Leaving Rural Schools Behind

While Tennessee’s two largest school districts (Nashville and Memphis) are suing the state arguing the BEP funding formula is not adequate, new concerns are being raised about the equity of current funding. Three previous lawsuits (the “Small Schools” suits) challenged the state funding formula and each time, the Tennessee Supreme Court directed the state to take action to improve funding and make it more equitable for rural districts.

Despite these changes, it seems familiar concerns are being raised about funding distribution to rural districts. Chalkbeat has more:

But a new report says rural schools also face significant challenges in providing an equitable education to a third of the state’s students, all while serving a growing Latino population drawn to those areas mostly by agricultural work.

High poverty rates, lower median household income, opioid addiction, and limited access to technology and healthcare are among the issues in rural Tennessee, where fewer people are likely to attend college and more are likely to receive food stamps than their urban counterparts, according to economic research.

And with less industry and lower local tax bases to support their schools, rural districts also struggle to recruit, support, and retain effective educators.

Governor Bill Lee inherited this problem, and so far has done nothing to help it. Instead, his push for vouchers could end up hurting rural school systems by taking as much as $300 million out of the state funding formula for public schools.

Additionally, for years, the BEP formula has been broken, failing to deliver needed funds to districts at even a basic level. Now, the state’s Comptroller suggests Tennessee would need at least $500 million a year in new investments to properly fund schools.

So far, there has been zero indication Lee has any desire or inclination to address the funding shortfall that disproportionately impacts the state’s rural schools. Sure, he dresses up like a farmer every weekend and records neat videos, but that’s not doing anything to put dollars into the schools that need them most.

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Fund Us

In the wake of Governor Bill Lee’s voucher legislation that is poised to cost hundreds of millions of dollars and drain resources from public schools, the Fayetteville City School Board passed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to make a commitment to funding teacher salaries.

The Elk Valley Times has more:


The Fayetteville City School Board has adopted a resolution urging legislators to increase public school teachers’ pay by the same amount invested in Education Savings Accounts established through legislation passed by the General Assembly this past session.

The Board is asking school districts across the state to join in the effort. The resolution notes that current BEP funding for schools does not adequately fund teacher pay.


“ … Local school boards recognize that funding for teacher salaries under the Basic Education Program (BEP) under current law is insufficient,” the resolution continues. “ … Districts are funded based on a district-wide student-teacher ratio, rather than the actual number a district is required to employ to meet school-level ratio requirements … The teacher salary used for BEP funding does not represent the actual average teacher salary statewide.

While vouchers certainly impact school funding, it’s also worth noting here that Governor Lee made a significant investment in charter schools this year as well, doubling funds for charter facilities while offering teachers only a 2.5% increase in BEP salary funds.

Estimates indicate that funding the BEP salary component — funds given to districts for teacher pay — at an amount approaching the actual cost of hiring a teacher would mean spending in the range of $300-$500 million.

It’s not clear if Governor Lee or anyone in the legislature has a desire to actually improve teacher pay at a level that will make a real difference. Or, if anyone there even plans on undoing Governor Haslam’s mistake of freezing BEP 2.0.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers respond if additional districts join Fayetteville in pushing for adequate pay for teachers. Will the same lawmakers who were so focused on ensuring vouchers didn’t “hurt” their districts also support providing their districts with the needed funds to compensate teachers?

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Bill Lee’s ED

Governor Bill Lee has been on a tour of rural Tennessee counties the last two weeks. During his stops, he’s touting what he’s calling a successful first legislative session. If by success, he means securing passage of a school voucher scheme by any means necessary, sure, he’s been successful. Maybe he means siphoning public money to private schools by way of his Education Savings Account (ESA) plan to the tune of as much as $300 million? Or, perhaps he means demonstrating how he really feels about public school teachers by including the lowest increase in BEP salary funds in the last four budget cycles in his budget — all offering new money and easier access to charter schools.

