Exacerbate

Dr. Bill Smith writes in the Johnson City Press that the General Assembly’s recent education policies will only exacerbate inequality.


Crowe, a 28-year veteran of the General Assembly and member of the Senate Education Committee, and his colleagues have grotesquely underfunded the BEP in recent years, and the money diverted to vouchers will exacerbate this shortcoming. Tennessee is 45th nationally in per-pupil funding and well below the Southeastern average. Expanding the voucher program will compromise funding for public education even more, and local schools will surely feel the impact.


In a May 1 article, The Tennessean reported that last year’s voucher law could cost $330 million by 2024, money that could be used instead to improve education across the state. Further, if we’ve learned anything over the years about school funding and the achievement gap, it’s that the children who most need our embrace are the ones who suffer most when educational funding is inadequate.

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9000

Tucked inside this Chalkbeat story on Hamilton County dropping its lawsuit over state funding of public schools is a note about just how inadequate the formula (the BEP) is.


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

When looking at an average actual salary for Tennessee teachers of around $52,000, this means that local districts are responsible for $468 million in teacher salary expenses before benefits are included. That’s an unfunded mandate that easily exceeds half a billion dollars.

No one is suggesting we hire less teachers. In fact, many districts report needing additional teachers and other staff — such as nurses and counselors — to adequately serve their students.

However, this number does show that our state systematically underfunds public schools in a way not addressed by the current funding formula. It’s likely that when you combine the unfunded salary and benefits of teachers and the needs for programs like RTI2 with the proper staffing levels for nurses and counselors, you’d see a number exceeding $1 billion.

Let’s be clear: The state’s own Department of Education has provided information to the committee responsible for reviewing the state funding formula that indicates we’re at least $500 million behind where we should be in terms of current funding.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers don’t include any significant boost in pay for existing teachers.

In short: Tennessee is not properly funding schools.

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TEA on 2020 School Funding

The Tennessee Education Association is out with an analysis of how revenue estimates from the State Funding Board impact money available for our public schools. Here’s more:


Tennessee is so far behind it would take $1.2 billion annually to reach the Southeast average. The good news is Tennessee has the revenue available to make a $1.2 billion investment in a few years without raising taxes. The bad news is the state follows a budget process that chronically underestimates revenue growth, thus withholding billions from classrooms. 


For five years actual revenue growth was more than double state estimates, leaving $3 billion in surplus while public schools remain under-funded. While state K-12 funding did increase by $700 million over those years, had the state doubled K-12 investment to $1.4 billion, a substantial surplus would still have remained while also moving Tennessee schools out of the bottom 10 in funding. 


There is already a problem with this year’s estimates. The State Funding Board, a panel of constitutional officers and the state finance director, recently approved a growth rate of between 2.7% and 3.1%, well below even the most pessimistic predictions by economists hired by the state. 
It is the lowest rate since 2014, when the board predicted little to no growth. This led then-Gov. Haslam to eliminate a promised $50 million state teacher raise. Actual revenue grew 5% in 2014-2015, leading to a $552 million surplus while teachers got nothing. 


The board also had to increase its growth estimate for 2019-2020, predicting a general fund surplus of $430 – $500 million. Even this upward revision may be far too low. First-quarter general fund growth was 8.1%, more than double the revised estimate, which could generate a surplus up to $900 million. Teachers got $72 million for salaries in this budget. It could have been $272 million.

Governor Bill Lee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and House GOP Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison have all suggested this will be the year Tennessee makes a big investment in teacher pay. Will these leaders use low-ball funding board revenue estimates to nix this raise? Or, will they look at historic data suggesting the money is there and use that information to push for a significant boost in pay for teachers and investment in schools?

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Spare Change

Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson wants you to spend your spare change on Tennessee’s public schools. Watson touts the Volunteer Public Education Trust Fund in a recent piece distributed around the state. Here’s more:

For all those who clamor for more financial investment in K-12 public education, there is a perfect investment opportunity for you – the Volunteer Public Education Trust.

Watson then goes on to highlight the many potential benefits of investment in this fund.

Let’s be clear: A state that is 45th in the nation in school funding is now asking people to just donate their extra cash to a fund to help boost schools.

Watson sounds like he’s not among “all those who clamor” for more investment in our schools. But, hey, if YOU are, go for it.

