The Curious Case of Williamson County

Williamson Strong has more on the evolving situation in Williamson County where a County Commission reluctant to raise revenue is forcing the School Board to make budget cuts.

Using information on spending relative to peer districts, Williamson Strong notes there’s no spending problem in Williamson County, and in fact, Williamson spends significantly less than other top districts and even has lower per pupil expenditures than the state average:

Of the top 10 districts in terms of academic performance (measured by ACT/TCAP), WCS has the lowest per pupil expenditure. WCS spends only $8,945 per student – $1,790 less than the average PPE of the top 10 districts.

For reference, Franklin Special School District, the K-8 district that sits in the heart of Williamson County, spends $13,386 per student – almost 50% more per child than WCS. WCS also spends below the state average – $554 per student less than Tennessee’s average $9,499. Keep in mind that Tennessee is typically in the bottom ten states for per pupil expenditures. (See former School Board member Eric Welch’s graphs for comparison to state and national figures as well as to area private school tuitions.)

Additionally, WCS’ average teacher pay of $49,934 is $3,729 below the average of the top 10 districts in the state. Williamson’s spending on salaries is not out of control, and in fact, is less than peer districts. Again, for comparison, FSSD’s average teacher salary is $55,305.

So, the School Board passed budget cuts of $6 million this week. The alternative would have been for the County Commission to raise property taxes by six cents. That would cost a taxpayer with a $400,000 home $60 a year. Or, one Starbucks drink a month.

While this may not be a huge setback this year, it’s unsustainable in a district growing as rapidly as Williamson County. At some point, the level of service provided to students will noticeably suffer. Until then, have another Caramel Macchiato.

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


 

McQueen vs. DeVos

President Trump’s education budget is bad news for Tennessee’s schools. So much so that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, penned a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking that the proposed cuts be reconsidered.

Jason Gonzalez of the Tennessean reports:

Tennessee officials say heavy cuts to children’s programs in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could hinder the long-term progress the state has made helping poor and disadvantaged kids.

The $4.1 trillion White House budget proposal calls for cuts to school and health care funding that helps the state’s neediest children.

The cuts could mean larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs.

McQueen warned:

“Tennessee’s rural areas and poorer districts are especially dependent upon these funds, as their local budgets are unable to provide additional support for professional learning,” McQueen wrote.

According to the State Report Card, federal funding accounts for 11.72% of all education funding in the state. While all of those funds wouldn’t be eliminated in the Trump-DeVos budget, the proposal does make significant cuts. Rural communities are often more dependent on federal funds and so would be hit hardest, as McQueen notes.

While Tennessee has made some progress in recent years on school funding, the state is still behind where it should be in terms of full funding of the BEP — the funding formula for schools. Losing a significant amount of federal dollars would deal a blow to a state finally inching forward in terms of education progress.

The McQueen letter may be the first public evidence that the Haslam administration is at odds with the leadership from Washington. It’s encouraging to see McQueen take this stand and publicly fight for the needs of Tennessee’s poorest districts.

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


 

New Franchise

I’ve written before about the state’s Achievement School District eyeing Chattanooga for an expansion of it’s reach.

Now, it seems the speculation is nearing an end and Chattanooga will see some form of state intervention. Will it be the major league of the ASD? What seems more likely is a minor league effort, a “partnership zone.”

More from Chalkbeat on how that might work:

In a partnership zone, clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. Local leaders get to experiment the same way that charter schools can, but they continue to have a say in how their schools are run. State officials get to push for needed improvements, but they aren’t solely responsible for strong results — something that has proven elusive so far for them.

The partnership zone idea originated in Springfield, Massachusetts, where an “Empowerment Zone” is finishing its second year. There, educators and community leaders who might oppose school takeovers — or be displaced by them — have embraced the zone, which has nine schools and is set to grow. As a result, people there say, changes in schools are gaining traction.

This would mark a change in approach from the ASD’s top-down, low communication, high confrontation efforts in Memphis and Nashville. I’ve previously noted that the ASD is being reined-in after years of an aggressive approach that won the district plenty of enemies while failing to generate measurable results.

Time will tell if the state’s new approach and developmental league effort will be more well-received and/or more successful than the ASD.

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


 

Too Rich to Pay

I reported earlier on the struggles Williamson County is facing in properly funding schools. As budget crunch time approaches, it seems the County Commission there is unlikely to approve a small property tax increase in  order to fund the school system’s budget request.