What Bill Lee hasn’t done on these stops is tell the real story. Because it’s embarrassing. No one likes to talk about it. It’s Bill Lee’s ED. His Education Deficit. Since Bill Lee won’t admit it, I took the liberty of compiling some data to help him talk about it.

Here’s a look at each of the seven counties Lee visited in the past two weeks on his ED tour. I’ve noted first the average salary increase teachers in those counties received since 2015. Next, I’ve indicated the “BEP Gap” — that is, the number of positions each county pays for above what the state funding formula generates. Here’s what this means: The school system NEEDS those employees in order to provide a quality education. But, the state formula won’t pay for them. So, local taxpayers are left footing 100% of the cost of those positions. Data provided by the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Department of Education.

County Avg. salary increase BEP Gap

Bledsoe 3.4% 13

Meigs 1.5% 20

Loudon 1.4% 46

Giles 0.925% 81

Lawrence 1.9% 94

Lincoln 1.8% 49

Bedford 2.25% 24

As you can see, we’ve got some work to do. Teachers in these rural counties have salaries that lag below the state average and receive relatively low annual salary increases. Plus, taxpayers in these communities are left footing the bill for a BEP that simply isn’t adequate to meet the needs of our schools in 2019. Bill Lee did nothing to address the structural deficits in the BEP. Plus, he offered teachers the lowest state funds for raises in the last four budget cycles.

While Lee likes to ride around on a horse to tout his vitality, it’s clear there’s an ED problem he just doesn’t want to talk about.

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Just Pay the Bill

This story about retailers attempting to be “good citizens” by offering discounts to teachers actually highlights two larger problems: We don’t adequately fund our schools AND we don’t pay teachers what they deserve.

We already know there’s a significant teacher pay gap across the country. That gap is particularly troubling in Tennessee — a state with a teacher pay gap above the national average. In fact, Tennessee has one of the worst teacher pay gaps in the Southeast. Teachers in Tennessee earn 27.3% less than their similarly-educated peers. Not only that, teacher pay in Tennessee is growing at a rate well below the national average:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

Then, there’s the issue of basic supplies for learning. Here’s the promotion that got the attention of the writer:

Target wants to help teachers stretch their back-to-school dollars on more than just supplies for their classrooms.

For the second year, the Minneapolis-based retailer will offer teachers a weeklong 15% discount on select items starting July 13, officials shared exclusively with USA TODAY Wednesday…

This year, in addition to school supplies and essentials, which include disinfecting wipes and food storage bags, adult clothing and accessories, Pillowfort furniture and Bullseye’s Playground items also are included.

Here’s the bottom line: School systems should just buy the damn supplies. School administrators should find out what teachers need — the basics, yes, paper, pencils, etc. And also find out what else is needed to run an excellent classroom at all levels and then forward that request to the school system.

Lots of these items could be found at reasonable prices due to bulk purchasing discounts. Moreover, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what it takes to run a classroom and a school.

Not once in the 20+ years that I’ve worked professionally have I been asked to purchase and bring in the supplies I need to do my job. But we ask that of teachers ALL THE TIME.

Stop it. As the writer says:

Stores that have “back to school” sales so parents can buy all those necessary supplies that (usually elementary) teachers post on their classrooms doors or windows?  Nope.  If public education is a public good, then the schools should provide the necessary supplies.

Is public education a public good in Tennessee? Our Constitution says so:

Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution says, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

That obligation was reinforced in the 1993 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in Small Schools v. McWherter:

“The constitution imposes upon the General Assembly the obligation to maintain and support a system of free public schools that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students.”

Simply put, Governor Lee and the General Assembly are not living up to this obligation. According to the Comptroller of the Treasury, we under-fund schools by at least $500 million.

