Bill Lee wants to Raise Your Taxes and Silence Your School Board

Ok, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee didn’t actually say he wants to raise your taxes, though the policy proposal he’s put forward would likely result in local property tax increases. He did, however, suggest silencing school boards by way of curbing their ability to be represented in public policy debate in Nashville.

Erik Schelzig of the Associated Press reports:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee said he supports spending more public money on private school tuition around Tennessee, and that restrictions should be placed on lobbying by government entities that oppose school vouchers.

I wrote previously about how Lee has been a staunch advocate of using public money for private schools by way of vouchers. I also noted that the most recent evidence indicates he’s wrong when he asserts that vouchers will improve education outcomes for Tennessee students.

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham. Here’s more on that effort:

Joey Garrison has the story about some legislators who wish that local school boards didn’t hire lobbyists to represent their interests before the legislature.

To that end, they’ve filed legislation that would allow County Commissions to revise a School Board’s budget as it relates to lobbying expenses (HB 229/SB 2525).

Many school boards in the state are members of the Tennessee School Boards Association, which hires a lobbyist to represent the interests of school boards at the General Assembly. Additionally, some local boards hire contract firms and/or in-house government relations specialists to monitor state policy.

Of course, many County Commissioners are members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Organization, which employs a lobbyist to represent the interests of County Commissions at the General Assembly.  And many local government bodies also contract for or hire government relations specialists.

The attempt at silencing voices opposed to school vouchers ultimately failed to advance. Lee’s embrace of the failed Durham proposal may be of note to school board and county commission members considering his campaign.

As it relates to taxes, Lee’s support for a broad voucher program would likely result in a tax increase of some form. I wrote last year about the cost of a “voucher school district” and noted that if a statewide proposal took hold, it would be rather costly:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

Additionally, analysis by the County Commissioners Association (a group Lee would seem to want silenced as their positions don’t match his advocacy) shows that local property taxes would almost certainly go up as a result of a comprehensive statewide voucher program.

As TREE noted:

The property tax increases to offset vouchers seen on the spreadsheet is not something any county commissioner wants to pass on to property owners. Lauderdale County loses the most with an 84.23 cent increase per year. Davidson is looking at a 30.36 cent increase.

Even if you look at what’s happening in Indiana as an example, you’d see increases along the lines of 28 cents in Lauderdale County and around 10 cents in Davidson. Alternatively, Lee could look to state revenue to offset the increased costs of a voucher program.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

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


 

We Paid $60 Million for That?

Guess what? Tennessee taxpayers are on the hook for some $60 million to testing vendor Questar for new TNReady tests.

Guess what else? Those tests aren’t exactly helpful.

At least that’s the word from the education professionals in classrooms.

The Tennessean reports this year’s survey of Tennessee teachers indicates:

Sixty-five percent of educators surveyed said standardized exams aren’t worth the investment of time and effort. The same percentage of teachers said the exams don’t help refine teaching practices.

And 60 percent said the test doesn’t help them understand whether students gain the knowledge necessary to meet state standards.

In response, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen notes:

And teachers haven’t yet recieved meaningful data from the change to TNReady to help guide instruction due to the transition, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. The state has and will continue to work to improve the usefulness of the test, she said.

Except the attitude about the previous tests wasn’t much better:

The attitudes toward testing also aren’t necessarily new.

In the 2015 survey, educators said testing was a burden, with teachers reporting they spent too much time preparing students for exams and taking tests.

Now, though, our students spend even more time testing and preparing for tests. Tests that educators don’t find useful. In fact, Chalkbeat notes:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

Why isn’t the testing useful? For one, the results don’t come back in time. Even with the switch to a new testing vendor this year following the debacle of the first year of TNReady, quick score results weren’t back very quickly and final results will be delivered later this year.

It’s worth noting, though, that even before the transition to TNReady, teachers found the testing regime burdensome and unhelpful. It’s almost like the state is surveying teachers but not actually paying attention to the results.

Why are educators frustrated, exactly? Teacher Mike Stein offers this:

Meanwhile, teachers’ performance bonuses and even their jobs are on the line. Though they wouldn’t assert themselves into the discussion, principals and directors of schools also rely heavily upon the state to administer a test that measures what it says it will measure and to provide timely results that can be acted upon. As long as both of these things remain in question, I must question both the importance of TNReady and the competence of those who insist upon any standardized test as a means of determining whether or not educators are doing their jobs.

