The Teacher Shortage Crisis is Here

For years, policy advocates and those paying attention have suggested a teacher shortage crisis was imminent. Instead of implementing strategies to attract teachers and keep them in the field, state policymakers have instead foisted more responsibility on already overwhelmed educators. Of course, these new responsibilities didn’t come with significant pay increases. In fact, teachers in Tennessee experience a significant pay gap compared to similarly educated peers in other professions.

Now, the crisis that was warned about has arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic likely exacerbated the challenge, to be sure. But, the reality is this is a situation that was entirely foreseeable. Rather than solve the problem, though, policymakers have waited until there are actual impacts to students.

Few are suggesting one key solution: Raise teacher pay substantially. Yes, adjusting responsibilities and providing a more welcoming work environment are also important. But, it is long past time to pay teachers significantly more. Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus from the recently-concluded fiscal year. We could fully close the teacher wage gap (a raise of about 20% for most teachers) and still have plenty of cash left over without raising taxes one dime.

But, no one who could make this happen is seriously suggesting that.

Instead, we see stories like this one:

Maury County school leaders are trying to find solutions to ongoing staff shortages.

The district has roughly 100 openings right now, along with a need for new substitute teachers and support staff.

Most districts in the state are struggling to find and retain teachers and staff.

Neighboring Williamson County Schools has about 80 teacher openings listed online, along with a hundred support staff positions.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has about 200 openings.

“It’s every district, every state, it’s something that’s been a hot topic for 5 years at least,” Sparks-Newland said.

Yes, this has been a hot topic for 5 years at least. And yet, no solution is on the horizon. Instead, Gov. Lee is suggesting finding a different way to slice the BEP pie. To be clear, this is a school funding formula that is $1.7 billion short of where it should be.

There are ways to improve the teaching profession and make it more attractive that don’t involve pay raises. Those should be addressed and implemented. But, any solution that does not also involve a substantial pay increase will miss the mark and serve to kick the can down the road. The ultimate victims in this delay tactic will be students. When Lee and others tell you they want to put students first, ask them why they aren’t pushing to raise the salaries of the people who teach those students.

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Nashville Voters Say Schools are Underfunded, Teachers Underpaid

Amid a global pandemic that is seeing an already troubling teacher shortage exacerbated, voters in Nashville are expressing concern that schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid. These findings come as the result of a poll of registered voters conducted on behalf of the Nashville Public Education Foundation.

The poll found that voters (72%) believe teachers are underpaid – this in spite of a recent pay plan raising pay in Nashville some $7000 or more for most teachers. The pollster noted that previous results showed 80% of voters thought teachers were underpaid.

The findings on funding are not surprising in a state that had a $2 billion surplus in the past fiscal year and is underfunding schools by at least $1.7 billion.

According to the poll, 66% of Nashville voters feel public schools in the city are underfunded.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is attempting to divert attention from his party’s dismal track record on school funding by pushing a statewide “review” of the school funding formula, known as the BEP.

What Lee and legislative leaders are not (yet) talking about is a dramatic increase in state funding for schools. Of course, there’s a February court date that may result in the Tennessee Supreme Court ordering policymakers to properly invest in schools.

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TEA Talks BEP Reform

Last week, Gov. Bill Lee made a so-called “major” announcement about plans to reform the state’s school funding formula – the BEP. I’ll have more on this development later.

For now, though, here’s the statement from Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown:

“The Tennessee Education Association supports Gov. Lee’s intent to engage educators, parents and community members in a critical evaluation of the state’s education funding formula. However, the central problem with education funding is not the BEP, but the inadequate level of state funding.

Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for what we invest per student. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.     

Any review of the BEP funding formula must include more than recommendations on how to change the formula. Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve.”

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BOLD! REFORM! NOW!

Tennessee’s purveyors of privatization are going apeshit over a newly-released poll showing a majority of Tennesseans (53%) believe the state’s education system is on the wrong track.

Here’s a tweet from Tennesseans for Student Success:

What’s amusing about this “outrage” is that Tennesseans for Student Success is part of a cabal of pro-privatization groups that has been setting the agenda on education in the state for more than a decade.