We routinely ask underpaid teachers to fill in the gaps when it comes to supplies. And we applaud the businesses who offer discount promotions to teachers or back-to-school sales as if they are actually doing something. If they wanted real change, those business leaders would be at school board and county commission meetings asking for the needed revenue to fund schools adequately. Then, they’d go to the General Assembly — to the very politicians their businesses bankroll – and pursue policy change that resulted in excellent teacher pay and fully-funded schools.

Too often, though, those same businesses beg the state for tax incentives — enriching themselves at public expense while true public goods like education suffer.

Our state needs leaders who will call this out — leaders not beholden to the private entities who want your tax dollars to boost their profits. Our public schools are a priority in our state Constitution. They should be a priority for our political leaders as well.

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Hamilton County Schools will “rework” Budget after Commission removes Tax Increase

The Hamilton County Commission last night removed a proposed 34 cent property tax increase that would have funded a school budget that included raises for teachers and hiring additional school counselors.

Here’s more on what the proposed budget would have provided to Hamilton County Schools:

The Hamilton County School Board put their stamp of approval on next year’s budget Thursday. That includes $34 million more than the 2019 budget. It would increase teacher pay and add more counselors to schools. It would also boost inclusion time for special needs students.

The move in Hamilton County follows a similar property tax increase rejection in Davidson County (Nashville). The financial strains in both Chattanooga and Nashville are indicative of the failing state school funding formula (BEP). By some estimates, the state underfunds the BEP by at least $500 million each year.

There’s currently a lawsuit pending challenging the adequacy of state funding for schools.

It’s also worth noting that the General Assembly passed a voucher plan this year that will mean less money available to fund school districts across the state.

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TNReady for Vouchers

This week is shaping up to be huge for education policy in Tennessee. Tomorrow, the TNReady testing window opens — while many will take pencil and paper tests, there will be significant numbers of students taking online TNReady. Our current Commissioner of Education is not quite sure how that will go.

If you’re an educator, student, or parent and you get wind of TNReady trouble this week, let me know ASAP: andy@tnedreport.com

Of course, during this busy week for our schools and teachers, legislators have planned key votes on voucher legislation. Governor Bill Lee’s “education savings account” voucher scheme will be voted on in the House and Senate Finance Committees on Tuesday. That’s the final step in both bodies before the bill hits the floor, likely the week of April 22nd.

A group of parents and teachers is planning a series of events tomorrow in order to protest the movement on vouchers.

Meanwhile, if you have any great voucher, charter, or TNReady memes, send them my way at andy@tnedreport.com

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Sick

A Tennessee teacher writes about the education policies that make her sick.

I’m sick.

Sick of my students being over-tested and our schools being underfunded.

Sick of teachers leaving the profession because they are underpaid and undervalued.

Sick of Tennessee being 45th in the nation in per pupil funding. 

Sick of being disrespected by a Governor who has proposed increasing state funding for unaccountable charter schools by 100% while only increasing funding for teachers by 2%.

And how I feel is only going to get worse if the state government passes voucher legislation, which will further drain the resources our students need from public schools and hand them over to unaccountable private companies.

That’s why there’s a movement of teachers planning on calling in sick on Tuesday, April 9th to travel to Nashville and flood the capitol.

We plan on letting our state’s politicians know just how sick we are. And we plan on making it clear to them: the war on public education in Tennessee ends now.

I’m a member of the Tennessee Education Association, but I know that there are many in the state leadership who think that collective action is too aggressive and premature. They still believe that we can work amicably with state politicians. I disagree.

Anyone still entertaining that idea should have had a rude awakening last week when Betsy DeVos visited our state and held closed door meetings with privatizers and politicians.

Several months back, when Governor Lee announced his unfortunate choice for the TN Commissioner of Education, I publicly stated that he had declared war on public education. Some may have thought that was a bit dramatic. However, the Governor wouldn’t have invited the most vilified Secretary of Education in history to the state if he didn’t plan on dropping an atomic bomb on public education. His voucher and charter bills are just that.