Taxpayers are spending money on a test that day-to-day practitioners find unhelpful. In the case of evaluations, they also find it unfair. Because, well, it’s just not a valid indicator of teacher performance.

Perhaps state policymakers should take a closer look at the teacher survey results. Teachers have no problem being evaluated, and in fact, most say the current system provides them with useful feedback. The observation rubric is robust and with proper implementation and meaningful building-level support, can be helpful as a means of improving teaching practice.

What’s not especially helpful is a test that takes up significant instructional time and doesn’t yield information in a timely or useful manner.

Taking a step back and removing the high stakes associated with a single test could be an important first step toward right-sizing our state’s approach to student assessment.

 

 

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


 

#BacktoMNPS Problems

The first day back to school is always an exciting time! But for MNPS, there are some problems lingering over it.

Overton

MNPS announced late last week that Overton High School would start two days late because construction was not completed at the school. News came out today that Overton may push back the first day again. I was at Overton late this summer, and there were literally no exterior walls on parts of the building. A plan of action should have been put into place earlier. On July 26th, someone tweeted school board member Will Pinkston about the delays at Overton. He responded, “Don’t like it, call the charters.”

Lead in the water

Friday news dumps are used to avoid the media. MNPS used a Friday news dump to let the city know about the results of the lead testing. As one would expect, there was lead found in numerous buildings across the district. Here’s part of the report:

With results in for 138 buildings, 119 buildings had no lead levels above the public drinking water standard.  Of the more than 4,000 samples taken during the past three weeks, only 38 showed lead levels above the standard of public water systems (15 parts per billion) – that is just less than one percent of the total tested. All 38 of those sample locations, which are in 19 schools, have been disconnected and taken out of service until repairs can be made and water retested.

Hunters Lane

A family filed suit last week alleging Hunters Lane violated Title IX. From The Tennessean:

According to the lawsuit, the girl was “subjected to unwelcome sexual contact by a male student” April 17 in an unlocked classroom while another student recorded it on video.

“This practice was so widespread within the Defendant’s school system that the students nicknamed the activity ‘exposing’ the individual involved,” the lawsuit says. The videos prompt ridicule as they are circulated around the school and internet, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says when the school learned of the video, it violated Title IX by suspending the 15-year-old girl and doled out no discipline intended to stop the spread of the video. The two other students involved were also suspended, according to the lawsuit.

Teacher Shortage

It’s a yearly problem felt across the country. WKRN reports that MNPS is short 140 teachers. Most of shortages are for math and special education. We need our leadership, both central office and school board, to focus on ways to retain our teachers.

Metro Schools says it has about an 80 percent retention rate. That means in a school district with about 6,000 teachers, about 1,200 teachers leave each year. Half of those teachers leave after only a year or two of teaching.

LEAD Public Schools released the news that their CEO, Chris Reynolds, was resigning days before the start of the new school year. Without missing a beat, Will Pinkston wrote an open letter attacking the school and paid for it to be advertised on Facebook. In his letter, Pinkston wrote,  “I am writing to demand a detail explanation of the reasons behind Reynold’s departure.”

Parent and blogger TC Weber had the perfect response detailing the scores of people that have left MNPS in just the past few weeks. According to Pinkston, the loss of MNPS staff is nonsense.

I agree with TC.  Let’s spend the necessary time and effort to make our school system better before we go off attacking others.

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


 

Hey, We’re Serious!

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent another letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, urging caution as President Trump’s budget moves forward.

McQueen had written previously to alert DeVos to the negative impacts of the budget on Tennessee.

The latest letter warned of deep impacts in rural communities. The Tennessean reports:

In her letter, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the elimination of Title II, part A funds in the upcoming federal budget would severely hinder the state’s ability to train teachers. McQueen estimated in the letter that the cuts would hit public school students across the state as well as more than 42,000 students in private schools.

Cuts in the overall federal budget could mean Tennessee could see larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs, according to superintendents and child advocacy groups.