In other words, if we need bold reform now, we need to move away from the snake oil sold as solutions by these hucksters.

Oh, and here’s some more about Tennesseans for Student Success, just in case you’re not familiar with them:

Groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are joined by other privatization apologists such as Bill Frist’s ed reform group known as SCORE in an ongoing and seemingly never-ending push for BOLD! REFORM! NOW! It’s odd because one might think that with all the bold reform of the last decade, we’d finally have achieved some element of “success.” Instead, we must keep reforming because our students are still “behind” and there’s all this “learning loss.”

Here’s a little reminder from an earlier post about the results of all the “reform” we’ve been getting under the leadership of Governors Bill Haslam and Bill Lee and a GOP supermajority. All of this supported and pushed forward by SCORE, Tennesseans for Student Success, and similar groups.

  1. $616.5 million sounds great, and it’s neat to aggregate data over a decade, but that BIG number averages out to about $62 million per year. That’s about a 2% increase in the BEP salary allocation (not actual money in paychecks) each year. Calm down a little, already.
  2. Did I mention that $616.5 million might sound great? So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.
  3. A bipartisan group of policymakers reports that we need $1.7 billion in a SINGLE year in order to adequately fund the BEP. That’s because the BEP badly underestimates the number of teachers actually needed to staff schools. Of course, the BEP also fails to take into account proper ratios for school nurses or school counselors. The BEP is pretty much broken, and has been for some time.
  4. It was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who stopped the BEP 2.0 formula that was an attempt to correct and improve the BEP allocation.
  5. Remember that time when Gov. Haslam got all excited about our NAEP scores and promised a big raise to teachers and then cancelled the raise? Remember how after he cancelled the raise, revenue numbers came in at a level that meant the raise really could have been funded? Good times.
  6. Oh, yeah. School districts fund significantly more teachers than the BEP allocates. Yes, this has been a known problem for some time. Yes, the GOP has been running most of state government for over a decade. No, they haven’t done anything to fix it.
  7. There was also that time when the Haslam Department of Education called on the State Board of Education to give local districts flexibility with BEP salary money. Essentially, this created a situation where the 4% BEP salary allocation increase became a 2% (or less) raise.
  8. Remember the time when Gov. Bill Lee gave a big increase in state funding to charter schools and a tiny raise to teachers? Wonder if teachers remember that? I bet that makes them feel really appreciated.
  9. Remember the year when Gov. Lee became the second governor in a row named Bill to promise teachers a big raise and then cancel it when things got tough? Because, yeah, that was 2020. How’d that tough budget Lee was worried about turn out? Oh, right, that’s the one with the $3.1 billion surplus.
  10. Finally, in the recently concluded special session, Gov. Lee proposed and his legislative leadership secured passage of legislation giving teachers a 10 cents on the dollar COVID raise. That’s right, in a year when there’s plenty of cash and teachers are working more and harder than ever, Gov. Lee is placing the value of teachers at 10 cents on the dollar.
  11. Oh, and yes, Tennessee consistently receives a grade of “F” in both school funding and school funding effort from national groups who analyze state level investment in schools.

All of this outcry over a situation caused by the privatizers would be pretty amusing if it was not also rather familiar. You see, these groups thrive in chaos – when they create the chaos, they swoop in quickly with BOLD! REFORM! NOW! solutions and shiny presentations about how if we just did MORE of what they were saying, we’d be getting all the results Tennesseans actually desire.

Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in the Critical Race Theory hysteria:

This is really about creating another issue for political advantage. Lee, SCORE, and others suspect that no one will notice that it’s the state’s GOP leadership pushing down this curriculum – plus, a little dust-up over seahorses takes attention away from the messed up process.

But, the real goal seems to be the re-election of Bill Lee and the undermining of local school boards. Lee signed the bill banning CRT so he can’t also be promoting it, right?

To be clear, Wit and Wisdom may or may not be great curriculum. But, that’s not really the point. The point is, there are larger forces at work – groups from outside the state seeking to stir up trouble for political wins. A governor who is taking both sides of an issue and hoping no one notices.

Oh, and just to make the point even more clear, Lee used “emergency funds” earlier this year (after the legislature adjourned) in order to foist charter schools on districts that don’t have them and are unlikely to authorize them on their own.