With the backing of ALEC and Betsy DeVos those devastating bills will pass unless teachers wake up and do something drastic. Millions upon millions of dollars will be drained from public education and siphoned away from our students.

How do I know this? Because it was perfectly ok to have an admitted child predator be the chair of the House Education Committee until he voted against the voucher bill. Only then was he no longer fit to be the chair.

Strong arm tactics are running rampant and the writing is on the wall.

The go-along to get-along approach of the state teachers association, which means working with the enemies of public education, has been a pipe dream for almost a decade, and it’s time for teachers to wake up. All the emailing and phone calls in the world won’t stop politicians bankrolled by billionaires like the Koch brothers and DeVos family from pursuing devastating legislation that hurts our schools, students, and communities.

Over the last year, I have watched educators in one state after another rise up, take their power back, and force legislators to actually represent THEM and not privatizers. It didn’t matter that the strikes were illegal or sick-outs were risky. When educators stick together and have the backing of the community, they can make real change possible. Teachers can take on billionaires and win. They already have in other states.

In my opinion, the only thing that will stop this insanity is for teachers to walk out. Shut it down. Take back our schools. Take back our profession. Do our job……. and fight for our kids.

I hope to see you in the capitol on Tuesday, April 9.

Lauren Sorensen is a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a former president of the Knox County Education Association.

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



Vouchers and the BEP

The BEP — Tennessee’s funding formula for schools — is a reliable source of revenue for local school districts each year. While projections from the Comptroller’s office suggest the state underfunds the BEP by $500 million a year, the formula is relatively stable and districts can typically predict the amount of new BEP dollars they will receive each year.

That’s why Knox County was surprised this year to see a number about $6 million less than expected. The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

The state has typically added roughly $180 million new dollars into the BEP statewide in recent years. This, plus other smaller percentages of state funds, allowed the county to budget roughly $12 million extra BEP dollars each year. Last year it added an extra $14.1 million new BEP dollars after the state added $188.4 million new dollars to the fund.  

However, that number is expected to be down to $117.5 million in new money this year, meaning the county’s share of new dollars is projected to be only $6.2 million, nearly $8 million less than last year, Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said.

Here’s the historic data on BEP funding for Knox County:

  • $196.4 million, $12.9 million (2016-17);
  • $207.9 million, $11.5 million (2017-18);
  • $222 million, $14.1 million (2018-19);
  • $228.2 million estimate, $6.2 million estimate (2019-20)

As you can see, Knox County could reliably count on at least $12 million in increased BEP funding each year in recent years. That number was down more than half in this year’s projection.

What’s different in 2019-20? Well, Governor Bill Lee is proposing a statewide voucher scheme, for one. He’s also increasing funds available for charter schools. This comes after several years of former Governor Bill Haslam adding roughly $100 million a year in teacher salary increases. This year, that number is $75 million, with the other $25 million going to start Lee’s voucher plan.

If teachers in Knox County want to know what happened to their raises, the answer is vouchers. If residents want to know why building new schools is delayed, it’s because Lee is committing a lot of new money to charter schools for their facilities.

Bill Lee’s “school choice” agenda has consequences. The projected shortfall in Knox County is a clear example. Of course, Lee has done nothing to address the persistent low funding of our state’s schools and given no indication he intends to address that issue.

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Bill Lee’s BEP Lies

Is the BEP fully funded? Bill Lee wants you to think so. A recent Tennessean story calls this issue into question, however. Taking into account the reality of the BEP is more complicated, but the bottom line answer is this: No, Bill Lee’s budget does NOT fully fund the BEP and he and his staff should know better.

The Tennessean points out that despite new investments from Governor Haslam and now Governor Lee, educators are not happy with the adequacy of the state’s funding formula.

There is good reason to be concerned. For example, Tennessee is now investing less per pupil than we did in 2010:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating.

