10 Cents on the Dollar

That’s what Gov. Bill Lee is proposing for teachers in his COVID-19 package for education. This is just the latest in what has become a pattern of showing blatant disrespect for educators in his budget proposals.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) breaks down the proposal and what it will mean for educators:

“Tennessee’s educators have worked hundreds of additional hours during the fall semester to maintain instruction and keep our students engaged during this pandemic,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “The proposed $43 million in one-time teacher salary funds is far lower than what the state can afford, and far less than what educators have earned and deserve.”

TEA estimates the average educator worked more than 13 additional hours per week this fall to maintain daily instruction—virtually, in-person, or a hybrid—with a large portion of Tennessee’s educators working 20 or more additional hours. The value of the additional instruction work was approximately $5,700 per educator. The administration proposal comes to approximately $570.

The General Assembly eliminated a $117 million 4% educator raise in June, citing falling revenue due to the pandemic. Since then, the state recorded $369 million in surplus to end the last fiscal year and has collected $715 million surplus revenue in just the first five months of this fiscal year. 

“In the upcoming special session, the administration and General Assembly have an important opportunity to recognize the sacrifices made for our students and to take steps toward making educators whole for the unpaid hours we’ve worked,” Brown said. “What has been initially proposed does not do that. Appropriating $200 million — just a fifth of the surplus revenue collected since June  – would be more appropriate and still be affordable. A more significant investment will go a long way in recognizing the extraordinary effort of our state’s educators.”

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Another F

The Education Law Center recently published its annual analysis of school funding in the states. Once again, Tennessee received a grade of “F” in both funding level and funding effort. I could actually write this exact same story every single year. Tennessee doesn’t adequately fund our schools. The bipartisan group TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations – says the state is $1.7 billion behind where we need to be in funding for schools.

We also fail at funding effort – that is, we have significant untapped revenue and high dollar amounts held in reserve while our schools lack the critical resources they need to be successful.

Meanwhile, so-called education advocates like SCORE run around touting the latest new thing (this year, it’s a literacy scheme) instead of using their considerable clout and fundraising ability to push for meaningful investment in schools. Of course, the leadership over at SCORE is not hurting for cash based on their salaries.

Here’s the Education Law Center’s state-by-state breakdown on school funding:

Here’s data on funding level:

Here’s what the ELC has to say about funding level:

A state’s funding level is measured by analyzing the combined state and local revenues provided through the state school finance formula, adjusted to account for regional variations in labor market costs.

A state’s funding level grade is determined by ranking its position relative to other states; the grade does not measure whether a state meets any particular threshold of funding level based on the actual cost of education resources necessary to achieve state or national academic standards

Here’s information on funding effort:

Here’s what ELC has to say about funding effort:

Depending on a state’s overall wealth, every tenth of a percent (0.1%) of state GDP invested in PK-12 public education can have a big impact. For example, that figure is $33 million in Vermont – the nation’s smallest economy – and up to $3 billion in California – the nation’s largest. Figure 3 juxtaposes a state’s relative effort (compared to the national average) with its per capita GDP to contextualize how the effort index interacts with the state’s relative wealth to produce high or low funding levels.

So, here’s the deal: Tennessee has the resources to make meaningful investments in our schools. Our leaders are choosing not to. Year after year after year. Policymakers run for office making all sorts of promises about investing in schools, and fail to deliver. Of course, in the case of Bill Lee, he promised to privatize our schools and he’s attempting at every turn to deliver on that promise.

Tennessee isn’t adequately funding schools, and despite political rhetoric to the contrary, our leaders aren’t trying. At all. Ever.

So, when your local representative or senator comes to an event and tells you they support your schools, you can tell them the truth. Their actions suggest otherwise.

The ELC Report Card tells the real story.

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Voucher Vulture Kelsey Named Chair of Education Committee

Lt. Governor Randy McNally has named long-time school voucher advocate Brian Kelsey chair of the Senate Education Committee. Kelsey sponsored Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (ultimately ruled unconstitutional) in 2019. He’s currently involved in litigation attempting to validate the scheme. He even mentioned it in his Christmas card this year.

The move could signal that legislative leaders will join Lee and again push for voucher legislation in 2021.

It should be noted that one of Kelsey’s first tasks as Education Committee chair will be to weigh-in on the appointment of Laurie Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission.

More on Kelsey>

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A Tale of Two Bills

House Speaker Cameron Sexton has named Laurie Cardoza-Moore as his appointment to the state Textbook Commission. In addition to being virulently anti-Muslim, Moore also encouraged participation in an insurrection.

Here’s what’s interesting. Back in 2013, Betsy Phillips wrote in the Nashville Scene about then-Gov. Bill Haslam’s weak response to Moore’s constant badgering regarding the selection of state textbooks.

