F for Effort

Another day, another story about how Tennessee is failing to invest in schools.

The National Report Card on School Funding Fairness indicates Tennessee is not trying very hard (the rhetoric of Governor Bill Haslam notwithstanding).

The Report Card analyzes several indicators of school funding to determine how a state supports schools. The most basic is raw spending on schools. Here, Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation. So, still near the bottom.

How does Tennessee distribute funding in high-poverty vs. low-poverty districts? Not great, but not terrible. The Report Card awards a grade of C and uses per pupil spending data to demonstrate that high-poverty districts (those with 30% or more of students on Free/Reduced Lunch) spend about 3% less than low-poverty districts. Of course, fairness would dictate that those high-poverty districts spend a bit more, but Tennessee is in the category of states doing an average job in this regard. Our state funding formula (the BEP) is supposed to ensure some level of equity, but the funding may not be enough in those districts lacking the resources to provide significant funds for schools.

Here’s the real problem: We’re not trying very hard to do better.

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

According to the Report Card, Tennessee ranks 42nd in wage competitiveness, with teachers here earning 24% less on average than similarly-prepared professionals.

I noted recently that we’re also not doing much to improve teacher pay (again, despite Bill Haslam’s claims).

The good news: There’s an election this year. A chance for a new Governor and new members of the General Assembly to take a fresh look at education in 2019. Voters should ask those seeking these offices how they plan to improve Tennessee’s low rankings and move our state forward when it comes to public education. Clearly, we can’t pursue the same low dollar strategy we’ve been using.

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


 

Bad Company

A new report released by the Education Law Center puts Tennessee in some bad company when it comes to school funding and student achievement. That is, Tennessee is among the states with low funding and relatively low student achievement compared to the national average.

Authored by researchers at Rutgers University and released by Education Law Center, the report shows that most U.S. states fund their public schools at a level far below what is necessary for students in high-poverty districts to achieve at even average levels in English and math.

It’s not good when in the key findings section, Tennessee is mentioned more than once — and not among those the report’s authors suggest are doing what’s best for students.

From the report:

  • In numerous states – including Arizona, Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia – only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to reach national average student achievement outcomes.

And:

Alabama, New Mexico, Michigan, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee are not far behind in that they also have very low per pupil spending and low outcomes relative to the national average.

We’re not in good company. When Tennessee is mentioned in this report, which uses NAEP data and district level per pupil spending, we are mentioned among those states not investing sufficiently in high-poverty districts to achieve even average outcomes.

A number of Tennessee’s high-poverty districts lack the local fiscal capacity to improve investment. Improving state level spending could address this issue.

This may explain why under the old TCAP testing system, scores tracked the poverty and investment rates of districts. The same may well be true of TNReady, though it is new and has yet to be fully administered in a successful fashion.

While a tiny bit of effort is being made this year in terms of providing funds for as yet unfunded RTI mandates, Tennessee has much more to do in order to improve the education situation across the state.

Our own Comptroller suggests we’re about $500 million short of where we need to be in order to properly fund public education. A pair of lawsuits from school districts are pending, each of which claims our state is failing when it comes to funding schools. This report lends credence to those claims.

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


 

Not So Fast

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

Then, by April of 2014, he promptly broke that promise, giving no raise at all in that budget year.

Since 2014, however, Haslam has found funds to modestly increase the BEP allocation for teacher compensation each year.

So, as we’re in the last year of Haslam’s term, I thought it’d be interesting to see if Tennessee has, indeed, been the fastest improving state in teacher salaries since 2013.

The short (and unsurprising) answer is: No.

Using state data compiled by the National Education Association, I looked at salaries across the states.

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.

Let’s pull back and take a look at teacher pay since Bill Haslam has been Governor (starting in 2011).

Tennessee teacher pay has increased by 5.3% over that time. The national average over the same time period was 5.7%. So, for the entire time Bill Haslam has been Governor of Tennessee, teacher pay in our state has been improving at a rate below the national average.

So, maybe we can’t be the fastest improving in the nation in teacher pay. Could we be the fastest improving in the South? Nope. That title belongs to North Carolina.

Let’s look at these states: North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Of these 11 states in the South, Tennessee ranks 9th in terms of average increase in teacher pay since the Haslam Promise. We’re not even at the average of these states, which is 3.3%. Since Bill Haslam promised Tennessee teachers their pay would increase faster than any other state in the nation, our teachers have seen their pay increase at half the rate of neighboring states.

That’s not very fast. At all.

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


 

Amy Frogge Talks School Budgets

MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge highlights the importance of funding our public schools in her latest Facebook post:

As the old saying goes: Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value. Despite all the hype from politicians (particularly this election year) that education is a top priority, Tennessee remains 36th in the nation on education funding, and Nashville ranks 54th out of 67 urban school systems in per-pupil funding (according to the Council of the Great City Schools). What better investment could our state make than providing ALL students with an excellent education? Yes, that money should be spent wisely, but adequate school funding REALLY makes a difference. Just ask any teacher (who- at one point or another- has probably spent her last $20 trying to buy supplies for her classroom).

