You’ve Written 1000 Stories

Tennessee Education Report has been around since January of 2013. Before Chalkbeat found Tennessee. After most local newspapers stopped focusing so much on education issues.

As of this week, I’ve written 1000 stories that have appeared on this blog. More precisely, YOU have written those stories. I’ve heard from teachers and parents and policymakers over this time. I’ve conducted interviews and taken phone calls and read emails.

YOU make Tennessee Education Report possible.

When it started in 2013, it was not clear there’d be an audience. Sure, there were issue to be covered, but who would read stories day after day about education issues in Tennessee?

Turns out, lots of you.

So, thank you!

Thank you for reading about an education agenda for our state that STILL has yet to be realized.

Thank you for reading analysis about NAEP scores. And about TNReady quick scores.

Thank you for reading about hackers and dump trucks impacting state testing.

Thank you for reading about a failed portfolio evaluation process in both Kindergarten and Related Arts.

And of course, this year has been all about Bill Lee and his dangerous voucher scheme.

YOU make it possible to report education news day after day, week after week, year after year.

Thank you!

Your support — your monthly donation or one-time contribution — makes it possible for me to generate 1000 stories about education policy in our state. YOU write the stories!

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

The Nashville School Budget

So, Nashville is now Tennessee’s largest city. In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. Nashville is hotter than the Hot Chicken the city is known for. It’s the “It City.”

Of course, that means teachers in Nashville are earning top dollar to live in this highly desirable, rapidly growing urban mecca, right? Nope. In fact, Nashville teachers earn significantly less than their counterparts in similar cities. The Nashville School Board and Metro Council have known this for YEARS now and done nothing about it. At all. It’s not like the MNPS School Board was consistently proposing significant raises for Nashville teachers. They weren’t. They haven’t been. They’ve seen (and ignored) the data since at least 2015.

In fact, I noted in 2017:

Teachers in Nashville start at $42,100 with a bachelor’s degree. In Louisville, they start at $42,700. So, starting pay in Nashville is competitive. But, let’s look longer term. That same teacher after 10 years in Nashville will earn $47,000. In Louisville, it’s $54,974.

Oh, and let me note this: The salary to live comfortably in Louisville is $49,000. Teachers in Louisville hit that pay rate by year 5. A teacher in Nashville isn’t making $49,000 even after 10 years of experience. The pay scale in Nashville simply isn’t moving up quickly enough.

So, what about after 20 years? A Nashville teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years experience makes $56,000. In Louisville, that teacher makes $71,000. A teacher working in Louisville with 20 years experience earns $22,000 more a year than that city’s “comfortable living” salary. In fact, they earn more than Nashville’s “comfortable” salary.

So, what’s up? Why aren’t MNPS teachers earning the salaries they deserve? Well, SEIU Local 205 offers this handy explainer relative to the Metro budget:


The job of the mayor and council is to decide what property tax rate generates enough revenue to fund the city. In both 2009 and 2017, Mayor Dean and then Mayor Barry accepted the tax rate that kept revenues neutral without debating the impact on the city budget. Both times, the Metro Council agreed. Our elected officials collectively refused to make the politically difficult decisions we need them to make as leaders of our city. They made an irresponsible choice to lower the rate, which cost our city vital revenues and disproportionately benefited developers and commercial properties. This broke the budget. In 2010, the Dean administration restructured the city debt, pushing payments into the future. Much of our budget is paying for that debt now instead of our schools and other public institutions.


Another way to think about this is that Mayor Barry proposed a $394 million/year tax cut, and the Council accepted. Technically we did not “lose” revenues because the appraisal has to be revenue neutral, but we did lose out on $1.5 billion in potential revenue over 4 years.

So, if you wonder why all those teachers are wearing “Red for Ed” or were staging “walk-ins” this year or even engaging in sick-outs in some cases, now you know. In fact, it’s amazing to me that these teachers even show up at all. Will the current Mayor and Metro Council address the glaring needs of Metro Schools OR will Nashville need to elect a new Mayor and different members of Metro Council in order to claim “It City”-level funding for schools and teachers?