To sum it all up, Tennessee has some actual education problems – we could probably do a better job in math and literacy. And, the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we have YET to try is this: Funding the schools. We’re still $1.7 billion short of adequate funding. We had a $2 billion+ surplus this past budget year. We have the resources to pay for schools at a high level without raising ANY taxes or cutting ANY services. Doing this would almost guarantee relatively low property taxes in most Tennessee counties.

So, tell me again about all the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we need, Tennesseans for Student Success.

We don’t get the results we claim to want because policymakers aren’t willing to pay for them. If any agenda is failing, it’s the one pushed by the privatizers – they are the status quo in our state. They set the agenda and have for years. If we’re on the wrong track, it’s because groups like SCORE and Tennesseans for Student Success are not only driving the train but also have built the track we’re currently using.

These groups are right – we are on the wrong track – and we should tell them to get out of the way so parents and educators can get us moving in the right direction.

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See You in Court

The State of Tennessee now has a court date to face allegations of inadequate school funding. The lawsuit, originally filed by school systems in Nashville and Memphis, has been joined by Tennessee School Systems for Equity, a group representing smaller systems around the state. The suit alleges that as it currently stands, the state’s school funding formula (BEP) does not provide sufficient funding for the operation of schools.

Chalkbeat has more:

The outcome of the school funding trial could have major implications for K-12 education and, if successful, force Tennessee to invest significantly more money in public schools in a state that ranks 46th in the nation in student funding. Schools in lower-income areas and students who live in poverty, have disabilities, or are learning to speak English as a second language would be most affected.

It’s not clear how long the case will last or if the General Assembly will take any corrective action prior to the outcome. While the state has a significant surplus, Gov. Lee and the General Assembly have been reluctant to invest in schools.

The adequacy issue has been discussed for a number of years. Most recently, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) has suggested the state underfunds schools by $1.7 billion.

How did we get such a large deficit? We have a funding formula that is not based in reality. That is, the formula fails to account for the staffing needs of schools.

The TACIR report, showing a gap of nearly 7000 teachers, comes on the heels of a Tennessee Department of Education report indicating a “teacher gap” of 9000.

Given the state’s huge budget surplus, lawmakers could choose to adequately fund schools without raising anyone’s taxes. So far, they’ve not made that choice.

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Snail’s Pace

The Tennessee State Board of Education has set the state’s minimum teacher salary at $38,000 for the upcoming school year. That’s $49 more than the current average minimum salary, according to a story in Chalkbeat.

While the overall boost in minimum teacher pay is certainly welcome news, what’s interesting is to examine the pace of change in teacher pay over time.

As the Chalkbeat piece notes, the average teacher pay in Tennessee overall is $51,349.

Here’s why that’s so fascinating. Back in 2014, the state’s BEP Review Committee issued a report calling on the state to fund teacher salaries by way of the BEP at a level equivalent to the actual state average salary. That average? $50,116. So, the average now is just a bit over $1200 more than the average in 2014. In other words, teacher pay in Tennessee is creeping up at a snail’s pace. And, of course, teacher pay in our state is still below the Southeastern average (about $2000 below).

As Chalkbeat notes:

The improvement comes as Tennessee lags Southern and national averages for both starting pay and overall salaries. The state is also bracing for a wave of retirements and struggling to secure teachers for hard-to-staff areas such as special education and classes for students learning to speak English.

recent analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board shows Tennessee’s average educator salary in 2018-19 trailed half of the region’s states, including in border states like Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia.

What’s unfortunate about this situation is this: Tennessee can actually afford to make a huge investment in teachers and schools. We have a $2 billion surplus this year alone!

We could afford to push starting teacher pay above $40,000 for all teachers in the state. We could afford to give every single teacher a significant (10%) or more raise this year. We could dramatically increase the per pupil expenditures.

But, we’re doing none of those things. Gov. Lee’s budget reflects a lack of imagination and a refusal to dream of what is possible. Instead, he’s content to continue the status quo of underfunded schools and underpaid teachers.

