That’s the grade Tennessee gets from the Education Law Center’s latest report on school funding in the United States. To be clear, Tennessee earned an F in both funding level and funding effort. We earned a C in distribution of the paltry sum our state dedicates to schools.

Here’s how Education Law Center defines those terms:

  • Funding Level – the cost-adjusted, per-pupil revenue from state and local sources
  • Funding Distribution – the extent to which additional funds are distributed to school districts with high levels of student poverty
  • Funding Effort – the level of investment in K-12 public education as a percentage of state wealth (GDP) allocated to maintain and support the state school system

The report notes that Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in overall funding level and 47th in effort. The effort category is of particular interest because it indicates that Tennessee has significant room for improvement in terms of funding level. That is, there are untapped resources Tennessee is NOT using to fund schools.

Shorter: Funding schools is NOT a key policy priority in Tennessee.

Additional evidence for this can be found in graphics shared by Think Tennessee earlier this year:

Tennessee is (and has been) at or near the bottom in school funding and even in funding effort. That’s not changing. Instead, Governor Lee and his policy acolytes are diverting education dollars to voucher schemes and charter schools.

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Math Problem

Hamilton County has a problem. It’s a problem that plagues school districts across Tennessee. It’s simple: Teacher compensation isn’t what it should be. NewsChannel9 has the story of a group of teachers collecting data to demonstrate the dollar value of uncompensated time and expenses:

Dozens of Hamilton County teachers say they’ve done the math, and what they’re making versus what they’re spending on school doesn’t add up.

“If those averages apply to the entire county, we’ve got about $2.5 million in uncompensated time and expenses that we’ve given,” said Brock.

This shortfall is occuring in a state where teachers earn about 30% less than similarly-trained professionals:

This year’s results indicate a national average teacher pay gap of 23.8%. Tennessee’s gap is 27.3%. That’s an improvement of two points for Tennessee, which had a gap of 29.3% two years ago.

Of 12 Southeastern states, Tennessee ranks 8th in teacher pay gap — that’s up one place from 9th two years ago.

The teacher compensation crisis in Hamilton County is similar to what’s playing out all across a state that has historically not invested in teachers. In fact, this year, Governor Lee made a big investment in charter schools and a relatively small boost to teacher compensation through the BEP. Additionally, Lee is fast-tracking his expensive voucher scheme, using funds that could be used to invest in public schools and teacher pay.

Will the Hamilton County legislative delegation continue to support a Governor whose policies are leaving teachers and public schools behind?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Truly Disturbing

Will TNReady be ready this year? Some employees at the Tennessee Department of Education are raising alarms, according to a story from Fox 17 in Nashville.

The story details emails from whistleblowers within the department who call the current work environment “truly disturbing.” The complaints note that staffing issues — an unusually high turnover rate — are creating problems with preparation for this year’s assessment:

The three whistleblowers which wrote to FOX 17 News all requested anonymity to protect their professional careers. Their ultimate concern with the new hires and staff turnover is that the state is unprepared to administer a successful TCAP — the test that measures success in the classroom. Even at full staff, the state has had problems effectively administering the test in the past. Several have left the assessment team including the two individuals with the most experience in “assessment content and logistics.”

An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.”

To say that TNReady has been disappointing would be an understatement. From day one, the test has been fraught with challenges. There have been three vendors in five years, and a range of issues that caused one national expert to say:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

So, here we go again. Another year, another warning about potential TNReady trouble. Now, of course, we’re also stuck with a Governor who seems not to know or care about how to run government effectively.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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More FBI Trouble for Senate Voucher Sponsor

State Senator Brian Kelsey is under increasing scrutiny from the FBI into how he financed his failed 2016 campaign for Congress.

Erik Schelzig reports on a story out of the Tennessean noting individuals who have been interviewed related to the case:

Former Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey is among officials interviews by federal officials investigating fundraising related to state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional bid, The Tennessean reports.

Also interviewed was Nashville Councilman Steve Glover, who gave money to Kelsey’s federal PAC during a 2016 after receiving money from the senator’s state PAC.

Schelzig notes:

Candidates are prohibited from using money raised for state races in federal campaigns. As The Tennessean reported in 2017 (and
later augmented by a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission), Kelsey’s state committee, Red State PAC, gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to fellow state lawmakers, who then turned around and gave donations to his congressional account.

