Lacking a school voucher system and a law that lets charter school operators turn to the state for approval, Tennessee gets an "F" for school choice, according to a national education-reform group.
That's the main negative in an otherwise fairly positive outlook in StudentsFirst's 2014 Tennessee report card released today. Tennessee received a "C" score overall — sixth among all states — up from a "C minus" a year ago.
"Our leaders should be encouraged by the rise in Tennessee's report card grade, and motivated to continue the course for reform," said Brent Easley, state director of StudentsFirst Tennessee.
His group plans to use the report card's findings as it pushes policy during the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off today.
The Sacramento-based lobbying organization, founded by former Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee in 2010, rolled out a new state-by-state grading system last year, not to measure academic achievement but to evaluate states by what it calls "student-centered policies."
In most academic metrics, Tennessee ranks in the bottom half of the United States in performance and in some cases near the bottom.
But it has earned high marks from StudentsFirst, in part because of its utilization of new teacher evaluations and creation of the Achievement School District, a state-led operation that has turned Tennessee's lowest-performing schools over to outside charter operators.
Tennessee's bump from a year ago is attributed to two measures passed last year: a policy that prohibited "forced placement" of teachers into certain schools and its adoption of a "hybrid" retirement plan that contains a defined-benefit and defined-contribution policies.
The newly released report cards place Tennessee below Washington, D.C., Rhee's former home, and four reform-minded states: Louisiana, Indiana, Florida and Rhode Island. All but Rhode Island have vouchers.
Critics of StudentsFirst question the evidence suggesting vouchers improve educational outcomes for children.
"Their agenda is to de-fund the public school system, not improve it," said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville.
Rhee is the former wife of Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
StudentsFirst has zeroed in on Tennessee to advance its agenda, deploying lobbyists here to work the Capitol and pumping $550,000 into state and local races during the 2012 election cycle.
It has renewed its presence here one year after striking out in major policy overhauls. A bill to let families use public dollars on private schooling died last session, and a proposal to give the state the authority to approve charter applications on appeal stalled.
Gov. Bill Haslam, who backed a voucher bill aimed at low-income students last year, is expected to decide this week whether he will support voucher legislation again, according to the Associated Press.
"If we were to move in those policies, Tennessee's score would significantly increase," said Pamela Witmer, legislative analyst for StudentsFirst.
In addition StudentsFirst is pushing for the broadening of the state's so-called "parent-trigger" law that allows charters to take over failing public schools if 60 percent of that school's parents call for the conversion via petition. A bill they backed to lower that threshold to 50 percent didn't advance last year, but it will resurface again in the coming months.
StudentsFirst, as well as the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, also have put their weight behind legislation to create a system that would close chronically low-performing, publicly financed, privately operated charter schools.