An Open Door to Grift and Corruption

Members of the Tennessee Public Education Coalition spoke out in opposition to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda which includes sending public money to private schools by way of school vouchers and charters.

In an OpEd, the group said:

We have a clear choice in Tennessee. We can choose to adequately fund our public schools, pay our teachers a fair wage, and support our neighborhood schools — or we can choose grift.

Here are some of the examples offered by the group to demonstrate the danger of rapid expansion of charter schools:

  • Memphis Academy of Health Sciences closed, displacing 750 students, after three leaders were indicted for stealing $400,000 for personal use – for trips to Las Vegas, a hot tub, NBA tickets, and auto repair.
  • New Vision Academy in Nashville shut down after state and federal investigation into financial irregularities, failure to comply with federal laws concerning special needs students and English language learners, and cramming too many children into classrooms in violation of the fire code. The husband/wife team leading the school of 150 students earned $563,000 per year.
  • Gateway University Charter School in Memphis shut down after it was accused of falsifying grades, using uncertified teachers, giving credits for a geometry class that didn’t exist, and pulling children out of classes to clean the school’s bathrooms and other areas.
  • Knowledge Academies in Nashville lost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in an online phishing scheme (after which its founder and CEO suddenly disappeared); used uncertified teachers; understaffed the school and stopped paying teachers; operated with a deficit of $835,878, despite an annual revenue of $7.1 million; failed to meet federal requirements for English language learners and special needs students; and ran side businesses out of the school building. Nashville shut the school down, but the state forced it back open. It’s now operating with a $7.9 million deficit.
  • Nashville Global Academy forgot a child on a bus parked offsite all day, misappropriated funds to the tune of $149,000, and collapsed over $400,000 in debt with unpaid bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

READ MORE from Tennessee Public Education Coalition on Lee’s efforts to privatize our state’s public schools.

Of course, Lee has some powerful (and wealthy) friends pushing privatization:

And, TC Weber has some pretty solid analysis about why the scheme offered by Lee will lead to vouchers and school district takeovers:

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

Your support – $3 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Of Vouchers and School Takeovers

Nashville education blogger TC Weber has a couple of pieces out that break down Gov. Lee’s proposed school funding reform.

The bottom line: Be afraid, be very afraid.

I mean, if you like using public money to fund private schools OR if you’re a fan of the state taking over districts, this funding scheme is for you.

Here are a couple hits from TC’s analysis:

While we are on the subject of the funding bill, let’s flip to section 66. This is the portion of the bill that lists amendments to existing legislation. It reads as follows,

SECTION 66. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-10-1405(a)(1), is amended by deleting the language “the per-pupil state and local funds generated and required through the basic education program (BEP) for the LEA in which the student resides and is zoned to attend” and substituting “the total funding allocation that the student generates under the Tennessee investment in student achievement formula (TISA)”.

Did you get that?

Read it again.

I’ll wait.

Under current legislation, a student who qualifies for an  IEA, or disability voucher receives around 6k to use for qualified expenses. It’s long been argued more students haven’t taken advantage of the education account opportunity, because the number is too low to make an adequate investment in a different educational opportunity.

If the new law passes, that student will receive exactly the amount generated through the funding formula, potentially making a voucher worth $16k. If you think that won’t increase enrollment and eventually bleed into a full-blown voucher plan, think again.

So, it turns out Mike Stein was right to warn about a BEP Voucher Plan.

READ MORE from TC on the funding formula and vouchers >

Then, TC digs into the section in the reform bill about school takeovers:

(c) An LEA that operates or authorizes a public school that receives a D or F letter grade pursuant to § 49-1-228 may be required to appear for a hearing before an ad hoc joint committee of the general assembly to report on the public school’s performance and how the LEA’s spending decisions may have affected the ability of the LEA’s public schools to achieve certain performance goals. The speakers of the senate and house of representatives shall each appoint members to serve on the joint ad hoc committee from the members of the general assembly serving on the education or finance committees of the senate and house of representatives. At the conclusion of a hearing conducted pursuant to this subsection (c), the joint ad hoc committee may direct the department to impose one (1) of the following corrective actions:

(1) Require the LEA or public charter school to develop, submit to the department for approval, and implement a corrective action plan consistent with a corrective action plan template developed by the department. The department shall report to the committee regarding the LEA’s or public charter school’s implementation of the corrective action plan; or

(2) Appoint an inspector general selected by the comptroller of the treasury to oversee the LEA’s or public charter school’s academic programming and spending. The department shall report to the committee regarding the outcomes of the inspector general’s oversight. The department shall promulgate rules to effectuate this subdivision (c)(2) in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, compiled in title 4, chapter 5.(d) The department shall apportion the costs of implementing a corrective action imposed pursuant to subdivision (c)(2) between the department and the LEA on a case-by-case basis, subject to the approval of the joint ad hoc committee.

The desire for the state to takeover MNPS and SCS has long been the worst kept secret in town. This bill will provide the vehicle to take such action.

