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


 

Teacher Turnover in MNPS

It is a problem. A big one. The Tennessean reports:

Over 50 percent of the teachers leaving Metro Nashville Public Schools are within their first three years of teaching, according to district officials.

The article notes the district is taking some steps to address this:

Due to the high turnover, district leaders said they hope to expand retention initiatives in the coming year by making mandatory a new teacher introductory program, as well as ensuring all new teachers have a seasoned mentors to guide them.

Those are both important. Mentoring can be a great way to help new teachers navigate their first years in a very challenging profession.

School Board member Amy Frogge also raised the issue of teacher pay. It’s certainly worth examining.

As I noted earlier this week, teachers in Nashville aren’t paid as well as their counterparts in similar urban districts, like Louisville. They also face a city with a rising cost of living.

This fact should be of concern:

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.

Teach your heart out in MNPS for 10 years and you still don’t make $50,000 a year. Is it any wonder teachers leave early on to pursue other, more financially rewarding careers?

No, it’s not all about money. But when teachers in Nashville can’t even earn enough to live comfortably in the city, we have a problem. When teachers in Nashville earn $15,000 less than teachers in Louisville after 20 years of experience, we have a problem.

Leaving behind the comparison to Louisville, one big problem is teacher pay relative to cost of living:

Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

Another part of the problem with teacher pay in Nashville can be attributed to a state government that has historically kept teacher pay relatively low. In fact, teachers in Tennessee earn roughly 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Certainly, a number of factors contribute to high teacher turnover among early career teachers. Teaching is a difficult job and doing it well requires resources and support. Teacher pay is certainly a part of the equation. Adding mentors and mandating an introductory program may help, but addressing pay is also essential. As the Tennessean article notes:

Last year, the district faced more than 100 vacancies by the end of July and with about a week until school started. That was higher than in previous years, given the district has averaged about 40 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year.

It’s difficult to sign people up for a challenging job that pays 30% less than other professions requiring similar preparation. It’s clearly challenging to keep people in those jobs once they’ve taken them.

How long will MNPS’s relatively low pay for teachers be sustainable?

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


 

The Brentwood Bargain

On the same day the Williamson County Commission voted in favor of more lattes and less taxes — meaning less investment in schools — the Brentwood City Commission was presented with a request to explore the operation of an independent city school district.

The Tennessean notes:

As Williamson County Commission struggles to come up with long-term funding for the projected influx of students to enroll in its public schools over the next several years, Tabor argued that future tax increases to fund the school district would affect Brentwood residents disproportionately.

“We would feel increases more than anyone else in the county due to our home values,” he said.

Tabor said there’s a “fundamental funding gap” between what Brentwood contributes to Williamson County School and what the city is getting in return.

The argument that Brentwood residents aren’t getting value for their money invested in Williamson County Schools is one that simply does not make sense. Williamson County Schools are consistently among the best in the state in terms of student achievement. The district has an average ACT score of 24.6. Williamson County has the lowest per pupil spending of any district rated in the top 10 in terms of student achievement. In fact, Williamson County spends $1790 less per student than the average PPE of the top ten districts in the state.

Now, let’s examine the idea that a city school district might be a better value. Or, as Tabor may not have said but his comments implied: Would it be cheaper to have a city school system?

No.

Example one is Franklin Special School District. A school district located in the city limits of Franklin inside Williamson County. Interestingly, while Williamson County’s PPE is the lowest of any district in the top 10 in terms of student achievement, Franklin’s is the highest. Franklin SSD spends $13,984 per student. That’s $5,039 MORE than Williamson spends. A portion of that is attributable to teacher pay, which is roughly $6000 higher in Franklin than in Williamson.

Now, let’s turn to the most recent experiment in independent school districts: Shelby County. Six cities on the outskirts of Shelby County formed special school districts recently as a result of the merger between Memphis City and Shelby County schools.

The average per pupil spending for those districts is about $8500. That’s just a touch less than Williamson spends. On the high end, Millington spends over $10,000 per student.

What would Brentwood’s experience be? Would they pay teachers less than both Franklin and Williamson County in order to keep costs low? How likely would they be to be competitive in providing the resources that families have come to expect in Williamson County if they operated on an even lower per pupil expenditure than Williamson County does?

Tabor presented an item for discussion: Would it be a good value for Brentwood to operate an independent school system. The answer is no. Williamson County Schools provides one of the best values for the dollar invested of any school system in the state. Oh, and they do it with the lowest tax rate of any county in middle Tennessee.