I’ve noted previously that districts like Dickson County and Williamson County have County Commissions reluctant to fund school budgets.  Many of the state’s rural counties simply don’t have the funds to spend significantly on schools.

It will be interesting to see if County Commissions in the districts most impacted by the DeVos cuts are willing to spend the money to make up for  lost federal funds. Additionally, I’m curious as to whether County Commissions and School Boards are actively lobbying DeVos and their Members of Congress over the proposed Trump education budget.

As McQueen notes, should this budget pass, it will mean stark choices for many districts — and even impact a number of our state’s private schools.

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


 

The Easy Way Out

While Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in middle Tennessee and the lowest of any county with a population over 100,000, County Commissioners and the County Mayor are now pushing a sales tax increase scheme that will ultimately rest with local voters.

All of this comes about because the Williamson County Commission continues to exhibit a preference for low taxes and lattes over investment in schools.

Here’s more from the Tennessean on the sales tax effort:

Pushing for an increase in the county’s sales tax to help fund future school projects was a cornerstone of Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson’s 15th annual State of the County Address.

The final passage of the proposed 25-cent sales tax increase would be left up to residents in a county-wide referendum, but Anderson has been visiting the county’s six municipalities over the past several weeks in efforts to convince cities to agree to an inter-local agreement that would allocate a portion of new revenue to cover debt service for schools.

“The school system could see an additional $60 million by the arrangements we’re working on for three years,” Anderson said.

All of that sounds great — until you realize this is the most regressive way to raise revenue. Oh, and it has to be approved by voters.

I saw this scenario play out in Sumner County in 2012. County Commissioners faced pressure to raise revenue for a school system growing rapidly. The Commission could not pass a property tax increase. Instead, they put a wheel tax increase on the ballot — twice. It failed both times.

After the wheel tax increase failed twice, County Commissioners ran around saying voters didn’t want a tax increase at all, not even a property tax increase. So, the school budget would have to be cut.

Here’s how this movie ended: Voters turned out in record numbers in 2014 in Sumner County to elect new County Commissioners. The new commissioners promised to explore every option to raise revenue for a county that hadn’t seen a property tax increase in 12 years.

A property tax increase was passed that allowed Sumner County to invest in schools and other needs while still maintaining the second-lowest property tax rate in middle Tennessee. The school system now has a budget that is funded by the revenue generated from a growing county with a low tax rate.

Williamson County is in an even more enviable position than Sumner. Williamson has the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee — by 35 cents. Each one penny increase in the property tax generates $1 million in revenue. A 10-cent property tax increase would generate $10 million — more than enough to fund this year’s budget request — and would still give Williamson the lowest tax rate in the region by 25 cents.

What Mayor Anderson is pitching now may sound like good news. It’s not a long-term solution, though. Even if it somehow passed, the sales tax increase and inter-local agreement scheme is just kicking the can down the road.

Here’s the alternative (best) option: Raise property taxes a modest amount — maintain your system’s reputation for excellent schools AND enjoy the lowest property tax rate in the Nashville region.

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


 

 

Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville

These three nearby cities — similar in size and demographics to Nashville — pay teachers significantly more and have lower cost of living.

How can Nashville begin to close the gap?

Certainly, there’s a local responsibility. MNPS should work closely with Mayor Barry and Metro Council to make investing in teacher pay and support a top priority. There’s no reason these cities should be able to afford to pay significantly more than Nashville.

Next, leaders in Nashville should press the state to fund teacher compensation through the BEP formula at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Doing so would mean an additional $21 million a year for MNPS. Invested and distributed equally, those funds could mean a raise of over $3000 per teacher. That’s not enough, but it’s a start toward improving pay.

Of course, Nashville’s policymakers can’t get away with just blaming the state — Memphis also deals with Tennessee’s inadequate BEP and still manages to offer a pay rate that is better than Nashville’s with a cost of living that is lower.

Shelby County pays teachers about $6000 more per year than Nashville. Teachers in Cincinnati and Louisville can expect to earn around $7000 more per year than Nashville teachers after 10 years and about $15,000 more per year after 20 years of experience.

Tennessee should definitely step up and invest in teachers across the state, and that would certainly benefit Nashville. But Nashville leaders must making teacher compensation and support a top priority.