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

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TNReady for the Stone Age

Much has been made about this year’s TNReady administration, which appeared to happen without any problems. In fact, Chalkbeat reports:


While education vouchers consumed the headlines this spring, Tennessee students in grades 3-11 were quietly taking their annual TNReady tests. The month-long testing window ended last week with about 2 million tests completed, a third of which were submitted online. While Tennessee had scaled back computer-based testing after last year’s technical problems, this year’s successful online administration for high schoolers still marked an important milestone in the TNReady era.

To be clear, Tennessee students (and teachers and parents) have become accustomed to a failed test administration and/or delayed results.

So, for the first time in 5 years, the TNReady test “worked.” It worked because it was mostly administered using old technology. Pencil, paper, a bubble sheet. Miraculously, the vendor was even able to return “quick scores” to districts in a timely fashion.

Not solved: The immense amount of time students spend in test prep and the lost instructional time during the “testing window.” Also not solved: Tennessee remains one of the few states still unable to successfully administer an online test and return the results in a timely fashion. In fact, we may be unique among states in the level of difficulty we’ve experienced:

“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.

The reality is that Tennessee’s online-testing mess has left everyone in a difficult position, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization.

“The state has not [made] stability a key priority in their testing vendors,” Aldeman said.

So, Tennessee has the distinction of being the only state in America NOT able to effectively transition to an online testing platform that works. What separates Tennessee from these other states? Competent leadership in the Department of Education. That is, Tennessee’s DOE is unique in the level of incompetence consistently demonstrated.

For those interested in how this impacts TVAAS, it is highly problematic in terms of reliability. We’ve had failed TNReady, pencil and paper TNReady, hacker and dump truck TNReady, and another round of pencil and paper. It is IMPOSSIBLE to have consistent, reliable growth data based on these results. Still, teachers are evaluated on these results. Schools are held accountable for these results. Principals are told these results are key to their jobs.

Next year, TNReady will be administered by a new vendor on pencil and paper.

So, in 2020, Tennessee students will be using Stone Age technology to complete a tests kids in almost every other state are taking online. Nice to know Fred Flintsone runs our DOE.

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

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Voucher Sponsor Facing FBI Probe

As Governor Bill Lee signed controversial voucher legislation into law this past week, revelations emerged that the FBI is investigating potentially illegal campaign activity by the Senate sponsor of Lee’s plan.

The Daily Memphian reports Senator Brian Kelsey’s failed 2016 congressional campaign faces an investigation into illegal use of state campaign funds for a federal race.


The Tennessee Journal is reporting the Department of Justice talked recently to state lawmakers about alleged “straw donations” into state Sen. Brian Kelsey’s 2016 congressional campaign.


Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who represents East Memphis and Cordova, came in fourth in the Republican primary three years ago. But reports have raised questions about whether money was funneled from his state accounts into his congressional fund, which is illegal.


During the 2016 campaign, his state political action committee, Red State PAC, contributed about $20,000 to state legislators who then gave funds to his congressional race, according to the Tennessee Journal article.

The FBI is also investigating the House vote on voucher legislation to determine if any improper benefits were offered in exchange for votes in favor of the bill.

All of this comes amid the controversy surrounding soon-to-be former House Speaker Glen Casada, who will resign from his leadership role following a months-long scandal which began with the framing of an African-American political activist and included Casada’s appointment of an admitted sex offender to a key leadership role.

Just to be clear: Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that is currently facing an FBI investigation due to alleged impropriety in securing votes. The lead sponsor of that bill in the Senate is ALSO under an FBI investigation.

Rather than wait for the outcome of these investigations, Lee moved forward and signed the bill into law. Lee is so determined to privatize our state’s public schools that he partnered with the nefarious Glen Casada, ignored a potentially illegal vote, and relied on a Senate sponsor who seems to have displayed blatant disregard for campaign finance law.

Make no mistake: Lee is a win at all costs governor. His prize: Taxpayer dollars funneled to private entities with a record of failing to achieve results.

The losers in Lee’s dangerous, morally bankrupt game are the citizens of Tennessee and especially the students and families impacted by a voucher scheme that both fails to help kids and also sucks money from our chronically under-funded public school system.

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

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Like a Dad Out of Hell?

Back in April, conservative commentator Steve Gill, who publishes the Tennessee Star, wrote an attack piece on Knox County teacher Lauren Sorenson. Gill’s beef with Sorenson seems to be that she had the gall to stand up and speak out for her fellow teachers and also advocate on behalf of students across the state. Gill used Sorenson’s affiliation with the “Badass Teachers Association” (BATs) to label her a “BAT out of Hell.”

