The Alternative Education Agenda

As the 2013 legislative session got underway, I reported on the “tricks and gimmicks” education agenda being offered this year.

At the time, I was hopeful a more reasonable agenda would emerge. An agenda embracing the Tennessee Constitution’s requirement (Article XI, Section 12) that the General Assembly provide for and support a system of free public schools.

So far, in spite of much (well-deserved) criticism of the gimmicks posing as serious education policy, no alternative agenda has surfaced.

Tennessee ranks near the bottom in both investment in public education and key indicators of student achievement.  A correlation I suspect is no accident.

Certainly, we must do something to improve those numbers.  And those offering vouchers, performance pay schemes, and other unproven policies should not be faulted for at least making an effort to change the numbers.

However, none of the current agenda items results in a new investment in Tennessee’s public schools.  So, I’m proposing here the outlines of a new education agenda for Tennessee.  A true path forward that if fully implemented will get positive results.

PRE-K — Tennessee should expand its high-quality, voluntary Pre-K program so that it serves the entire at-risk (Free and Reduced Lunch) population of four-year-olds in the state.  We currently serve just under half of that population in a program started under Governor Don Sundquist and rapidly scaled-up under Governor Bredesen.  The program works.  Kids who complete the Pre-K program are far less likely to drop out of high school or encounter the criminal justice system than their counterparts who don’t have access.  The kids start school ready to learn and stay on track.  Some have criticized the program for “fade-out” — but even the most negative findings show that kids who have Pre-K end third grade working at grade level.  That means the kids end third grade on-track.  And teachers will tell you that a child who is on-track at the end of third grade has a far better chance of succeeding in school than a child who starts Kindergarten behind.  That said, a number of other studies (Tulsa, Chicago) indicate the effects last well beyond third grade.  We’re in a state with a shamefully low number of college graduates — we can’t change that unless more students graduate from high school college ready.  And Pre-K is a long-term, proven policy solution that will help Tennessee meet that goal.

We should expand the Pre-K program to serve all at-risk four-year-olds by 2017. 


Improve the BEP.  The Basic Education Program (BEP) is Tennessee’s funding formula for public education.  It’s how the General Assembly proposes to provide for that system of free public schools the Constitution requires.  Of course, the legislature had to be forced into creating the BEP by the state Supreme Court back in 1992 because the system of school funding at the time was ruled inequitable and thus, unconstitutional.

To put it simply, the current BEP is broken.  Most systems hire a number of teachers well beyond the number generated by the BEP formula.  Ask any parent and they’ll tell you textbooks aren’t free.  There are fees for lockers, classroom supplies, and other basics necessary to operating a school.  Some of this is the fault of local governments unwilling to raise sufficient revenue to fund schools adequately.  But in other cases, a local government could increase taxes all day and still not generate sufficient additional revenue to fund a truly free system of public schools.  This is the system our General Assembly allows to persist.  And it’s not working — just look at the results.

The BEP should be adjusted to allow for a more accurate funding of the number of teachers needed in local school systems.  It should account for the importance of school nurses and physical education.  It should be adjusted so that the funds sent to districts for teacher salaries more accurately reflect the dollar amounts needed to attract and retain excellent teachers.

Governor Bredesen and then-Senator Jamie Woodson made some progress on improving the BEP in 2008.  This effort, dubbed BEP 2.0, resulted in significantly greater dollars flowing into many districts, especially those with surging at-risk and ELL (English Language Learners) populations.  However, that plan was never fully-implemented.  Starting with BEP 2.0, lawmakers should build a NEW BEP.

Tennessee policy-makers should build and launch a new BEP formula in time for the 2015-16 academic year.

Invest in early career teachers. It is absolutely imperative that early career teachers receive adequate support and assistance so they develop into excellent teachers.  It’s also critical that those teachers are encouraged to stay in the field.  High teacher turnover costs districts (and taxpayers) money and deprives students of the valuable benefits of strong, stable teachers.  One proven method of retaining new teachers that also results in improved student learning is early career mentoring.  Research at the New Teacher Center suggests that placing a trained mentor with a new teacher in the first two years of teaching both improves teacher retention and shows a positive impact on student learning.

