Senate committee backs plan to target poor performers

Chas Sisk, Tennessean.com
March 7, 2013

A bill that would let education officials shut down failing online schools advanced in the Senate, but a plan to give parents vouchers for use in private schools was delayed Wednesday.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 157, a measure that would cap enrollment in new and underperforming virtual schools and let the Department of Education shut down the worst performers.

Gov. Bill Haslam submitted the measure this winter after the Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online school run by private operator K12 Inc., received a rating of 1, the lowest possible, based on test results last year.

The measure limits new virtual schools to 1,500 students until they have shown they perform “at expectations,” a 3 on the state’s 5-point scale. Schools that fall below that level see their enrollment frozen until they come up to speed.

The bill also lets education officials shut down schools that have received a rating of 1 for three consecutive years.

The legislation has been scaled back from tougher caps sought by Haslam. But Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the measure nonetheless will ensure the state has the power to close bad online schools.

“If a virtual school meets expectations in performance, it should be able to grow,” he said. “If it fails … then we should have the option to close it down. This strikes the right balance.”

Huffman denied officials had any school in the crosshairs, but Tennessee Virtual Academy was very much the focus of the discussion. A parent and a teacher from the school testified against the bill and on the school’s behalf.

“We kind of get in a mindset of this is how we’ve always done it,” said the teacher, Yvonne Johnson. “Well, maybe we need to look at some other things.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who presented the bill on the administration’s behalf, said an “early-course correction” was needed to preserve virtual education.

“Those of us in support of it fought tooth and nail,” he said. “It was not easy to pass and implement the virtual schools that we have.”

Norris also asked the committee to put off consideration of the governor’s voucher bill, Senate Bill 196, for two weeks. Norris said this will give members time to consider a broader proposal being developed by the committee’s chairwoman, state Sen. Dolores Gresham.

Gresham is expected to present that plan next week.

“It goes a lot farther, a lot faster,” Norris said. “I want to see how it goes. There’s a lot of big talk, a lot of loose talk, about which program is more appealing. … Those who want it all very quickly should probably be careful what they ask for. They might end up with nothing.”

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