Like so many in leadership roles in our state, Gill apparently prefers that teachers keep their voices quiet rather than highlight the unpleasant facts about the teaching profession and our state’s chronically under-funded schools.

Gill has been a consistent supporter of using public money to support private schools by way of voucher schemes. More recently, he’s come to the defense of embattled (and soon to be former) House Speaker Glen Casada. He’s even backed admitted sex offender David Byrd.

That’s why it is so shocking to learn that while Lauren Sorenson is busy fighting for all kids and educating young minds in Knox County, Gill is failing to live up to his parental responsibilities.

The Tennessean has more:

Conservative commentator and former political candidate Steve Gill must pay his ex-wife $170,000 in 10 days or go to jail, a Williamson County judge has ruled. 

In a ruling entered into the court on Sunday, Judge James G. Martin sided with Kathryn B. Gill, who was seeking nearly $236,000 for various expenses related to the divorced couple’s sons. 


Kathryn Gill was seeking $86,000 in child support from Steve Gill, in addition to $4,400 in medical expenses, $133,000 in college expenses and another $11,000 for a car she purchased for the children’s use.

Or, maybe it is not at all surprising that a guy who defends Glen Casada and David Byrd would attack a strong woman fighting for a better future for our state.

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

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Success in Education

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on how to “keep public education a success.”

I struck up a conversation with a graduating senior. “What do you want in life?” I asked. “To be successful,” he replied. To which I asked the question: “What is success?” “I don’t know,” he said as he walked away. We all want to be successful. But how can you be successful if you cannot even define it?

The World Economic Forum estimates 65 percent of children today will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet and for which schools are not preparing them. Let that sink in for a minute: the vast majority of children in school will end up in careers that do not even exist today.

One of the organizations I like to keep up with is The Future Project. They argue that “the future is not fixed—and that people, working together, can shape it for the better.” I share their optimism. I think the same is true of the teaching profession: people working together, can shape it for the better.

Too often I see the education community put up walls. Walls between school systems and communities. Walls between school administration and teachers. Walls between teachers and other teachers. Walls between teachers and students. It is time to tear the walls down. It is time that we create the change that our schools, teachers, and students need. I recommend three steps for policymakers to consider at the state level that can create success for our schools in the future:

  1. Embrace Innovation. Governor Bill Lee said: “In order to improve, you have to be willing to innovate and challenge the status quo. That’s true whether it is in business or education.” This means at the state level the focus must be on providing the flexibility and freedom for educators and education leaders at all levels to try new things that will help improve student achievement and success. Our goal as a state should be to give every child the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, in order to build a skilled workforce for the 21st Century global economy.
  2. Update the Funding Formula. At the state level, the Basic Education Program (BEP), is how Tennessee funds our K-12 public schools. The BEP provides over $4.7 billion of state funding for education. We must update our K12 funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs. It is time for the state to push for a new funding plan and formula that reflects our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies. Yes, there are lawsuits under the current system, and it will be a challenge to make everyone happy, but it is past time to address the funding issue. We must also make sure dollars that are earmarked for salary increases end up in the pockets of teachers, and that all state mandates are fully funded.
  3. End Social Promotion. We must ensure that all students will be able to read proficiently by the end of the third-grade. Children who do not read on grade level are more likely to drop out, use drugs or end up in prison. Research shows that reading abilities in the third-grade act as a tell-tale barometer for later school success. We cannot keep sending Tennessee students onto the next grade if they lack basic reading skills. Social promotion does more harm than good. We can no longer ignore the issue of social promotion. We must eliminate the practice of advancing students because of their age rather than their knowledge. The decision to have a student to repeat a grade should not be made lightly or without considering a student’s unique situation. The evidence for focused retention strategies points toward real benefits for those students who arrive at school lacking some of the building blocks of literacy. These students need some extra time to catch up. We cannot give up on teaching our children how to read. The best solution, of course, is to remediate struggling readers during the school year, to get them the extra help they need to stay on track. However, we cannot simply to continue to move these students through the system. Social promotion hurts our kids, kills our workforce, and fills up our prisons.