The Williamson Herald reports:

The Williamson County Board of Education participated in a tough discussion Thursday, regarding the necessity of cutting key new staff positions and services in order to fulfill the Williamson County Commission Budget Committee’s request to cut the school budget by $5 million.

The CCBC voted 4-1 earlier this spring to cut the school district’s budget in order to avoid a county property tax increase.

However, WCS Director of Schools Mike Looney said that in order to avoid a tax increase, an additional $1 million reduction is needed, totaling a $6 million decrease in the school board’s proposed operational budget, resulting in a reduction from $343 million to $337 million.

The story notes that the school system will cut nearly $2 million worth of new positions and services and make cuts to employee insurance to cover the rest of the shortfall.

Here’s what’s interesting: A property tax increase of 6 cents would basically cover the projected shortfall. Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in Middle Tennessee. It’s 35 cents lower than the second-lowest, which is Sumner County. A 6 cent increase would mean Williamson’s tax rate would still be the lowest, and still be 29 cents lower than Sumner. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 roughly $60 a year.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in Tennessee. The school system there has always been a source of pride. Now, County Commissioners are quibbling over a few million dollars in order to avoid a tiny tax increase. The message: We can do great things for kids as long as we don’t have to pay more. Keeping taxes 35 cents lower than the next lowest county is more important than fully funding a budget request designed to improve services to a rapidly growing district.

Williamson County can afford to fully fund this proposed budget for schools. They can do it and still have the lowest tax rate in Middle Tennessee by nearly 30 cents. So far, it looks as if they aren’t willing to make that commitment.

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


 

A Little Less Creepy

Two years ago I wrote about Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) creeping beyond its original mission. I noted then that the state’s Race to the Top grant which spawned the ASD envisioned a handful of schools receiving highly targeted attention. I argued that rapid growth and a lack of clear communication contributed to a bumpy start for the turnaround effort. I concluded by offering this suggestion:

By creeping beyond its admirable mission, the ASD has become an example of good intentions gone awry. Focusing on the original goal of using highly focused effort to both improve struggling schools AND learn new strategies to help other schools would be a welcome change.

Now, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports the ASD is being scaled back and re-focused. She notes:

In Tennessee’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Department of Education clipped the ASD’s wings with new policies approved this spring by the legislature. They address longstanding concerns, including complaints that the state district had moved beyond its original purpose, lacked a clear exit strategy, and didn’t give local districts enough time to execute their own turnaround plans.

McQueen also announced plans to downsize the ASD’s structure this summer by slashing its team and merging several ASD-related offices in Memphis.

It will be interesting to watch how the “new” ASD evolves. Will it really focus on building partnerships and clear communication? Or, will it revert back to the posturing that caused problems as it grew in Memphis?

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


 

Amy Frogge on Charters and Segregation

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge posted last week about charter schools and re-segregation.

Here’s what she had to say:

“Research is clear that segregation by both race and poverty result in weaker opportunities and student outcomes. And the benefits just aren’t for students of color: White students also gain from diversity in the classroom.”

But after years of integration, Southern schools are re-segregating. Why?

“The rise of more segregated charters, paired with the persistence of private schools, are contributing to a reversal of the gains in integration made in the 1960s and 1970s. . . . Black and Latino students comprise disproportionately higher shares of charter school enrollment. [In the South], black and Latino students in charters . . . have relatively little contact with white students . . . .”

What’s the solution for this problem? According to this article: Greater local control of school districts, avoiding the splintering of school districts, “choice” programs (among traditional schools) that foster diversity and include free transportation, and housing policies that “locate subsidized housing in good quality school districts.”

READ MORE from the article she cites. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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


 

WTF, TNReady?

In what is sure to be surprising news to parents, students, and school district leaders, TNReady quick score results are delayed yet again. Hard to predict this type of disaster since it only happens every year for the past four years now.

This delay is due to a problem the vendor is having with new test scanning equipment.

Here’s a statement from Hamilton County Schools explaining the news they received from the Tennessee Department of Education:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen informed school directors state-wide today that TNReady assessment vendor Questar has experienced challenges with the scanning software and capacity to scan testing materials; therefore, the company will not be able to meet the raw score deadlines set.

Dr. McQueen has asked Questar for updates on district-specific timing, and says the company currently estimates the scores will be delivered for the state’s upload process no later than the week of June 12.

Questar released a statement, which I have attached to this email.