As Chalkbeat further notes, it’s not clear how much of this raise will reach teachers:

The $2,000 bump in base pay doesn’t mean all teachers will see a noticeable pop in their paychecks, though.

Districts have flexibility over how to use state funds toward teacher compensation, so it’s uncertain how much of Tennessee’s 4% increase will trickle down to teachers who are paid more than the state minimum.

Because of disagreements on the adequacy of state funding, districts have hired about 10,000 teachers beyond what the state’s formula provides. Any increase could get spread across those salaries too. Districts also could opt to use next year’s increase to hire more staff or improve benefits.

Lee has claimed to support teachers and teacher pay, as Chalkbeat notes:

Early in his administration, Lee vowed to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher, but pandemic-related budget uncertainties and cuts delayed increases planned for the 2020-21 school year.

The reality, though, is that Lee has not invested seriously in schools in spite of a significant state surplus:

“The budget passed by the General Assembly is disappointing when we have a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom five in education funding. With a record revenue surplus and hundreds of millions unappropriated, this was the time to stop underfunding our schools.

There were bills to provide for more nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need today and moving forward to meet their mental and academic challenges cause by the pandemic and the problems of chronic underfunding. Instead, we saw a trust fund set up that will cover barely a fraction of the needs years down the road.  

Lee’s commitment to putting just about everything ahead of funding schools and paying teachers may remind some of the previous governor, another guy named Bill who just couldn’t see fit to invest deeply in schools despite making a lot of promises.

Gov. Bill Haslam tweeted on October 3, 2013: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

Instead, in 2014:

Haslam is balancing the state budget by denying promised raises to teachers and state employees and ditching his proposed increases to higher education.

Tennessee leaders do a lot of talking when it comes to investing in schools. “Fastest-improving” “Best place to be a teacher.” The reality is that teacher pay and overall investment in schools is moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, a recently released analysis shows that Tennessee invests less in public education relative to taxable resources than any other state in the nation.

I will note once again that this year would be the easiest in decades to invest in public schools – a $2 billion surplus is instead being used for tax cuts and to boost the state’s already overflowing savings account.

I would also note that every time the budget situation seems even a little tough, funding for schools is the first on the chopping block. Good times, bad times, more money, less money – it doesn’t matter. The last decade has made abundantly clear that Tennessee’s policymakers are not at all interested in paying for schools or investing in the teachers who make them work.

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Maury County Teachers Continue Fight for Salary Improvement

Even as the State of Tennessee under the leadership of Gov. Bill Lee continues to sit on a huge revenue surplus rather than fund schools, teachers in Maury County are continuing a push to improve teacher salaries and student learning conditions in the district.

The Columbia Daily Herald reports:

As Enk departs from the role, she celebrated several steps forward for local teachers, including a boost to the school district’s starting salary, a proposed 2.12% increase in pay for all school district staff and a one-time bonus issued earlier this year.

“These are all begging steps and are a step in the right direction and for that we are grateful,” Enk said. “It is the hope that the board continue to come up with a solid proactive plan to make Maury County competitive.”

The contention over the poor condition of teacher pay in the district includes some recent, negative history:

Negotiations followed a court ruling that the school district did not comply with the local association when a previous memorandum of understanding, which included a 5% raise for employees in July 2016, was tabled during a conference with its attorney and never brought up for further review.

A local court ruled in favor of the association.

As school systems across the state work to address issues of competitive salaries, the state’s school funding formula remains underfunded by $1.7 billion. Meanwhile, a new report shows Tennessee makes the lowest net investment in public schools of any state in the nation.

While schools are starved for funding, Lee is continuing a relentless push for privatization, including using “emergency” funds to advance a charter school agenda and usurp the authority of local school boards.

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The Lowest in the Nation

Tennessee has one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the United States. While that may be a positive in some ways, it can mean less overall revenue available for public investments. However, just because our tax burden is relatively low doesn’t mean we can’t make smart choices. Policymakers could dedicate significant portions of that revenue to high return public goods – like our schools.

Instead, they just don’t.

According to a newly-released report from Education Week, Tennessee spends just 2.9% of all taxable resources on public education. That’s the lowest rate of any state in the nation.