We can change the path we are on, and give every child a better chance of success—even if they don’t know what it looks like at this point in their life. Success is not left to chance, it’s a matter of choice. We have tough choices to make in public education, and that will include changes. We must make the choices that benefit our state, our communities, our schools, our educators and especially our children.

We must make sure public education is viewed as a significant part of the choice that parents will make for their children moving forward. The best and brightest students in our communities should know that our public education system will work for them. The underserved and poor in our communities should know that our public education system can work for them. Every parent in our communities should know that they have a role in making sure our public education system works for their children. Part of our role has to be keeping K12 education at the forefront of every discussion in public policy across Tennessee. That is the success we should seek.

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

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JC Bowman on Leadership

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers thoughts on district leadership as the “summer of change” approaches.

It’s that time of year when we see changes in leadership across the state in our schools.  Superintendents will leave and be replaced.  It matters to all of us whomever a school board places in leadership.  In some cases, you will see districts go outside their district and pick new leadership while others will promote from within.  There are good choices and there are bad choices out there.  So, to all school boards we say: choose wisely.  In my circle we call this time of the year the Dance of the Lemons and/or the Parade of Favorites.  

A school district must have competent leadership managing the daily operations of the school district. A good superintendent leads the districts educational, financial and administrative performance; facilitates the performance of all personnel; and responds to and informs stakeholders and policymakers about the performance and leadership of the district.  Probably one of the most important duties of the superintendent is to make sure district students are learning and achieving at the highest level possible.

A superintendent must understand effective academic practices and be supportive of the teachers and administrators in the district. Leadership, vision, and strategic thinking are critical skills for every superintendent. A successful superintendent should also be an effective and excellent communicator. If the only voice a superintendent will listen to is his/her own, or a few members of the school board, public education will eventually lose community support. Does that mean that we simply accept decisions from superintendents, without challenging them? Of course not!

Stakeholders and policymakers must particularly hold Superintendents accountable in regard to educational, financial and administrative performance. However, we should provide them latitude in regards to leadership, vision and strategic thinking on how to address the performance in those areas. And we must expect them to communicate effectively to ALL stakeholders.  

Superintendent, like principals, must also demonstrate a keen understanding of teaching, learning and what works for students. As a change leader, a successful superintendent should emphasize the efficient use of resources, personnel, and data to break down resistance and drive systemic change; empower board and personnel to set goals, measure results, develop accountability, and support planning, evaluation, and resource allocation.

As far as degrees and experience go, that really depends on the person.  Practical knowledge is likely more important than theoretical knowledge.  We have all seen people with advanced degrees who were unable to apply that knowledge to the real world.  I think executive experience might be critical in a larger district.  Keep in mind that education is a business, as much as it is a service.  In most districts, the school system is one of the largest employers in the community.  Teaching experience and some building-level administrative experience is strongly suggested, because it gives the person in charge at least a background in what the educators in the schools face on a daily basis.       

In my own experience, I am never concerned with the WHO in a position.  I would look at the philosophy of the person, their background and their vision.  A smart school board would not focus on what an applicant would do similar to continue the work of the exiting predecessor, but rather how he or she would differentiate from the previous occupant. You must have a plan to build on the work of the previous administration, not merely maintain the status quo.    

Probably the greatest weakness by some superintendents, in my opinion, has been the lack of empathy toward educators.  It is one thing to be relentless in support of excellence for children, it is another to manage completely by fear.  Personnel drives policy.  How you treat your employees is also a reflection of character.   Several districts are well-known for unnecessarily treating educators harshly.  These districts must understand that schools are not factories, students are not widgets, and personnel are not simply interchangeable on a whim. 

Certainly, some educators have been forced to leave their school system for subjective reasons, rather than objective reasons.  Actions speak louder than words.  In some cases, dismissal may have been warranted, but in many cases, it appears circumstances were little more than personality conflicts and people not fitting into a certain educational or political environment.  We have lost some good educators in our state because of this subjectivity, and I would argue many of these educators deserve another chance to keep their career going.  

No matter who your district hires—whether from within or bringing in an experienced educator from outside—give that new leader a chance.  Don’t be afraid to hold them accountable.  Make sure that your local school board has fully vetted the candidate, and takes the time to select the best person for the children, educators, parents, and taxpayers in your community. 