It’s also worth noting that our teacher salary increases aren’t matching national averages:


Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.
By contrast, states like California and North Carolina have seen increases of over 9% over the same time period, making them the two fastest improving states. Vermont is close behind at just over a 7% total increase.

While talking about teacher salaries, it’s important to note the BEP does NOT fully fund teacher pay and in fact, funds a level far below the actual average cost of hiring a teacher:


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.

Then, of course, there are unfunded or underfunded mandates. One example, RTI – Response to Intervention:


One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Our own Comptroller, a Republican, also indicates the state is significantly behind where it should be to adequately fund the BEP:


The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability is out with a new report that suggests Tennessee is underfunding its schools by at least $400 million. That’s because the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) fails to adequately fund education personnel.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Bill Haslam created a fake BEP task force designed to let him out of the responsibility to adequately fund schools and then effectively froze BEP 2.0. In that sense, it’s actually inaccurate to say our state is “fully funding” the BEP. In fact, we’re funding “growth only” in a frozen formula. Facts matter. History is difficult, I know. But those talking about this issue would do well to cite the recent history in their reporting.

Enter Governor Bill Haslam. He appointed his own BEP Task Force independent of the statutorily mandated BEP Review Committee. At the time, I speculated this was because he didn’t like the Review Committee’s recommendations and its insistence that the state was at least $500 million behind where it should be in education funding.

Now, he’s proposing a “BEP Enhancement Act.” This so-called enhancement is sailing through the General Assembly. It is seen as the most likely vehicle to get money to rural districts and in a year when education funds are increasing, why sweat the details?

As I’ve written before, a few districts lose significantly in the move because it eliminates the Cost Differential Factor (CDF).

It also freezes BEP 2.o. Gone are the dreams of full funding of this formula. The law makes permanent the 70% state funding of BEP-generated teaching positions and funds teacher salaries at a rate well below the state average salary.

Someone should tell Bill Lee and legislative leadership about this. They keep going around repeating the lie that the BEP is “fully funded.” The truth is quite different. I suspect Lee’s staffers know the reality, and are just not telling him. Alternatively, they don’t know the facts — in which case, they don’t deserve their jobs.

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Still Waiting


In March of 2013, I wrote about a possible education agenda for Tennessee. It was a plan based on issues I felt were not receiving adequate attention at the time. Each was chosen for the potential to have a measurable impact on outcomes.

Now, with a new governor and General Assembly, it seems a good time to check-in on these proposals and see where Tennessee stands.

The items I included were: Pre-K, new teacher mentoring, BEP funding improvements, and a significant increase in teacher pay.

Specifically:

We should expand the Pre-K program to serve all at-risk four-year-olds by 2017. 

Ok, it’s 2019 and we’re still not there. This despite clear evidence (especially in Nashville) that quality early education works. Instead, the previous Lt. Governor worked hard to keep the Pre-K program from expanding.

 

Tennessee policy-makers should build and launch a new BEP formula in time for the 2015-16 academic year.

This hasn’t happened. In fact, Governor Haslam froze BEP 2.0 and created a system where per pupil spending was essentially flat during his time in office. You can’t move forward by standing in place. We need an investment of between $500 million and $1 billion to adequately fund our state’s schools.

 

Tennessee policy-makers should build a new teacher mentoring program and ensure every new teacher has a trained mentor by the 2016-17 academic year.

No, this hasn’t been done. Hasn’t been seriously talked about. Not on the horizon. Investing in early career support and development for teachers is not yet a priority of our state’s policymakers.

 

Tennessee policy-makers should raise the starting pay for all teachers to $40,000 and adjust the pay scale to improve overall compensation by the 2015-16 academic year.

It is 2019 and we are still not there. Many teachers in our state start teaching at salaries below $40,000 and many will teach a full career and never see a salary above $60,000. This is an unsustainable model and is already having an impact in districts across the state.

 

So, I still think these four items make up a solid education policy agenda for our state. What do you think? Teachers, what are your policy goals?

 

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