I remember a conversation I had about school funding back in 2012, around the time I was first elected to the school board. Another elected official told me how awful local schools were, rolling her eyes at the thought of investing more money into our “failing” system. The irony of this conversation was that this person was spending approximately $25,000 per year to educate her own child at a prestigious private school- a school where, in addition to the high funding, students enter class already well equipped with every possible advantage. This article is for those who live in such a bubble.

Folks like this “won’t mention that there is research . . . showing that states that did provide more money to low-performing schools got better results — but never mind. . . .

And, apparently, people who don’t believe in a link between funding and student achievement won’t listen to teachers on the ground who can tell them otherwise.”

Frogge then links to this insightful article from the Washington Post about the impact of inadequate funding.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee>

Not Really Improving

What’s Missing is What Matters

Coming Up Short

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


 

Beating Alabama

Governor Haslam gave his State of the State Monday and outlined budget priorities. Immediately, the Tennessee Education Association called on the General Assembly to improve on the small raise Haslam proposed for teachers.

Here’s the deal: A few years back, Bill Haslam promised to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay. That very same budget year, Haslam’s actual budget included no new money for teacher compensation. Since then, however, his budgets have included back-to-back four percent increases in funds for teacher compensation. This year, however, the budget proposal is for a more modest two percent increase. Should this budget pass as proposed, Haslam’s education budgets will have resulted in average annual increases in funds for teacher pay of about two percent. That’s not much faster growth than surrounding states. In fact, during Haslam’s term of office, actual teacher pay in Tennessee has increased by about one percent per year, very similar to rates in Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama.

Here’s what’s interesting: Tennessee teachers still earn about $3000 less on average than their counterparts in Georgia and Kentucky. But, our teachers are actually closing in on Alabama. Current numbers suggest Tennessee teachers earn about $300 less on average than Alabama teachers.

Of course, Alabama will pass a budget this year, too. And, it will likely include additional funds for teacher pay. But, if Haslam and the General Assembly were to double the amount of money allocated for increases in teacher compensation in this year’s budget, Tennessee would almost certainly overtake Alabama in average teacher pay.

Can we afford it? The short answer is yes! Revenue has been growing at about 5% this year when comparing year-over-year numbers. If that keeps up, we’ll see about $700 million in new revenue. Sure, some of that is allocated, but moving around $55 million to bump the teacher pay raise from two to four percent shouldn’t be that difficult. And, if we do it, Tennessee will beat Alabama.

I’ve lived in Tennessee almost 20 years now. If there’s one thing I know about my fellow Tennesseans it’s that we love to beat Alabama. Come on, Tennessee General Assembly. You can do it! You can help Tennessee beat Alabama.

Watch out, Kentucky and Georgia, you COULD be next!

 

 

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


 

Needs Improvement

Governor Bill Haslam delivered his final State of the State address last night and outlined the basics of his budget proposal for the next year. The proposal includes $55 million for teacher compensation, which represents a roughly 2% increase. This is down from the previous two years, which saw 4% increases in teacher compensation funds sent to districts by way of the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) had asked for a 5% boost in Haslam’s final year. In response to the lower-than-expected number, TEA President Barbara Gray issued the following statement:

“There is significant increase for investment in education in the budget. But in order to support the hard-working teachers that make Tennessee one of the fastest improving states in the nation, this budget does not do as much as it can,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “We’re hopeful that as the state economy keeps revenues strong and well above estimates, the state raise for teachers will increase in the final version of the budget.”

It seems likely the TEA will ask the General Assembly to find additional funds to further boost teacher pay.

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


 

The Williamson County Game

Public education advocate Kim Henke writes about the tax game going on in Williamson County as the state’s wealthiest county “struggles” to fund schools.

Here’s some of what she has to say:

I’m embarrassed that last summer, WCS had to cut $6 million from the operational budget because the County Commission wouldn’t do the right thing and raise property taxes ahead of an election year. There is no reason that the 7th wealthiest county in the nation with the lowest property tax rate in Middle TN and the lowest in the state among communities with >100,000 residents should have to cut new teacher positions, counselors, and special ed staff. We shouldn’t have so many portables. We shouldn’t have kids in overcrowded schools eating lunch at 9:45 in the morning. We shouldn’t have roving teachers with carts teaching class in hallways and closets. We shouldn’t have principals mopping floors because the roof leaks. We shouldn’t have underpaid teachers and support staff who often work two jobs and can’t afford to live in Williamson County.
I’m embarrassed that WCS is in the bottom 10 of Tennessee’s 141 school districts in per pupil expenditures in a state that’s in the bottom 10 of PPE nationwide.
This is a fake funding crisis.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Got Mine, Want More

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting changes in the state’s BEP formula that would direct additional state resources to the wealthiest county in the state. Williamson County is also the 7th wealthiest county in the United States.

The Williamson Herald reports:

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s education committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution of support for state legislation that would modify the Basic Education Program (BEP) to provide Williamson County and others a more reasonable allotment of state funding for education.

I suppose “reasonable allotment” is in the eye of the beholder.

The state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is designed to provide all districts a base level of funding to support public education. The formula came about in response to a successful lawsuit by small, rural districts who sued suggesting the way the state was funding schools was unequal. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted the Education Improvement Act which included the Basic Education Plan (BEP) as a new school funding formula. One of the primary goals of this formula was (and still is) equity.

