NASHVILLE, Tenn., April 15, 2015 – Tennessee parents who send their students to the Tennessee Virtual Academy are undeterred by a court decision today that denied a preliminary injunction to immediately halt the Education Commissioner’s order to have TNVA closed. The families disagree with the decision and are thoroughly reviewing the order.
“The court did not rule on whether the decision by bureaucrats to close TNVA was fair, equitable, or in the best interests of students, families, and teachers,” 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. “That’s the job of the Legislature and Gov. Haslam. As this is only a decision on a preliminary motion, and further the Court did not even analyze if the Commissioner applied the statute correctly, simply noting that issue was ‘sharply controverted,’ I am sure legal counsel for the families will be carefully reviewing options to proceed. But this issue could easily be solved if legislators and the governor step forward to help these students by ensuring TNVA is treated fairly.”
Parents contend the department cannot order any virtual schools closed until after the 2015-2016 school year, as intended by the law, and that the commissioner of education cannot require that virtual schools reach higher achievement levels than what the law set forth. This is especially important to plaintiffs when their school, TNVA, has significantly improved its academic outcomes from 2013 to 2014 and showed the most improvement of over 125 schools that received a Level 1 rating in each of the last three years.
“TNVA students are getting a real life lesson in the separation of powers doctrine,” Purcell said. “The judicial branch has had its preliminary say. Now it’s up to the legislative and executive branches to do what is right and provide TNVA the same protections it is providing to every other school in Tennessee. It’s unconscionable to think the actions of a few could lead to the closure of a school that is helping countless children.”
A recently found video, not addressed by the court in this preliminary memorandum and order, 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.”
The ruling comes after an analysis by PSO found the Union County public virtual school showed the best improvement of over 125 schools that received a Level 1 rating in each of the last three years. After Union County opened the school in 2011, and worked to transition students to an online learning model, the department’s own data reveals TNVA began significantly improving its student outcomes from 2013 to 2014. 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 economically disadvantaged students than the state average.
Despite the fact that TNVA is one of the fastest improving public schools in the state, it’s the only school that was ordered by the state to close. This is the result of the Department of Education’s arbitrary and capricious accountability structure, one that was enacted only after the school’s first full school year and used in a punitive manner, rather than to improve schools as intended by the legislature. Unlike TNVA, all remaining Level 1 schools in Tennessee most likely received support and funds from the state due to their ratings and inclusion in the state’s normal, well-established accountability system.
TNVA is a public school run by Union County Public Schools and ultimately reports to the elected Union County school board. Fifteen percent of TNVA students receive special education services, and 74 percent of its families qualify for free/reduced lunches, according to Union County. For many families, TNVA, the state’s only full-time, K-8 statewide online public school, is the lone school that fits the needs of their children. Last month, hundreds of students and educators descended on the state Capitol to express their support for protecting the right of parents to choose the school that works best for their children.
# # #