Brentwood, your current situation as it relates to schools is a bargain.

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


 

 

Budget Day in Williamson County

From a post on the Williamson Strong Facebook page:

Today’s the big day! The County Commission will spend the whole day discussing and voting on “approximately 50 resolutions concerning the county budget, including a total county general budget proposal of $557 million, a school budget of $337 million, various capital projects and over 20 new positions in county government.”

In advance of today’s meeting, the WCSB cut the proposed 2017-18 WCS budget by $6 million “eliminating multiple proposed instructional positions, including counselors, special education support staff and proposed central office positions.” With the cut eliminating the need for a tax increase this year, the school budget should be approved with little debate.

“Looney explained that if the school district is forced to cut its budget again in other areas next year, and beyond, to avoid a tax increase, with no incoming revenue, the school district will be unable to maintain its current high level of service.”

You might think from reading this that Williamson County is struggling financially. Or that they lack the fiscal capacity to maintain a high level of school services. But, the reality is they simply have a County Commission that prefers lattes to tax increases.

As I noted previously:

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.

Director of Schools Mike Looney echoed that sentiment when he noted that if this type of budgeting continues, Williamson County will no longer be able to provide the high level of service students and families have come to appreciate and expect.

While no one likes higher taxes, Williamson’s are comparatively low:

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.

Also low: Williamson County’s spending relative to top performing counties. In other words, Williamson County Schools is getting the maximum bang for taxpayer bucks:

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.

In spite of all the evidence and data, and the enviable position of being a high-performing school district with relatively low investment per student and the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee, Williamson County is set to start down a path that could result in losing ground. It may not be noticed in the 2017-18 school year, but as Looney notes, if the trend continues, there will be a loss of services.

How long will Williamson County Commissioners hold on to the myth that you can have excellent schools without maintaining your investment in them?

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


 

Not Nearly Enough

How much are MNPS teachers paid relative to their peers in similar districts? This was a question I attempted to answer two years ago. The results then were discouraging. They clearly indicated MNPS needed to do much more in terms of compensation for educators.

The question of the adequacy (or, rather, inadequacy) of MNPS teacher compensation is relevant again in light of a recently published study in Business Insider. Here’s the key finding:

It takes a salary of $70,150 to live in Nashville today.

Here’s how they came up with that number:

Live comfortably factors include housing, groceries, utilities and health insurance premiums. Monthly costs were totaled and multiplied by 12 to get the annual dollar cost of necessities in each city. This dollar amount for necessities was then doubled to find the actual annual income needed to live comfortably in the city, assuming a person is following the 50-30-20 budgeting guideline, which requires an income double the cost of necessities. This study also compared the amount of income needed in each city to each city’s actual median pretax household income, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The amount of money specified for savings is equal to 20 percent of the total income needed, and the amount specified for discretionary spending is equal to 30 percent of the total income needed.

And, I’m going to point out again:

It takes a salary of $70,150 to live in Nashville today.

So, how are Nashville’s teachers doing in the “live comfortably” index? Not so good.

Teachers in Nashville will receive a 3% raise this year, so that’s positive. Getting to that point did take some back and forth between the School Board and Mayor Barry, but it got done. However, it’s not nearly enough to get them to a “comfortable” salary. Or even one that is competitive with similar cities.

In my 2015 analysis, I compared Nashville to a number of similar cities. For this case, we’ll look at Louisville, Kentucky. It’s roughly the same size, has slightly more students, and is just a few hours away. A teacher graduating from MTSU or Western Kentucky could reasonably look at jobs in Nashville and Louisville and be close to friends and family in either city.

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.

How about the top of the pay scale? At year 25, a Nashville teacher earns $57,000. In Louisville, it’s just over $72,000.

Some may note that teachers often earn advance degrees over the course of their career and that boosts pay. That’s true. So, a teacher with a master’s degree working in Nashville earns $62,600 at the top of the scale. In Louisville, it’s $78,000.

Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

One more note: If Nashville teachers want to come closer to the comfortable living salary, they could make their home in Nashville and commute to Williamson County, where teachers at the top of the scale with a bachelor’s degree earn just over $61,000 — or $4000 more than Nashville teachers. Got a master’s degree? You can earn just over $65,000 at the top of Williamson County’s scale.

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

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