If at First…When Policy Needs to Be Tweaked
September 22, 2017

A year ago we had our sights set on Atlanta in preparation for the PIE Network 2016 Summit. For #FBF we’re revisiting advocates in the southeastern states, as they have revisited policies and laws in their pursuit of perfection.

In the world of policy advocacy, the big wins are usually the ones that draw all the attention.

But, as seasoned advocates continue to demonstrate, sometimes the smallest tweaks make the biggest difference.

Because state education advocates are rooted in their local context, they are able to observe how policies are playing out in the real world. Those observations often reveal unaddressed needs or unintended consequences, creating opportunities for advocates to revisit initiatives they’ve previously influenced to make adjustments. Here are a few examples from the Network.

First Mississippi Charter School Opens Outside of State Capital

This past week, the Mississippi Charter Authorizer Board approved the fifth charter school in the state of Mississippi—Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School.

This in and of itself is not a big headline. Charter schools are approved all the time all over the nation. But in Mississippi, this is big news—not because of the school necessarily, but because of where it will be located. Clarksdale Collegiate will operate in the Mississippi Delta region, making it the first charter school in Mississippi to open outside of the state capital of Jackson.

Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First and PIE Network Board Member, said this of the announcement: “Today is an historic day for public school children in the Mississippi Delta. Clarksdale Collegiate, the first Mississippi public charter school to be approved outside of Jackson, will provide a free, college-preparatory public school choice for families in the Delta.”

The law in Mississippi allowing for the creation of startup charter schools passed in 2013. But very few charter schools opened, and no charter schools opened outside of Jackson, one of the most underperforming districts in the state. This was largely due to the fact that students were required to attend a public school within their designated school district and did not allow for students to cross those lines to attend a charter school.

Advocates in Mississippi, like Mississippi First, realized this was preventing quality charter schools from opening up in high-need areas, like the Mississippi Delta. So in 2016, they decided to go back and revise the law, allowing for students in C, D and F districts to cross district lines to attend a public charter school. Advocates have largely credited this tweak to the 2013 law as an essential step leading to the creation of Clarksdale Collegiate, now opening its doors to serve students.

Florida Advocates Push for Fewer, Better Tests

In the Sunshine State, advocates have been working with policy makers for years to refine Florida’s assessment policy. They have worked to mitigate pushback against accountability, but, more importantly, make testing more valuable for teachers, parents, and students.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future began what would become a multi-year effort to revise and refine assessment policy in 2015 when they launched their “Fewer, Better Tests” campaign, designed to analyze the amount of time kids spent testing. Results showed district assessments consumed much more time than the state assessment, so during the 2015 legislative session, the Foundation for Florida’s Future worked with legislators to reduce local tests and preserve the state assessment.

In 2016, opponents pushed back with a bill that would’ve allowed multiple assessments to be offered as options. Because this bill would undermine the state’s accountability system, Foundation for Florida’s Future focused their efforts on preventing it from moving forward.

After playing defense in 2016, Foundation for Florida’s Future took a proactive approach in 2017. They introduced recommendations to move the state assessment to the end of the school year, and to quickly return score reports. These adjustments gave educators more time to teach, and allowed them to adjust instructional practices in a timely fashion. With the successful passage of HB 7069, Executive Director Patricia Levesque lauded courageous legislators for their work.

Tennessee Tweaks Teacher Evaluation in Multi-Year Process

Advocates in Tennessee have worked over multiple years to ensure their state’s teacher evaluation program provides meaningful feedback to help educators improve student achievement. After passing sweeping education legislation in 2010 as part of the state’s bid for Race to the Top, policymakers, state and local education leaders, and advocates launched a multi-year implementation effort of teacher evaluation. As local implementation revealed opportunities for improvement, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) gathered feedback from educators and released policy recommendations to further enhance teacher evaluation. Other advocates and state education leaders continued to seek feedback from educators and implement improvements to the system based upon that feedback over the course of several years.

In 2015, anticipating the debut of a new annual assessment and proactively addressing concerns from educators, policymakers and advocates worked to pass a law to transition in the use of assessment data in teacher evaluation scores. Setting a gradual phase-in (10 percent in 2016, 20 percent in 2017, and 35 percent in 2018) gave stakeholders more time to adjust to the change in tests and ease concerns.

However, in 2016, schools experienced technical issues with the state’s testing provider. The new TNReady tests were ultimately administered only to high school students, pushing the state and advocates, including PIE Network members SCORE and TennesseeCAN, to develop solutions to regain trust previously built between educators and state officials. Ultimately, they succeeded through a bill that struck a balance between addressing the anxiety of educators while preserving Tennessee’s model teacher evaluation law.

This multi-year approach preserved Tennessee’s multi-measure evaluation system while also working to provide fairness to teachers. This proposal, combined with the 2015 legislation, addressed policymakers’ immediate concerns and removed the political pressure to support proposals that could have suspended teacher evaluation for up to three years.

Advocates on the Ground Enhance Policy

Advocates on the ground in states have a unique ability to follow through on policies passed to ensure fidelity in implementation. They also receive direct feedback from local stakeholders who live the reforms that advocates champion. By seeking input from a variety of constituents, local advocates can anticipate concerns and maintain strong policies that help ensure all students get a quality education.

Did your organization tweak a policy over multiple years to make change? Let us know.

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Laura Mann

Laura was previously PIE Network's Senior Director, Communications, Standards, and Accountability

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