Kelsey was the lead sponsor of Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative initiative, Education Savings Accounts (vouchers). While Kelsey faces an FBI probe into his campaign finances, the House vote on the voucher legislation is under a separate FBI investigation.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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The Lesson of NAEP

Educator and blogger Peter Greene offers his insight on what we can (and can’t) learn from NAEP in Forbes:

That’s the one actual lesson of NAEP; the dream of data-informed, data-driven decision making as a cure for everything that ails us is just a dream. Data can be useful for those who want to actually look at it. But data is not magical, and in education, it’s fruitless to imagine that data will settle our issues.

This is akin to the saying: “You don’t make a pig fatter by weighing it more often.”

What about those big gains in Mississippi? Greene notes:

Mississippi in 2015 joined the states that held back students who could not pass a third grade reading test, meaning those low-scoring students would not be in fourth grade to take NAEP test. It would be like holding back all the shorter third graders and then announcing that the average height of fourth graders has increased.

And, he also points out that Betsy DeVos took a shot at the very reforms she advocated:

DeVos singled out Detroit as an example of failed policies, yet the policies that have failed in Detroit are largely those reform policies that she herself pushed when she was an education reform activist in Michigan.

Is “reform” working? Do we need more “disruption” as Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee suggests?

In all discussions, it’s useful to remember that the increases or decreases being discussed are small– a difference of just a few points up or down. NAEP scores have shown neither a dramatic increase or decrease, but a sort of dramatic stagnation. That is arguably worse news for education reformers, who have been promising dramatic improvements in student achievement since No Child Left Behind became the law almost twenty years ago.

The short answer: No. The new tests (TNReady), the charters, the vouchers… none of it is making a dent in the underlying issues driving the stagnation Greene notes. Yes, there is useful information to be gleaned from the data, but it’s probably time to calm down and focus on what matters: making life (and school) better for kids.

The thing is: We know what to do, we just don’t seem to want to do it. Instead, we can talk about NAEP and gains and the need to improve and the difference between NAEP scores and state test scores and then feel like we’ve done something.

Still, too many kids show up to school hungry. Too many families don’t have access to adequate healthcare. Tennessee’s current Commissioner of Education notes:

“If we’re looking at proficiency by student group over time, the large increase in 2013 was largely from our white and non-low income students,” she said, calling for more support for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

The question, then, is what will Governor Bill Lee and the General Assembly do with this data? Continue to ignore it as past Governors and legislators have? Ask for more data? Add more tests? Contract with a testing company that promises results that justify the reforms Lee likes? Enact vouchers in spite of mountains of evidence against the efficacy of such programs?

I predict there will be a demand for more weighing of the pig.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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Tennessee Kids Can’t Read

That’s the narrative you hear coming from policymakers and some advocates who suggest Tennessee’s third grade reading scores indicate trouble. While there is certainly room for improvement, the rest of the available information simply does not align with these claims. Here’s an example of one such claim from the Tennessee Department of Education regarding third- and fourth-grade reading scores:

Overall, less than half of our third and fourth graders are reading on grade level based on state tests

As former educator and state legislator Gloria Johnson explains, that’s simply not the case based on available evidence:

The 2019 NAEP scores are out, they test kids a few months in to the 4th grade year. The 2019 test shows that 66% of TN 4th (3 1/2) graders are reading on grade level. Sure, I’d like to see it higher, we have work to do. In 8th grade it’s 73%.

However, when you hear someone say only 33% of 3rd graders are reading on grade level (and I hear it constantly), how could that be possible? How could 33% more get on grade level in a couple of months? Are our 4th grade teachers wizards?

No, people either don’t understand how to read the results or they are intentionally being misleading. According to NAEP’s groupings, Basic means reading on grade level. Proficient on NAEP means “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,” which experts interpret as high achievement.

What does that mean? 66% of kids read on grade level on the NAEP test. Don’t let someone try to give you that lower number, it’s not accurate, correct them.

You can see the 2019 scores here..


Now I just have to get the Education Committee on board because the “experts” feeding them info aren’t very expert.

You can find plenty of articles explaining this, here is one.

Johnson raises a great point: If NAEP says 66% of our kids are reading at grade level in fourth grade, why does TNReady suggest less than half of third graders read at grade level? These numbers don’t match.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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