The message from Dr. McQueen says she plans to meet with several groups this summer, including the TOSS Board, to come up with solutions that may prevent Tennessee testing vendors from missing the deadline set for report cards for a third year in a row. Her office promises to keep districts posted as the state receives more information.

To their credit, Questar is taking responsibility. That’s a change in tone from previous testing vendor Measurement, Inc.

Here’s what Questar had to say:

A Statement from Questar Regarding Raw Score Delivery

Questar committed to spring TNReady raw score delivery on a timeline and terms we set and which were communicated extensively by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), however, our company has experienced scan set-up difficulties that will affect that timeline. Questar recently completed an upgrade to our scanning programs for paper tests, and we underestimated the time needed to fully integrate these upgrades. Therefore, any delays to the timeline are not the fault of the Tennessee Department of Education or the districts across the state. We take complete responsibility for this project, and we are actively working to meet our commitments to the state, districts, and educators. The purpose of this communication is to provide an update on the progress we are making to publish raw scores for grades 3-8 and End-of-Course assessments.

End-of-Course Status Update: Nearly all paper and online EOC raw scores are uploaded to EdTools. We appreciate the communication from the TDOE to reprioritize EOC delivery to ensure districts had these results as soon as possible.

3-8 Status Update: Questar is currently working through delays in scan processing for the 3-8 raw scores, which impact the timeline we previously provided to the TDOE for raw score delivery. We have experienced several software delays with our scan programming that we are actively resolving, and we are working to increase capacity within our scanning operations. We are committed to working with TDOE to mitigate these challenges in order to scan and score TNReady 3-8 assessments as quickly as possible. We will provide additional details and timelines, including district-specific estimations, as we make progress over the week.

The raw score delays will not impact the timeline for delivery of final score reports. Our scoring operations are unaffected by the scanning software issues, and we anticipate providing EOC final score reports this summer and 3-8 score reports this fall after the cut score process is complete, as previously announced.

We understand the importance of having the raw scores to communicate information to educators, students, and families, and we apologize for the inconvenience our delays have caused TDOE and our district partners in getting this information on the timeline we committed to months ago.

Questar sincerely appreciates our partnership with TDOE and the Tennessee educators and students we serve.

Tennessee has unique timing requirements for raw score delivery as compared to other states so we will continue to work with the department and districts to ensure that the future score return process is successful.

-Brad Baumgartner, Chief Partner Officer

At least we’re now paying millions of taxpayer dollars to a vendor who will take some heat, right?
This part of the Hamilton County statement is interesting:
The message from Dr. McQueen says she plans to meet with several groups this summer, including the TOSS Board, to come up with solutions that may prevent Tennessee testing vendors from missing the deadline set for report cards for a third year in a row.
Here’s a solution: Don’t count TNReady scores in student final grades. In fact, since McQueen readily admits that raw score data is of little actual value and since different methods of factoring quick scores lead to vastly different scores assigned to students, why even bother?
It’s clearly been a problem to get reliable quick score data back to districts. The data is of dubious value. Legislation should advance that eliminates the use of TNReady data in student grades.
As I’ve said before, TNReady may well be a solid test properly aligned to standards. Such a test can yield useful information. A more student-centered approach to testing would focus on project-based assessment and use tools like TNReady to provide diagnostic information for students, teachers, and schools.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

Weber, Hawkins, & Rogen Take On The Charter Debate

I wanted to highlight three good blog posts about charter schools that came out this weekend from those for and against charter schools.

This weekend the Tennessean posted an article about how two charter schools acquired bonds from the Nashville government to help fund the cost of renovating or building new schools. Seeing how MNPS does not give money for charter facilities, charter schools have to find ways to fund remodels, expansions, etc. As the Tennessean previously reported, the city of Nashville is spending millions for renovations and land for new buildings for traditional MNPS schools.

  • $46 million for the renovation of Hillsboro High School, the second part of an $86 million makeover
  • $10.2 million for land acquisition for Hillwood High School’s relocation to Bellevue
  • $9 million for land acquisition for a new school of the arts

Charter schools don’t have the luxury of the Mayor funding new buildings for them, and many traditional schools have to wait years and years to get renovated or a new school. Two charter schools used perfectly legal measures to gain bonds from the city of Nashville, and that made some anti-charter elected officials upset because they didn’t know it took place.

This was just another attack on charter schools that blogger Vesia Hawkins calls the “Summertime Strategy.”