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


 

Dickson Doesn’t

It’s school budget time in Tennessee. By now, many school systems have passed budgets and some County Commissions have signed off on them. In some cases, there’s still work to do — ironing out differences in what a School Board requests and what a County Commission says it will fund.

We saw this play out in Williamson County, where County Commissioners who value low taxes and lattes won out over a School Board and Director who want to maintain a high level of service for students and the community. We saw a brief back and forth in Metro Nashville as the Board’s proposed three percent raise for teachers was lowered to two and then moved back to three. Even with MNPS moving teacher pay up a small notch this year, the district still lags behind similar cities like Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati.

Now, let’s look at Dickson County, where budget wrangling is ongoing.

I reported previously on plans by the Dickson County School Board to significantly raise pay. The proposal to give a ten percent raise was quickly shot down by the County Commission despite Dickson County being at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to teacher pay in surrounding districts.

Then, I noted that Dickson was among the “fortunate 46” districts mandated to raise their teacher pay by way of Tennessee Board of Education action. Those districts all had pay rates so low that to meet the new state minimum salary schedule (which itself is rather sad), they are required to implement pay raises this year. Dickson County teachers are slated to receive about $1750 per year more as a result of this requirement. Director of Schools Danny Weeks and the School Board wanted to push that amount to around $2500 per teacher.

Here’s what the County Mayor and County Commission have to say:

Last month, when the first two budget proposals were rejected, Rial said without a $2.6 million cut to the schools budget, a 26-cent property tax hike would be needed. The mayor has said previously that school system expenses increased by 8 percent over last year, but revenues increased by about 3 percent.

Weeks disputes that claim and notes the School Board’s budget proposal can be funded without using a tax increase and instead, relying on the system’s record of sound fiscal management which has led to a significant fund balance.

Weeks:

“Truthfully, we have enough fund balance to operate on the budget we have proposed without a property tax increase at all,” said Weeks last week to the board.

Using the previous year as a guide, Weeks said the school system is “budgeting much less than what we actually received the previous year.” Weeks told the board that if the school system “was allowed to budget our true, actual numbers with revenues,” it would likely need to cut about $750,000 to meet the county’s criteria — not $2.6 million.

While County Mayor Rial agreed that a tax increase wasn’t needed this year, he indicated an unwillingness to invest the money in schools.

After Weeks told commissioners a tax increase is not necessary — adding he would be “proud” to pay an extra $10 per month to support education — Rial said he agreed that a tax increase is not technically needed this year. And, the mayor noted that the school system has one of the largest fund balances in the state.

Here you have a school system under sound financial management with one of the largest fund balances in the state that has also received a 13% increase in funds for teacher compensation from the state over the past three budget cycles and yet county leaders won’t approve a budget that provides a modest but significant raise for teachers.

Two points worth noting: First, Dickson County should demonstrate the value it places on schools by investing as Director Weeks has recommended. Apparently, they can make this investment without a tax increase this year. Not doing so simply sends the message that schools aren’t that important.

Second, Dickson County leaders should be pressuring their state legislative delegation to demand proper funding of the BEP teacher salary component. Our state has a significant budget surplus and can well afford to invest the $350 million statewide it would take to improve the allocation districts receive for teachers. Adjusting the BEP formula to more accurately reflect actual teacher pay would result in an additional $2.8 million for Dickson County. That would allow for increasing teacher pay and other spending while also using less of the fund balance moving forward.

For now, it looks like the School Board will be looking at making cuts despite a rather ambitious start to their budgeting season. Funding schools is both a local and state responsibility. Dickson County leaders should do their part and then step up and demand the state fulfill its obligations.

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


 

Bill Lee Wrong on Vouchers

Back in January of 2016, now-gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee wrote an op-ed claiming that adding school vouchers to the mix in Tennessee’s education landscape would lead to improved education outcomes.

Here’s what he had to say:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Last year, Lee was peddling the myth that private schools offered better opportunity for kids. After analyzing the date, Dynarski and Nichols say this:

If the four studies suggest anything, it’s that private schools have no secret key that unlocks educational potential.

Visiting Lee’s campaign website yields little information about his views on actual policy. Of course, it is early in the campaign. However, it’s not clear if he still believes Tennessee tax dollars should be spent on voucher schemes that have been shown to have negative results in other states.