Here’s a bit of what Phillips had to say:

So, surely, Governor Haslam will take a stand against this, right? He’ll look at the people like Cardoza-Moore who want more say in our textbooks and he’ll say “Thanks, but no thanks,” right? I mean, he cannot possibly limp-noodle his way out of this.

“I think some laypeople on it would be fine,” Haslam said. “The important thing is to have people who truly are committed to the idea that in Tennessee, every child can learn.”

Fast forward to 2020-21, and the new guy named Bill who is governor can’t seem to be bothered to say much of anything about Laurie Cardoza-Moore, either.

Here’s more from Phillips, though:

As you may recall, Cardoza-Moore is behind the opposition to the Murfreesboro mosque. Not content to rail against imaginary dangers from Middle Tennessee Muslims, she’s now spearheading the effort to rid our textbooks of secret bias.

So, here we are in 2021 – well into being a state governed by rich Republicans with inherited fortunes who go by the name of Bill. And, apparently, it’s still politically acceptable to coddle religious bigots – even when those oppressors actively encourage insurrectionist activity. Progress, indeed, comes slowly.

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An Unwelcome Pause

Even as state lawmakers push for an accelerated return to in-person learning, the State of Tennessee is announcing that teachers will not be able to receive COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as planned.

Chalkbeat has more:

Tennessee teachers, school staff, and child care workers must wait for COVID-19 vaccinations until after people age 70 and older receive their shots, state officials said Friday.

The new directive pauses the inoculations of educators, which already had begun in many rural counties. As of Thursday evening, more than half of counties in the state had run out of vaccine doses.

Based on current projections, it seems teachers will begin to be vaccinated again at the end of February, with a goal of saturation by sometime in March.

The announcement of the pause comes as the state reports an ever-increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

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Carrots and Sticks

Even as Tennessee’s COVID-19 numbers continue to surge, some leading lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee are considering using the state’s funding formula (BEP) to create incentives for districts to return to in-person learning sooner rather than later.

The Tennessee Lookout reports on House Education Committee Chair Mark White’s remarks regarding the creation of a “carrot-and-stick” system designed to push districts to send students back to school buildings.

“I think there will be some type of carrot-and-stick incentive to get students back in the classroom as quick as you can or at least a hybrid form of that if you’re not successful,” White said.

It’s not clear how such an incentive plan would work in practice. However, it could be as simple as providing additional BEP dollars to districts who make a commitment to in-person learning and actually bring students back to classrooms.

While some lawmakers are discussing legislation that would allow districts to maintain current BEP funding levels (a sort of hold harmless in light of students lost to alternative programs during the pandemic), there has not been serious discussion of BEP funding improvements.

A bipartisan state task force recently noted that Tennessee schools suffer from a $1.7 billion funding deficit due to the inadequacy of the BEP. In fact, a state court is scheduled to take up the issue of school funding in October of this year.

Tennessee’s schools have historically been underfunded, and currently sit at 45th in the nation in overall school funding. A national group that rates states on funding effort when compared with funding ability gives Tennessee an “F” in funding effort.

White has chaired the education committee for several years now and Lee is now entering his third budget cycle as Governor. Neither has made any serious effort to improve investment in our state’s public schools. Instead, both have relentlessly focused on a privatization agenda including pushing voucher schemes.

While Lee is seeking a new voucher program thanks to funding provided by the federal CARES Act, there is zero indication he will be pushing for the long-term, systemic changes to the BEP that would correct years of underfunding.

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Sexton’s Appointee to State Textbook Commission Urged Participation in Insurrection

House Speaker Cameron Sexton announced in November his appointment of Lauria Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission. Not only is Moore’s organization financially shady, she also actively encouraged participation (and participated in) the insurrectionist “rally” in Washington, DC last week.

Here’s more from her various social channels:

To be clear, if nothing happens at her confirmation hearing, this is who Cameron Sexton would have serving on the Textbook Commission.

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Voucher Vultures Face FBI Raid

Former House Speaker Glen Casada and other members of the House GOP as well as some staffers woke this morning to FBI agents searching their homes and offices. The raid appears to be targeting those involved in a plot to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme during the 2019 legislative session. That scheme has since been ruled unconstitutional by Tennessee courts.

Nashville’s NewsChannel5 has more:

FBI agents raided the homes of former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada and other Republican allies early Friday morning, as well as their legislative offices, as part of an unspecified probe into possible public corruption.

Sources tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that searches were also executed at the homes of Robin Smith and newly elected Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg.

NewsChannel 5 also spotted FBI agents outside the homes of former Casada aides Cade Cothren and Holt Whitt. Agents were seen carrying evidence out of Cothren’s downtown Nashville apartment.

The raid comes just days before Gov. Bill Lee’s planned special session on education issues.

