the minimum state match to do that.”

The state sets a minimum funding amount of local funds required to receive the state’s portion of the BEP funding formula dollars. In Cumberland County, the Cumberland County Commission sets the funding level for Cumberland County Schools. 

 

Testing concerns

In a recent visit with participants of Tennessee’s Boys State program, testing and cafeteria food were the top concerns from high school students across the state. 

Food concerns centered on greater variety of menu options. In Cumberland County, Director of Schools Janet Graham said high school food service had taken steps to prepare more homemade dishes. 

As for testing, the state reduced the time for testing by 30 percent this past school year, though exact amounts vary by grade. Testing for grades 3-8 has reduced by a total of 200 to 210 minutes from 2015 to 2017. Statewide standardized testing was suspended in these grades during the 2016 school year.

High school end-of-course tests were also shortened, with individual tests reduced by 40 to 120 minutes. A typical 11th grader would see testing reduced by 225 minutes, the Tennessee Department of Education has said. 

Tennessee requires standardized testing for grades 3-12; however, the state’s testing program has had significant problems the past two years. Last year, testing was suspended statewide following failure of the testing vendor to provide online testing and then later to provide paper test materials in a timely manner for school systems.

That vendor was fired and a new vendor secured for the 2016-’17 school year. Testing was completed statewide, but delays in test scoring have led to a delay in releasing high school student report cards, which use student test scores as part of the student’s final grade. 

Report cards for students in grades 3-8 were released without the test scores included this year.

Don Hassler, 5th District representative, said, “It’s late June, and we are still waiting for information.”

He asked Sexton to help recommend changes in the state’s testing program to perhaps include a pilot program in a few counties to allow a vendor to demonstrate it can follow through with testing delivery and score reporting.

“We’ve had problems four years in a row now. That’s the number one problem we face with parents,” Hassler said.

“If the agency has proven they can’t do it, then we need to get rid of that agency…Let them prove to us they can do it with a few counties before we do it statewide.”

Sexton said legislators were also frustrated. He said the chairs of the education committees in both the state House and Senate were working on the issue.

“They’re hoping very soon to have some type of fix,” Sexton said. 

He noted there were ongoing concerns about the fairness of testing for teachers, which are evaluated in part based on student test data. 

Students can experience a loss of proficiency in subjects during the extended summer break, Sexton said, yet teachers are held accountable for improving that student’s knowledge beyond the point it was tested at the end of the prior school year. 

“They may retain 80 percent, 70 percent, 60 percent after that summer break. Yet, with the new performance evaluations, we’re holding that teacher to make up that retention loss as well as to increase them,” Sexton said.

He said a benchmark test at the beginning of the year would provide a more accurate starting point for teachers. 

“The teachers are more fairly evaluated on what they do that year,” he said. 

Robert Safdie, 2nd District representative, said the evaluation program also held some teachers accountable for subjects they did not teach. Teachers of non-tested subjects or guidance counselors or librarians, for example, do not have standardized test data. The teacher evaluation requires test data and can use school-wide test performance information for those teachers.

Also, testing standards and formats have changed repeatedly in recent years.

“I feel like we’re sitting at a Las Vegas gambling table and the guy is dealing out the cards and, from one year to the next, we don’t know what we’re going to get,” Safdie said. “There are decisions being made, and these decisions are not working out for the benefit of the students and are not working out for the benefit of the teachers.”

Art teachers are moving to a portfolio-based evaluation process, which measures the growth of a student over time.

Sexton said, “For librarians and guidance counselors, I think it’s very difficult to figure out how you measure performance. I think we would be open to any suggestions on how to do that.”

 

Extended life of school buses

Board members also told Sexton of issues the school system encountered following passage of legislation that allowed school systems to extend the use of school buses. Cumberland County took advantage of that option the first year, reducing the number of buses purchased. The second year, however, school systems were required to provide maintenance logs and other records from the time each extended-use bus was first put into service.

Stone said, “These buses have been in service 15 to 18 years. That documentation wasn’t required to be maintained for the life of the bus. 

“What it’s done is it’s caused us to back up and buy more buses last year and this year to make up for buses we didn’t buy. It’s really put us in a strain.”

Those records are being kept with all new buses, Stone said, but added, “It’s going to take us almost 15 years to get to where we have that.”

Sexton said that likely occurred in rulemaking, with the legislator deferring to the state agency — in this case, the Tennessee Department of Safety. He said he would follow up with the state on where that problem occurred.

He added, “Feel that you can reach out to us at any time.”

 

State-level advocacy

Board members questioned Sexton on how the board could best represent the concerns of Cumberland County to the legislature.

Sexton doesn’t serve on the House education committee, so he often is not approached by groups representing the school board or directors of school until a bill advances out of committee.

However, he said members of the board could contact other members of the Tennessee General Assembly about upcoming issues.

“Reach out to surrounding counties, to other school board members and see what they’re hearing from their representatives,” Sexton said.

He pointed to recent successful efforts by county residents to get legislation passed on establishing standards for industrial wind farms in the state.

“A lot of residents came down and found they had access to other legislators,” Sexton said. “They met with all 99 House members, all 33 Senate members. They sat down in their office and had conversations and explained what they were thinking.”

He encouraged constituents to reach out with their individual stories, which can often be more impactful than form letters or surveys.

“What really makes a difference is those unique experiences that are shared with each member that we remember,” Sexton said.

Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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