Told legislature in 2013 he would not use past results to judge virtual public schools, but only 1 year later ordered TN Virtual Academy to close
NASHVILLE, Tenn., March 31, 2015 – A recently found video of a 2013 legislative committee hearing reveals former Tennessee Education Secretary Kevin S. Huffman broke his word to legislators regarding a legislative change he sought to be granted powers to order virtual public schools closed based on TVAAS results.
Huffman vowed before Senate Education Committee members that the department would not use past data before the law went into effect. But when granted those powers legislatively, Huffman broke his word. On July 30, 2014 – only one year after the law took effect – Huffman abruptly ordered Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) to shut down at the end of the 2014-15 school year. He invoked his new power, and explicitly used data from previous years for a virtual school that had been opened prior to the law.
In the video, a senator asked if Huffman was rushing to judgment. He specifically replied, “Because [the law] would go into effect now, any school that has been open, their previous data would not be a part of the consideration and so it would be moving forward.”
Beth Purcell, president of PSO, a national alliance of parents that supports and defends parents’ rights to access the best public school options for their children, said the video shows Commissioner Huffman clearly broke his word.
“Commissioner Huffman broke his word to legislators, but he also broke it to families and virtual school children by misusing the powers that were granted to him,” Purcell said. “This was not what Mr. Huffman promised, nor was it the intent of the law or will of the legislature. Unfortunately, the new commissioner, Dr. Candice McQueen, is standing by the previous commissioner’s decision. By not rescinding Huffman’s closure order, she has unnecessarily brought a lawsuit on the department and generated outrage from families and teachers across the state who are worried they will lose the school they love – the school they chose for their children. We are confident that the court will correct this wrong and provide a lifeline to TNVA parents who have been met with coldness, indifference and silence from the department.”
PSO recently aided two families in filing a lawsuit against the Department of Education for unfairly and unlawfully targeting TNVA for closure. The state court has scheduled an April 7 hearing for this suit, to begin at 10 a.m., in Davidson County Chancery Court, Part 1.
“Nearly a year after ordering TNVA to close, the department refuses to even meet with school administrators, teachers or parents,” Purcell said. “Commissioner McQueen is ignoring the incredible progress TNVA is making. More than 125 other schools have the exact same three-year Level 1 rating as TNVA – including the well-regarded Brentwood High School – yet these schools are not being ordered to close. TNVA’s children are public school students, too, and deserve to be treated equally under the law.”
The lawsuit contends the Tennessee Department of Education exceeded its authority in ordering the school’s closure. It asks the court to intervene and declare that the commissioner cannot order any virtual schools closed for the coming school year, as intended by the law, and that the commissioner cannot require that virtual schools reach higher achievement levels than what the law set forth. This is especially important to the plaintiffs when their school, TNVA, has significantly improved its academic outcomes from 2013 to 2014 and showed the most improvement of more than 125 schools that received a Level 1 rating in each of the last three years. In fact, last year TNVA realized improvements seven times greater than similarly rated schools, despite facing several unique challenges, including serving a higher percentage of special education and low-income students than the state average.
The court date filing comes a little more than a week after a poll was released by PSO, which found an overwhelming majority of Tennessee registered voters oppose the closing of a public school based solely on the state’s standardized test. The same poll found voters were even more strongly against state legislators who supported such closings.
TNVA is a public school run by Union County Public Schools and ultimately reports to the elected Union County school board. After Union County opened the school in 2011, and worked to transition students to an online learning model, the department’s own data revealed TNVA began significantly improving its student outcomes from 2013 to 2014. In fact, last year TNVA realized improvements seven times greater than schools with the same level rating, despite facing several unique challenges, including serving a higher percentage of special education and low-income students than the state average. Fifteen percent of TNVA students receive special education services, and 74 percent of its families qualify for free/reduced lunches, according to Union County.
There are 1,300 unique students and 1,300 unique stories as to how and why TNVA is working to meet student and family needs – students who are excelling or who are far behind; students with significant and, in some cases, debilitating or even life-threatening illnesses; students who have been threatened or bullied; students with special needs, including many students with autism, who find it difficult to achieve in a traditional classroom.