TN school board stands with students, educators against vouchers and unreliable assessments

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by Brian Washington

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Educators in Knox County, Tennessee, are starting to see signs that their hard work electing a new school board could pay off for students and educators.

Education Votes told you last year teachers and education support professionals, working with parents and community groups, flipped the school board—electing members more supportive of public education. As of today, six of the nine board members are either current or retired educators and another is a PTA member.

Lauren Hopson, president of the Knox County Education Association, which represents thousands of educators across the region, says this new school board is taking educator input into account.

“It’s refreshing to know that when the board is trying to make a decision about an issue, its members will actually want to hear from educators,” said Hopson, a county teacher.

TN educator Lauren Hopson

With educator input, the board recently passed several resolutions to position the county as a leader in the state. One puts it on record as opposing voucher legislation. Vouchers, often referred to as tuition tax credits or opportunity scholarships, use taxpayer dollars to subsidize tuition at private schools. Voucher legislation harms the vast majority of the state’s students who attend public schools because it siphons away critical funding needed to ensure that all kids get a quality public education.

Last year, Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law that gives parents of special needs children a voucher for tuition at private or religious schools. However, the bill contains a catch. If the parent accepts the voucher, they sign away the rights and protections guaranteed their child under IDEA, the federal law that ensures special needs students receive a quality education.

While the board’s anti-voucher resolution isn’t binding, it sends a message—one that will hopefully create a groundswell of anti-voucher sentiment among other local school boards.

If we can get the message spread across the state about how bad vouchers are for students and public education, and get other districts to follow suit and pass similar resolutions, then we can put pressure on state lawmakers,” said Hopson. “That’s been our goal all along to start governing from the bottom up instead of just taking everything that’s approved from the top down.

The board also approved another non-binding resolution that educators are hopeful about. It opposes the use of data from TCAP—a state mandated test—for student grades and teacher evaluations for the 2016-17 school year. The board approved a similar measure last year following a wide range of problems the state encountered trying to administer these tests.

“With this resolution, our board is saying the state department of education has not proven that it has come up with a reliable test that is a valid measure of our students’ abilities,” said Hopson. “And until we get an assessment that does, we don’t think this test should be included in students’ grades or teachers’ evaluation scores.”

When Hopson became KCEA president in 2015, she established three goals: 1) elect a school board friendlier to students and educators, 2) hire a new superintendent willing to collaborate and do what’s best for students, and 3) positively impact the county’s evaluation system. Hopson and her education colleagues have achieved the first goal and are on their way to achieving the two remaining goals. And in the process, Knox County has become an example of how educators, parents and communities can work together on behalf of students.

“We’ve gotten a lot of attention as far as advocating for students, educators, and public schools,” said Hopson. “We have been on the forefront of that. Our message this whole time has been that Knox County needs to take the lead on those issues that impact our students and public education.”

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