In fact, the report notes that Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of investment in public schools. The Quality Counts report produced by Education Week also gives an overall grade on school funding based on inputs such as equity, percent of resources spent, total funding, and percent of students who receive funding at or above the national median average. Tennessee’s grade? A D+. While we receive an A for funding equity, we get an F just about everywhere else.

And, don’t get too excited about that A in equity. We are merely equitably distributing a terribly small piece of pie.

Here’s the deal: Tennessee’s public schools are underfunded by $1.7 billion. We have policymakers, including our governor, who simply are not interested in investing in schools.

Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.

To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.

Tennessee has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. We have a budget surplus that is of historic proportions. We could fully fund our public schools and still have hundreds of billions of dollars leftover. This, then, is not a decision about “keeping taxes low” or about fiscal responsibility. It is, instead, a decision about denying the best possible education to our state’s children.

A budget is, at its core, a policy document. Our public policy in Tennessee is clear: Public schools are not a public good worth funding. This has been true for years and Gov. Lee is merely continuing this sad tradition.

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April Showers

Erik Schelzig in the Tennessee Journal’s On the Hill blog notes that Tennessee’s April revenues were $600 million more than the budgeted estimate.

Go ahead, read that again. In one month, the state collected $600 million more than planned.

Here’s more from Schelzig:

Tennessee’s general fund revenue collections were nearly $600 million above estimates in April, bringing the state’s surplus to $1.9 billion through the first nine months of the budget year.

So, with three months left in the fiscal year, the state is nearly $2 billion ahead of where it planned to be. Even if the surpluses drop off, the state is well on its way to a surplus significantly in excess of $2 billion.

To put this in perspective, the state is $1.7 billion behind where it should be in terms of funding public schools according to a bipartisan legislative commission.

For further perspective, the April surplus alone is three times what Gov. Bill Lee allocated in new education funding for the entire 2021-22 fiscal year.

Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.

To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.

When all is said and done for the year, it is likely the entire $1.7 billion education funding deficit could be made up and the state would have half a billion dollars or more for savings and other expenses or projects.

For further clarity, not a single Tennessee taxpayer would see any tax increase if schools were funded from this surplus. In fact, it is very likely that a state investment in schools that would make up for the current funding shortfall would actually help local governments keep property taxes low.

This year, groups that typically stay out of the school funding fight like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters got involved and urged Lee and lawmakers to make use of this historic surplus to make significant new investments in public education. Those calls, of course, were ignored.

We often hear Tennessee policymakers say they want our state’s schools to be the best in the nation. No doubt, your own lawmaker has probably told you school funding is among their top priorities. However, when there was a giant surplus and the ability to make a huge investment in our schools without raising taxes one cent, these same lawmakers simply walked away. They walked away from our public schools, our students, and our teachers.

In times of tight budgets or when funding schools means raising taxes, it may be understandable that the state is cautious when it comes to investment in public education. However, when a single month’s surplus is $600 million and the overall revenue picture is historic in terms of the excess cash available, there is simply no excuse for not investing in education. The only answer at this point is that lawmakers and our Governor just don’t support our schools.

Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom in the nation when it comes to school funding. We have an historic opportunity to change that. And, we have policy leaders who just aren’t interested.

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Rhetoric vs. Reality: Bill Lee School Funding Edition

As the Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Lee’s budget today which included maintaining the woefully inadequate status quo for school funding, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) offered the following statement expressing their disappointment:

“The budget passed by the General Assembly is disappointing when we have a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom five in education funding. With a record revenue surplus and hundreds of millions unappropriated, this was the time to stop underfunding our schools.

There were bills to provide for more nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need today and moving forward to meet their mental and academic challenges cause by the pandemic and the problems of chronic underfunding. Instead, we saw a trust fund set up that will cover barely a fraction of the needs years down the road.    

It’s unconscionable for state leaders to not include significant increases for K-12 funding, especially at a time when the state has racked up $1.42 billion in surplus year-to-date. The money is there to make a significant increase to K-12 funding, but Gov. Lee and the General Assembly have instead chosen to continue stuffing mattresses full of cash. 

Elected officials love to claim that Tennessee students, educators and public schools are top priorities, but their action on the state budget tells a different story. As the old saying goes, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is.”

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