Tennessee Republicans have been trying for years to direct public dollars to private schools through a variety of voucher schemes. They narrowly succeeded (by a single vote) in 2019 when then-Speaker Casada held the vote on the voucher bill open for more than 30 minutes while he and top aides negotiated with legislators.

The subsequent FBI investigation into the vote and today’s raid suggest those negotiations went beyond typical legislative horse trading and into potentially illegal territory.

In typical fashion, Gov. Bill Lee said today he has no knowledge of the subject of the raid and that he trusts the current House Speaker, Cameron Sexton, to handle the situation with his members. Apparently, the buck never stops with Lee.

Lee has vowed to continue pursuit of a voucher scheme and his team continues to press their case in the courts. Certainly, today’s events may give pause to some potential supporters of the ill-advised program.

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State’s Poor Pandemic Response Takes Toll on Teachers

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) today released the results of a statewide survey of teachers regarding the experience of teaching during the pandemic. According to the report, 74% of teachers rated the state’s handling of the issues surrounding schools and COVID-19 as “poor.”

The findings should come as no surprise as Governor Bill Lee continues to pursue a privatization agenda while failing to actually do much of anything about the spiking COVID cases.

Here’s the full press release from the TEA:

As students and educators begin the Spring semester, a statewide Tennessee Education Association survey of educators reveals just how difficult and time-consuming the fall semester was on educators across the state. Public school educators are struggling under tough teaching conditions of the pandemic, working longer hours with little training or support—often with inadequately supplied classrooms—and enduring the daily threat and reality of infection.

“Tennessee public school educators have been staying strong for months, taking the challenges of teaching in a pandemic head-on,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Our educators need more support and resources as they begin what will certainly be another difficult semester. As the survey showed, most public school staff are working longer hours with daily disruptions and changing tasks, but with little guidance, support or tangible encouragement from the state. The state must do more to assist with the burdens of teaching in a pandemic.”

In December, more than 7,000 teachers, education support professionals, administrators and certified personnel participated in the confidential TEA survey on education working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. An overwhelming majority of those polled said their work is more or much more difficult than in past years.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Eighty-four percent of teachers, 78% of administrators and 67% of certified professionals said they are working more hours than in the past.
  • The average Tennessee educator worked an additional 235 hours during the fall semester to overcome pandemic disruptions and maintain quality instruction.  
  • The concern of infection and the disruptions in teaching caused by the pandemic are taking a psychological toll on educators, with 84% reporting a negative emotional impact and half reporting being strongly impacted.
  • An overwhelming 91% of educators teaching virtually said they have been given new assignments and responsibilities that differ from their training and professional practices.

Additionally, a growing number of educators are being diagnosed with COVID-19. The rate of reported infections in the survey match TEA tracking data which shows educators having significantly higher infection rates than the general population and in the communities they serve. TEA estimates more than 16,000 public school educators have contracted the virus since July.  

“Educators are front-line personnel in this pandemic. From the stress of taking care of students and overcoming the disruptions the virus causes, to dealing with the anxiety of being infected and bringing it home to family and loved ones, these past months have been exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Brown said.   

While educators are critical of school districts’ response to the pandemic, the harshest criticism is leveled at the state government’s response, with 74% of respondents rating the state response poor.

“Our school districts have been left with insufficient guidance from the state, from how to slow infections or when to close schools to providing resources that assist with overcoming disruptions. The survey shows the high level of frustration with state leadership,” Brown said. “We’re 10 months into the pandemic, and one-third of teachers are still less than adequately supplied with personal protective equipment and cleaning materials. Most educators have once again dipped into their own pockets to purchase all the necessary supplies for their classrooms, and there is no excuse for that.”

“The survey confirms that we’ve worked more hours under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, going above and beyond for our students. The administration and legislature must acknowledge the sacrifices we’ve been making and take concrete steps to give us the support and recognition we have earned,” Brown said. 

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MicroVouchers

The pursuit of privatization never ends with Gov. Bill Lee. Remember those CARES Act funds the governor and his team were NOT spending? Well, it turns out they now have a plan for those funds – a reading initiative that includes a voucher scheme.

Here’s more from The Center Square:

The new initiative, Reading 360, will provide an array of supports to districts, teachers and families, including opt-in training and coaching in literacy instruction for teachers, regional networks focused on literacy and an online platform for video lessons for teachers and families at home.

The initiative also will fund more than 13,000 microgrants for literacy tutoring for students and families.

Who will provide this tutoring?

The likely answer: Private providers profiting from taxpayer funds intended to help schools address the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key supporters of Lee’s misguided literacy initiative that includes this voucher scheme are long-time public school antagonists Sen. Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White.

Not only has Lee failed our state on COVID-19, he’s also using the pandemic as an opportunity to direct dollars to privatizers.

More on Bill Lee, COVID-19, and the Privatization Pandemic:

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