The grand plan to dismantle charter schools is becoming more clear, particularly with the partnership with certain reporters, asinine accusations resulting from “intense scrutiny” of lease agreements (somehow there’s time for this), and let’s not forget the targeted personal attacks on certain charter school leaders—so far, only on those of color. See my recent post about Shaka Mitchell (who, as of last week, is no longer with Rocketship), Ravi Gupta, and John Little.

I mean, Rocketship attacks have been on repeat for a year now, so no surprises there, but Purpose Prep? Purpose Prep, the elementary school that intentionally seeks out students from the North Nashville area and operates with the expectation that every child will be eligible for Martin Luther King, Jr. magnet high school and, ultimately, the college of their choice. Purpose Prep, a school in its third year of existence with a student population comprised of 98% students of color, 74% economically disadvantaged and nearly every child is reading at or above grade level. So, what’s the problem here? (Shout out to Lagra Newman and her team!)

TC Weber, who is no fan of charter schools, wants to know how this latest attack solves the problem of families flocking to charters:

My position on charter schools is well documented. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of public education as a cornerstone of our democracy. But, I am baffled by people who can recognize the futility of the drug wars and its basis in attacks on the suppliers who fail to see the paralles playing out in the fight for public education. Repeatedly attacking suppliers while ignoring why there is demand is a strategy that has demonstrably failed to achieve success in the drug war and offers a preview of what to expect if we employ the same strategy in the fight against charter school proliferation. If we don’t address demand, parents will continue to search out alternatives regardless of how had we try and paint that alternative.

Earlier in the year, several hundred Antioch HS students staged a walkout over conditions in their school. An action that was never oppenly addressed by the school board.

Last week I recieved documentation that shows over 60 teachers have left Antioch HS this year and that the Principal non-renewed 10 more. I’m told that they have roughly 115 teachers total. After the student walkout Dr. Joseph held a restorative justice circle with the teachers. They told him that if he didn’t do something about the principal he was going to lose a lot of teachers. Joseph’s reported response was that the principals was not going anywhere and the teachers could either get on the bus or get run over by the bus. Antioch HS is not the only school in the district facing huge teacher turnover – Sylvan Park, Warner, Overton, Joelton, to name a few. I ask you, which story, charter school building finance or high teacher turnover,  do you think has greater impact on student outcomes?  Which story has the ability to affect charter growth? If I’m a parent in a school with that kind of teacher turnover and my only choice is enrolling in a school that appears more stable but uses dubious means to fund its capital investments, where do you think I’m going?

We need to be asking why parents are heading to charter schools and make changes so that parents don’t want to leave their zoned school. Teacher and blogger Josh Rogen addresses this very issue in his latest blog post. Josh does a great job graphing numbers to show a clear picture of why some families decide to leave a traditional school. He breaks down the achievement of schools based on the percentage of students of color in the school.

The answer is clear. If you are a Black, Hispanic, or Native American parent, and your zoned option is predominantly Black, Hispanic, or Native American, your best option is to send your child to a charter school if you value their overall growth, excellence, and the culture of the building they are being educated in.

In fact, if you are sending your child to a school with 80%+ Black, Hispanic, or Native American, you can basically throw a dart at any charter school in Nashville and be confident that you are doing much better than your zoned option. (That bottom one is Smithson Craighead, which is getting shut down. Closing bad schools…an interesting idea.)

On the other hand, middle-class white people are not touched by charter schools, and so they don’t support them. I will say that it is awfully easy to hate charter schools when you have a good zoned option. It’s a lot harder to oppose them when your child is locked into a failing school because of their zip code. A little empathy might change the conversation.

Josh hits on something about middle class people who are not touched by charter schools. I recently ran across a comment that TC Weber wrote that said,

It’s really easy to fight for public education when your kids are not the ones sitting in the seats at our poorest schools. I’d love to look around and see all these education warrior’s children’s sitting in seats next to my kids and perhaps then we could get equity.

I also saw a comment someone made that said it was a “disgusting insult to the teachers, students, and parents in the system” when someone was disparaging MNPS. If that is what some people think, the same should be true for charter school. There are students, teachers, and families that have decided to work and/or send their kids to a charter school. The conversation has now turned into one where one cannot speak ill of MNPS and one cannot speak good things about charter schools. We need to have these conversations about both of them in a more collaborative way.