What the legislation sponsored by Jack Johnson would do is direct additional state resources to the five school districts in the state with the greatest ability to pay.

While the BEP certainly has shortcomings, I would suggest finding ways to direct more state funds to a county quite capable (but unwilling) to dedicate local resources to schools is not a very responsible use of state taxpayer dollars. To be clear, improving the BEP by making formula adjustments (adding a component for RTI, for example), would necessarily mean additional funds going to Williamson County.

Here are some fun facts about the county now begging the state for more cash:

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Tennessee with a population over 100,000.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state of Tennessee and 7th wealthiest in the United States.

Williamson County Commissioners have been reluctant to raise property taxes in order to continue to provide resources to schools.

An analysis of household income compared to property tax rates in similar affluent communities reveals that Williamson County’s tax burden is incredibly low. The chart below comes from public policy professor Ken Chilton, who teaches at Tennessee State:

That red bar on the chart is Williamson County, with a property tax burden on a $500,000 home of just over $3000. That’s just over 3% of the average household income, far lower than similar communities in Tennessee and across the country. Plus, as Chilton notes, Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.

Despite these facts, Williamson County Commissioners are headed to the state with their hands out, begging for more help.

Tennessee is a state making long overdue improvements in public education. As more state dollars become available, those dollars should absolutely be invested in continuing to improve our public schools. By closing the teacher pay gap, for example.

Giving money to those districts that have the ability to generate funds on their own but won’t is not a pressing need in our state. In fact, doing so would only serve to exacerbate the inequity the BEP was intended to address. Of course, these Williamson County Commissioners aren’t concerned about inequity. They are clearly concerned about ensuring one of America’s wealthiest communities continues to pay bargain basement prices for its public schools.

Policymakers should reject this rich get richer scheme and focus on education needs that will benefit every district and lift up those least able to generate funds for schools.

 

 

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


 

Are TN Colleges Turning Out Bad Teachers?

You might think Tennessee’s public schools of education are doing a poor job of turning out effective educators if you read this story in yesterday’s Tennessean.

The article notes:

Many of Tennessee’s teacher preparation programs aren’t at the quality the state expects. A number of those underperforming are at state colleges — with none of those schools performing at the highest level.

It’s a “sobering” data point education officials are highlighting as they work toward addressing fixes in Tennessee’s teaching programs.

The article references the redesigned teacher preparation report card produced annually by the Tennessee State Board of Education.

I’ve written before about the problems with this approach.

The revamped report includes candidate profile (who is enrolling in teacher prep programs), retention (whether grads stay in teaching), and “teacher effectiveness” (which is measured primarily by the flawed TVAAS system).

TVAAS scores of graduates account for 25 of the 75 points available to rate teacher prep programs. That means the rating formula is heavily skewed toward an unreliable statistical estimate of performance.

At best, TVAAS is a rough estimate of teacher performance. A fairly solid indicator that a teacher earning a “5” is NOT a “1,” but relatively meaningless otherwise.

Now, of course, Tennessee has transitioned to new tests. TNReady has been fraught with problems, but even if it hadn’t been, the results would render TVAAS data highly suspect. So, 33% — the largest single portion — of the score attributed to teacher prep programs comes from a number that is essentially meaningless. Let me be clear: Schools receiving grades of 4 (the highest) or 1 (the lowest) on this metric are getting numbers that have no basis in statistical reality.

The next area of importance to a program’s score is the profile of the candidates enrolled in their program. Here, the state is looking for high academic achievers and overall diversity.

As noted in the article:

McQueen also has plans for a statewide tour to schools with the purpose of getting high-achieving, young students into the education profession, especially since preparation programs are having trouble getting qualified candidates in the doors.

This is predicated on the assumption that students with higher ACT scores will ultimately become better teachers. Whether or not that’s true, it ignores the underlying reality: Teaching just may not be a very attractive field. That’s not the fault of schools of education and it certainly isn’t their responsibility to fix it.

In fact, Tennessee has been looking at a coming teacher shortage for years now. Districts like MNPS are already seeing the impact.

Why might teaching be unattractive? Well, for one, the pay is not exactly great. In fact, Tennessee teachers earn about 30% less than their similarly prepared peers. Boosting pay may be one way to help make the field more attractive. Alternatively (and much cheaper), the state could send the outgoing Commissioner of Education on a tour of schools to attempt to persuade high achieving students to enter a profession where they can expect to earn significantly less than other professionals and be subjected to a testing and evaluation system that according to some is “driving teachers crazy.”

Another factor? Our state under-funds the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) by around $500 million. So, new teachers face low pay, a problematic evaluation system, and under-resourced schools. Is it any wonder teacher prep programs aren’t getting enough qualified applicants?

Nevertheless, teacher prep programs are being held “accountable” for fixing problems over which they have little control. Makes perfect sense.

*NOTE: An earlier version of this story indicated TVAAS accounted for 40 points on the scale. That has been corrected to accurately reflect the 25 points TVAAS scores comprise.

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


 

2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

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