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

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The Looney Letter

Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney, who will depart this summer for a Superintendent job in Atlanta, penned this letter to his community:

As I contemplated penning my final message as the school superintendent for Williamson County Schools, I found inspiration in Walt Whitman’s words, “Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

I had the great honor of interviewing for the Williamson County Schools superintendent position in the Fall of 2009. At that time, the Williamson County School Board was chaired by the ever-graceful Ms. Pat Anderson. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Pat, she is a must meet. She has an uncanny knack for being Southern-style, gentle and strong at the same time. She and 11 other smart, passionate and engaged school board members took a risk and hired me as WCS’s next superintendent.

Wow, that was nearly ten years ago! The Board had a common vision: advance student outcomes in an already high-performing school district.

We were relentless in our pursuit. We focused on increasing rigor in all classrooms, worked on building more effective relationships with our students and refined our curriculum to ensure student learning expectations were relevant. It worked. Our students and teachers leaned in, worked hard and our community began reaping the benefit. We struck academic gold.

For the past decade, our students, with the support of their parents and teachers, have shattered every conceivable district academic record. We have expanded arts education, won countless athletic titles and changed the trajectory of lives one student at a time. It’s been incredibly rewarding to watch it unfold and to have been a small part of it all.

This line of work isn’t for the faint of heart, as not everyone welcomed the district’s new direction. One might say that we had our moments. During the last decade, there have been thousands of vocal supporters lending a hand and at times seemingly as many fierce critics all who have taken the time to engage. Frankly, I wouldn’t have wished for it to be any other way.

Our schools are better for everyone’s involvement and for that I am deeply thankful.

Most of all, I am grateful for the students even in the times when they harassed me about snow days, didn’t study properly for exams or did something mischievous. I have loved being a small part of their lives. They’ve made me smile with joy, grit my teeth out of frustration, but most of all inspired me in indefinable ways.

I will end as any Marine would by fighting like hell to the end for this community’s children. Far too many neglected, abused and fragile children still need help in our community. Everyone knows it, but lack of funding and divisive politics continues to hold us back from making progress on these battle fronts. Schools should be accountable for results but also must receive adequate funding at all levels.

Williamson County needs state leaders who value public education and make decisions based on research and reputable sources, rather than being influenced by campaign donations from PACs or lobbyists. This community needs its elected officials to move beyond the vitriol and divisive politics of our day. Disagreement is good but not at the expense of decency.

For those who think they know better than the teacher, no you don’t. They are professionally trained. Let them teach, support them and give a little grace when all doesn’t go as planned.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 KJV)

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

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Vouchers Already Impacting Teacher Pay, School Resources

A story out of Coffee County explains how Governor Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (currently under investigation by the FBI), is already impacting teacher pay raises and resources dedicated to public schools:

The day it passed in the senate, April 25 (May 1 for an amended version), the Coffee County Board of Education expressed their concerns and decided it would be more frugal to give their faculty a 1 percent raise instead of a 2 percent raise. This decision had multiple factors involved, including balancing the budget, but the uncertainty of the vouchers was part of the discussion, Aaron explained.

In Manchester, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen did not pledge money in their 2019-20 budget to assist College Street Elementary School with renovations due, in part, to the uncertainty of the voucher program as well. Alderman Ryan French pointed out the program has the potential to decimate Average Daily Attendance (a facet of BEP), which will reduce funding and therefore put more strain on the local population.

It’s still unclear what the total cost of Lee’s voucher scheme will be should it be fully implemented. Some estimates put the cost at more than $300 million. That’s a significant hit to the state’s school funding formula. Even at the conservative end of the scale, a total cost of around or just above $100 million would mean a significant loss to all districts across Tennessee. To put that amount in perspective, $100 million would fund a four percent raise for all of Tennessee’s teachers.

Lee has already demonstrated he prefers to spend money on voucher schemes and charter schools instead of teacher salaries. His initial budget proposal provided a big boost for charter school facilities while offering only a minor increase in funding for teacher salaries.

Previous analysis indicates that even if the voucher program grows only modestly, the impact to all school systems will be significant:

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.

In other words, don’t believe the lie that just because your school district isn’t in the current voucher plan, vouchers won’t impact your schools. They absolutely will. Taking $100 million off the table means a big hit to the BEP formula, a plan that already struggles to meet the needs of our state’s schools.

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

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