Instead of spending time attacking charter schools, we should be working to improve our district so that families don’t feel the need to leave their zoned school. 374 parents sent a letter to the school board about these attacks, but the board never responded to those concerns. The silence shows that the board doesn’t want a dialogue with charter school parents. If we want to improve our district, we must communicate with all parents.

So let’s come together and figure out why parents are leaving for charters. I don’t know if it’s already been done, but each parent should fill out a short exit interview when they withdraw their student for a charter. Let’s start focus groups with these parents. Let’s do more to find the concerns, fix the concerns, and see what happens. We already know what some concerns are: literacy rates, ACT scores, and behavior. 

Let’s spend more time listening and collaborating instead of attacking. As a teacher, I want success for all students. All students includes students who attend private, home, magnet, charter, or traditional public school.

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


 

 

It Doesn’t Matter Except When It Does

This year’s TNReady quick score setback means some districts will use the results in student report cards and some won’t. Of course, that’s nobody’s fault. 

One interesting note out of all of this came as Commissioner McQueen noted that quick scores aren’t what really matters anyway. Chalkbeat reports:

The commissioner emphasized that the data that matters most is not the preliminary data but the final score reports, which are scheduled for release in July for high schools and the fall for grades 3-8. Those scores are factored into teachers’ evaluations and are also used to measure the effectiveness of schools and districts.

“Not until you get the score report will you have the full context of a student’s performance level and strengths and weaknesses in relation to the standards,” she said.

The early data matters to districts, though, since Tennessee has tied the scores to student grades since 2011.

First, tying the quick scores to student grades is problematic. Assuming TNReady is a good, reliable test, we’d want the best results to be used in any grade calculation. Using pencil and paper this year makes that impossible. Even when we switch to a test fully administered online, it may not be possible to get the full scores back in time to use those in student grades.

Shifting to a model that uses TNReady to inform and diagnose rather than evaluate students and teachers could help address this issue. Shifting further to a project-based assessment model could actually help students while also serving as a more accurate indicator of whether they have met the standards.

Next, the story notes that teachers will be evaluated based on the scores. This will be done via TVAAS — the state’s value-added modeling system. Even as more states move away from value-added models in teacher evaluation, Tennessee continues to insist on using this flawed model.

Again, let’s assume TNReady is an amazing test that truly measures student mastery of standards. It’s still NOT designed for the purpose of evaluating teacher performance. Further, this is the first year the test has been administered. That means it’s simply not possible to generate valid data on teacher performance from this year’s results. You can’t just take this year’s test (TNReady) and compare it to the TCAP from two years ago. They are different tests designed to measure different standards in a different way. You know, the old apples and oranges thing.

One teacher had this to say about the situation:

“There’s so much time and stress on students, and here again it’s not ready,” said Tikeila Rucker, a Memphis teacher who is president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

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


 

Amy Frogge on Poverty and Schools

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge offers these thoughts in a recent Facebook post:

Yesterday’s post about Rocketship generated a lot of conversation and fabulous articles to share. Those conversations made me aware of the need to refocus our efforts on the real root of the problem in Nashville’s schools: childhood POVERTY, which is increasing in local schools and across the nation. Addressing the impact of poverty on children is something I think we can all get behind.

Most people don’t understand that when we talk about “good” or “bad” schools, we are really just talking about the types of students in the school. Schools that serve children who come to school well fed, with access to good health care, from homes with books and plenty of resources, who have had the chance to attend high quality preschools, who attend wonderful summer camps, and who benefit from after-school enrichment activities are typically deemed “good” schools. (Think Williamson County.) Schools with large populations of high needs students are often deemed “bad” schools. (The larger the population of high needs students, the worse the school is often rated.) While there are certainly exceptions, most schools have committed teachers and good leadership. And while there is much work to be done at the district and state level to create and effectively implement a consistent vision to improve education in Nashville, as well as to provide adequate resources and the proper supports for our schools, there is also much good to celebrate in local schools.

I’m personally trying to address the issue of poverty by supporting community schools (that provide extra supports for children in need), by trying to focus on equity at the board level, by advocating for pre-k and whole child education for ALL children, and by sending my own children to Title I schools. (Research shows that socioeconomic diversity in schools helps improve outcomes for students.)

This is a great article about how education policy can exacerbate, or alternatively- lessen, the impact of poverty on learning. It concludes: “poor children need access to the same kind of deeply human present and multidimensional future that we all wish for our own children. That should be our rallying cry. That should be our highest aim.” We must want for all children what we want for our own.

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