Tennessee policy-makers should build a new teacher mentoring program and ensure every new teacher has a trained mentor by the 2016-17 academic year.

Improve teacher compensation. Tennessee’s teachers are among the lowest-paid in the Southeast. Attracting strong employees and keeping them in the profession requires an investment in those employees.  Beyond early career mentoring and support, teachers should expect to be well-compensated for the important work they do.  Tennessee has a new, more rigorous evaluation system.  It also now takes five years and consecutive strong evaluation scores before a teacher can receive tenure.  That is, there’s more accountability and more being expected of Tennessee’s teachers.  Attracting and keeping teachers in this environment requires a strong compensation plan.  Adopting a state teacher pay scale that ensures that the starting pay for Tennessee teachers is no less than $40,000 in any district is a critical first step.  By using compression, like Metro Nashville Public Schools did, the cost for such a move can be lessened.  Make no mistake, it will take a commitment to investing in teachers to make this dollar amount happen – but our students are worth it.  Following the improvement of starting pay, teacher pay increases should be designed in a smarter way.  Changing the step increases from every year to every 3 years, for example, could yield savings to the state on the front end while also ensuring higher overall pay for teachers throughout their careers.  Metro Nashville teachers now reach the highest step in year 15 — but they will also see higher lifetime earnings because of raises given by the district over time.  It’s a win-win for teachers and for those managing budgets.  While the initial cost of raising teacher starting pay to $40,000 may be significant, it’s also a matter of budgeting priority.  Making teachers a priority tells our kids that education matters and that Tennessee is going to do what it takes to attract and keep the best teachers right here.

Tennessee policy-makers should raise the starting pay for all teachers to $40,000 and adjust the pay scale to improve overall compensation by the 2015-16 academic year.


These four items can and should form an alternative education policy agenda for Tennessee.  One that is smart, progressive, and moves our state forward.  Putting schools first is not about party or geographic region, it’s about doing what’s best for our communities and our entire state.






13 thoughts on “The Alternative Education Agenda

  1. Some interesting thoughts. Instead of waiting till age 4, I’d like to see more public support in years 0-3 for kids, when brain development is really happening. Pre-K is still good, if it’s high quality, but almost too late in some senses.

    I don’t disagree that the BEP can be reworked to be better, but don’t wholly agree with the more spending piece.

    There might be some increased return with achievement with more spending, but how much more spending would need to take place?

    DC spends an incredible amount, and they are one of the worse performing jurisdictions in the country. I would be interested to see if these numbers are adjusted for different state’s different cost of living, and see how the state spending comes out.

    What are your thoughts on this presentation?

    For starters, I don’t think we’re even at a place with our current data systems where we can effectively judge return on investment. Nationally, we don’t have GAAP accounting for schools, and in TN, with so many LEAs doing centrally based budgeting, it’s very hard to discern what is effective bang for the buck.

    One of my first changes would be to shore up the accounting system and track expenses to the school level, to be able to get a much better picture on what type of spending works and what doesn’t.

    • I don’t disagree with you on support for early education. We do, however, have a Pre-K program in place that is high quality and can be expanded — and it can have a long-term impact on outcomes for kids.

      Please also note that I in no way advocate simply throwing money at public education or just simply spending more money because that sounds nice. In terms of the BEP, I’m calling for an adjustment to the formula for three specific items: 1) school nurses 2) physical education and 3) a more accurate accounting of the number of teachers a district needs to have an adequate system of public schools. Yes, this will result in MORE money going to districts. But it will be tied to these specific items. Maybe in incredibly well-funded districts, this will help them avoid budget increases from local revenue sources – keeping taxes low and containing costs.

      Additionally, the investment in teachers is critical – both in terms of starting pay to attract strong candidates and in terms of support for early career teachers to help better develop them when it matters most. These are investments, to be sure, but they are not simply asking for more money for the sake of spending more money.

      More money on targeted, proven programs can help improve results.

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