If Lee does in fact continue to advocate for vouchers, he’ll need to explain why Tennessee should invest in a program that has gotten such bad results across the country.

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


 

How Much for Schools?

Tennessee continues to experience revenue growth beyond budgeted estimates. The latest numbers indicate the state took in $112 million more than was budgeted for June. That brings the amount collected over budgeted estimates to $789 million with one more month left to calculate for the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, in spite of recent increases in allocation to teacher compensation, school systems still aren’t seeing adequate BEP funding. Every district in the state hires more teachers than allocated by the BEP formula. The state doesn’t provide any funding for the mandate of providing Response to Intervention. The state’s BEP Review Committee indicates providing funding for RTI positions would cost about $28 million. That’s about 25% of this month’s surplus. YES, for the cost of 1/4 of one month’s surplus revenue, we can begin providing funding for RTI positions. Districts should be demanding this money. The state can afford it.

As for teacher compensation, the state pays 70% of the BEP calculated rate — which is now $46,225. The good news: That calculated rate has been increasing in recent years. The bad news: That rate is still $7000 LESS than the average teacher compensation paid by districts in the state.

What does this mean? It means districts have to make up a big difference in order to maintain their level of pay. As one example, Nashville is struggling to pay teachers on par with similar cities nationally. Based on current BEP formula allocations, funding teaching positions at the actual average rate would mean MNPS would receive an additional $21 million for teacher compensation. Those funds would certainly help close the pay gap that plagues the system.

It’s worth noting that Tennessee has one of the largest gaps between teacher salaries and salaries of similarly-educated professions. Add to that the low reimbursement rate for teaching positions, and it’s not difficult to see why our teacher pay lags behind other cities and states.

To recap: Tennessee pays 70% of a pay rate that is $7000 below the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Fixing that by funding teaching positions at the actual cost would mean spending $343 million more per year. Or, about three months worth of surpluses. For another $28 million, we could also fund RTI positions.

Tennessee is on sound financial footing. We have month after month of budget surpluses. We also have a clearly identified policy need that would consume less than 40% of those surplus dollars. That leaves plenty of money for savings, other investments, or new projects.

I write this story year after year after year.

Policymakers can choose to address the serious funding challenges facing our schools. They can do it without raising taxes. They can do it while still saving more than $600 million.

This should be easy.

If providing excellent public schools is a top priority, the state will move to fund teaching positions at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher.

Every candidate for governor should be asked if they support making this investment. Their answer will say a lot about the priority they place on public education.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport


 

Teachers Union Membership Is Down Again. What Should TEA Do?

A new report shows that 27 state affiliates of the National Education Association lost active members in the past year, including Tennessee. Tennessee Education Association’s (TEA) membership dipped last year and has been continuously decreasing over the past five years.

In Tennessee, TEA had 28,802 active members during the 2015 – 2016 school year. That’s down 7%, or 2,240, from their 2014 – 2015 total of 31,042. TEA has lost over 37% of their active members in the past five years.

The decrease in membership is a direct result of the state’s mission to do whatever it takes to make the union as weak as possible. Teacher’s collective bargaining and payroll deductions were stripped away, and the membership has been decreasing since then.

While TEA can no longer collectively bargain, they can do what is known as collaborative conferencing. Teachers at Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to start collective conferencing with the district this past school year. 

The Tennessean describes collaborative conferencing as:

Collaborative conferencing is a form of district and union negotiation where topics such as: salaries or wages; grievance procedures; insurance benefits; fringe benefits; working conditions; vacation; and payroll deductions can be discussed. Other topics outside those listed are prohibited in meetings and conversations.

Another reason to join TEA was the ability to gain liability insurance. Now, the state of Tennessee provides all public school teachers with liability coverage at no cost, though the amount of coverage is not clearly defined.

The Fund provides liability insurance coverage to covered individuals and protects against damages or claims arising out of the performance of their work and within the scope of their employment or assignment

I have spoken to many teachers who agree with the positions of TEA, but do not want to spend $670 a year to become a member of a union that no longer has power. The state of Tennessee has done everything it can to reduce the amount of power TEA has in hopes of reducing their membership. It looks like it has worked.

What should TEA do to increase membership? I would love to hear your ideas.