355 students in committee member districts would be forced out of their school of choice
NASHVILLE, Tenn., March 17, 2015 – An analysis by PublicSchoolOptions.org (PSO) has found as many as 355 students of Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) who hail from the legislative districts of every state Senate Education Committee member could be forced out of their school of choice and into other schools, some of them having already failed these very students, if the Tennessee General Assembly approves Senate Bill 539.
The bill, sponsored by Senate committee chair Dolores R. Gresham (R-Somerville), is scheduled for a committee vote on Wednesday. The legislation creates an unfair playing field against all virtual public schools, including TNVA, by applying separate and unequal accountability measures. This hurts virtual school students by treating them separately from the state’s well-established accountability system used for every other public school in the state. Under the legislation, virtual school students would be the only students in the state subjected to arbitrary rules that automatically close their schools with no appeal, no due process, and no help.
The TNVA breakdown of students in committee member districts are as follows: Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), 65 students; Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), 50; Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), 48; Sen. Gresham, 44; Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), 37; Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), 33; Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), 32; Sen. Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), 31; and Sen. Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), 15.
“This legislation will unfairly target Tennessee’s virtual public schools of choice, including TNVA which is showing the most improvement of more than 125 other schools that received a Level 1 rating in each of the last three years,” said 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.
“Supporting this legislation will have dire consequences for as many as 355 TNVA families and their children who reside in districts of Senate Education Committee members. Children would be forced to go to schools that parents do not want their children to attend, including schools that previously failed them,” Purcell said. “Why aren’t legislators focusing on those other Level 1 schools that continue to decline instead of arbitrarily punishing one that is showing remarkable improvement? This legislation also has the unintended consequence of eliminating TNVA, as the only statewide virtual K-8 school, as a safety net for thousands of Tennessee families due to Union County’s willingness to accept students from across the state, whose academic, social, and emotional needs weren’t being met by their traditional local public school. It’s clear that the school is working for these families, as evidenced by both the rising academic growth and the strong support for the school from families who are talking to legislators.”
Purcell said unfair treatment of TNVA and its 1,300 public school students, many of whom are special needs and at-risk students, has forced parents to file a lawsuit against the commissioner of education for unlawfully ordering the school to close. The Department of Education is ignoring tremendous progress the virtual public school made last year. Failure to reauthorize the state’s law on virtual public schools would only further disenfranchise many Tennessee families and their children.
The parents’ lawsuit contends the department 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 until after the 2015-2016 school year, as intended by the law. The lawsuit cites actions by former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman who ordered TNVA to close too early, at the end of this school year, even though he vowed not to use school data from previous years during testimony at a legislative committee hearing in 2013. The lawsuit also contends 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 public school, TNVA, has significantly improved its academic outcomes from 2013 to 2014. TNVA showed the most improvement of more than 125 other schools that also received a Level 1 rating in each of the last three years, yet the department has not ordered any of those schools to close and, instead, unfairly targeted TNVA.
“TNVA is under attack in Nashville, but all the school does is keep improving at the fastest rate in the state,” Purcell said. “We’ve heard from hundreds of parents who tell us that they chose TNVA because it’s the best school for their child. If the state closes it, there are no other statewide virtual public schools serving grades K-8, meaning many students will be forced to go back to schools that were not working for them. The widely held belief that all TNVA students can simply go to another virtual school simply isn’t true, and that’s heartbreaking to these families and their students.”
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.