Watson fails to mention that Tennessee has banked over $3 billion in surpluses over the past five years. Was that money invested in public schools? No! Instead, the inheritance tax and Hall investment tax were phased out.

In fact, a recent analysis indicates that while state revenue is up by an 7% over the past 10 years when adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries are down by 2.6% over the same time period.

This lack of commitment to directing available dollars to public schools is why Tennessee earned an “F” for effort in a recent comparison of state spending on education.

Now, instead of committing to use state funds to fill a $500 million hole in school funding, Watson is suggesting collecting spare change from donors in order to meet the needs of our state’s schoolchildren.


The Volunteer Public Education Trust is now ready for contributions from individuals, businesses and corporations that will transform the way we fund public education in Tennessee.

Here’s another way to transform the way we fund public education in Tennessee: Start funding education in Tennessee.

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BEP Black Magic

An article in yesterday’s Chattanooga Times-Free Press indicates that some legislators have no idea how the state’s education funding formula works or even what words actually mean.

The article notes that state Senator Todd Gardenhire and state Representative Mike Carter are frustrated by the state budget process, where funds are passed to increase salaries for educators through the Basic Education Plan (BEP). The lawmakers apparently fail to understand that every single system in the state hires teachers beyond the BEP and that the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates on to local districts.

Specifically, Gardenhire and Carter want a clear definition of the word “teacher” so that only “teachers” receive state raise money and so that the legislators can continue underfunding schools while cutting taxes for big corporations and wealthy individuals. Seems the two of them could use a math class.

Here’s more from the article:

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, have long called for one official definition of what a “teacher” is that school districts and the state can stick to, and they have again been raising the issue with Hamilton County’s school leaders and lawmakers.

Are these ALL “teachers?”

Regular classroom teachers, special education teachers, vocational education, music or art teachers, school counselors, guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, principals, assistant principals, and even supervisors such as instructional coaches, teacher supervisors and staff who complete special education assessments for students all fall into the same category.

Gardenhire and Carter apparently would like it if there were differentiations among instructional staff so they could continue allocating paltry sums to fund schools while allowing at least some employees to receive a state-funded raise.

One County Commissioner narrowed the issue quite well:

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, asked the state representatives at the Nov. 7 legislative delegation meeting who has been getting raises who shouldn’t have been, but his question went unanswered.


“Who are we angry [about] that is getting a raise that we don’t think should be getting a raise?” Sharpe said.

Carter made clear he hasn’t spent time seeking to understand the BEP nor has he made any serious effort to improve it:

“We are promising teachers something that we are not delivering. The BEP is all black magic. No one actually understands it, no one wants to,” Carter told the Times Free Press.

Of course, the state publishes a BEP handbook and also has a BEP Review Committee which meets regularly and explores the formula in order to recommend improvements.

One way to solve the dilemma expressed by Gardenhire and Carter? Actually fund the BEP at an adequate level. The state’s Comptroller of the Treasury estimates the BEP is underfunded by some $500 million annually. Fortunately, both Gardenhire and Carter are lawmakers and have the ability to push legislation to actually fund the formula. Unfortunately, neither have made any effort in this area.

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Will Sullivan County Schools Close?

A funding dispute between the School Board and County Commission in Sullivan County threatens to result in the temporary closure of schools, according to WCYB:


A potential lack of funding to Sullivan County Public Schools could cause the school system to temporarily close.
An email detailing the situation was sent to system employees Thursday evening.


Sullivan County Director of Schools David Cox told News 5, the system has not received more than $800,000 in funding from the county. As a result, the General Purpose School Fund is now below the Maintenance of Effort Test from the Tennessee Department of Education.


The Maintenance of Effort Test requires that local fund does not drop lower than per pupil revenue. This means that, if the school system doesn’t receive the money from the county, the system would lose more than $4 million in state funding per month.


News 5 spoke with Sullivan County Commissioner Mark Vance by phone. He said the commission is at an impasse with the county BOE and the state department of education over the budget.

While disputes among school boards (which run schools) and county commissions (which provide funding) are not new, closing schools, even temporarily, is a fairly unusual occurrence.

It’s worth noting that if the state fully-funded the BEP 2.0 formula, Sullivan County would stand to gain some $5 million per year. Unfortunately, former Governor Bill Haslam froze BEP 2.0 and current Governor Bill Lee has chosen to fund a voucher scheme rather than invest significantly in public schools.

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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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