Never mind that the General Assembly passed legislation over half a decade ago that called for the creation of the A-F grading system, it’s never been implemented. as pointed out last year on the Senate floor. Now it’s suddenly going to be implemented and its first year out of the box it’ll have potentially dire consequences for districts.

MORE on ALL the requirements for districts included in the reform plan.

Then, there’s former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge. She also warns that the funding package may not be all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, it seems highly problematic for the future of K-12 public education in our state.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Initially Encouraging

The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) issued a press release today on the heels of Gov. Bill Lee announcing his proposed new funding formula for schools. The gist is that NPEF is encouraged by the transparency and potential overall funding boost. There are, however, questions about accountability elements and an incentive fund.

Here’s the full press release from NPEF:

The long-awaited announcement of a new student-based funding formula in the state of Tennessee is being applauded by the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) for its focus on students’ needs and its transparent and simplified structure.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) Commissioner Penny Schwinn shared proposed legislation for the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement formula (TISA) today.

“The Governor pledged to put students first with his new proposal and we believe he has done that,” said Katie Cour, President and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation. “The new formula provides additional funding for economically disadvantaged students as well as students with unique learning needs, neither of which were adequately addressed under the former funding formula.”

Though overall, NPEF is encouraged by the Governor’s plan, a few aspects of the formula deserve greater clarity for Nashvillians in particular. Specifically, it is unclear how much additional weight English Learners will receive under the new plan. Nashville is home to the state’s largest EL population and research shows that these students need a substantially larger investment to support their success.

Under the proposal, districts with low-performing schools could face corrective actions that have not yet been detailed. While NPEF supports accountability structures that reinforce student and school success, the new plan moves some accountability decisions from the TDOE to an ad hoc legislative committee. NPEF will be monitoring the effectiveness of this accountability shift.

“The new formula is significantly more transparent than the complex and onerous BEP,” said Cour. “While we applaud this transparency, we are uncertain how the plan’s shift in accountability will play out. We will continue to monitor any potential impacts of changes to accountability on Nashville’s governance structure.” NPEF has consistently advocated for an overhaul of the state’s education funding formula and stressed the needs for 1) significantly increasing the percent of GDP that Tennessee invests in K-12 education; 2) making any increase permanent and recurring; 3) ensuring any new formula specifically addresses fiscal capacity of Tennessee municipalities; 4) designing a student-based funding formula that allocates funding based on the needs of individual students; and 5) establishing clear transparency around policy governance and decision making. NPEF proudly served as a contributing member of the Education Foundations Subcommittee for the TDOE-led funding review process.

Seeking to engage Nashvillians with essential data to make informed demands and decisions, last year NPEF released an informational Policy Brief outlining the complexities, challenges, inadequacies, and consequences of Tennessee’s current Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula for schools. Titled “Funding Our Schools: How Tennessee’s Funding Formula Fails to Meet the Needs of Nashville’s Students,” the brief encouraged Tennessee to fully adopt the recommendations of its own BEP Review Committee and called on the community to advocate for increased funding for the state’s schools.

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

More Questions About School Funding Reform

The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) has been closely following Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed reform of the state’s school funding formula. Following the State of the State, NPEF has some questions about how Lee’s proposal will impact Nashville. Here are some highlights:

Will there be bi-partisan, transparent legislation that guides leaders across our state? Or will decisions be delegated to the Tennessee Department of Education or State Board of Education? 

If a detailed law is not codified by the Tennessee General Assembly, how can we ensure that future changes to the formula are transparent and not made arbitrarily?

It’s possible Lee could ask the legislature to codify broad parameters for funding reform and leave the details to the rulemaking process. That could mean the public is not fully included in a transparent process.

Given Nashville’s considerably higher cost of living and the state’s low minimum requirement for teacher salaries, we already pay a much higher average teacher salary than the state requires. Because of this disparity, it’s unclear how Nashville teachers would benefit from any increase.
Governor Lee has given a nod to this challenge in his comments: “Historically, funds put into the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers, and when we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that. So in our updated funding formula, we will ensure that a teacher raise is a teacher raise.” (The Tennessean)Will these new teacher salary dollars simply raise an already low minimum state salary scale? If so, Nashville’s teachers will likely not see a substantial increase.

It’s worth noting here that the reason a “raise is not a raise” is because the state drastically underfunds the number of teachers needed to fully staff schools. This means state salary pool dollars must stretch to cover needed positions and less money is left for raises. Unless Lee’s new formula adds between 7000-10,000 new teachers, any increase in teacher salary money will come up short when (or if) it hits paychecks.

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

A Feature, Not a Bug

In his State of the State Address, Gov. Bill Lee had this to say about funds he’s dedicating to teacher compensation:

We should raise teacher pay this year by $125 million, which is a well-deserved increase into the teacher salary pool.

Historically, funds put in the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers. When we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that.

This statement implies that there is some sort of trickery going on at the local level to divert state dollars intended for teacher pay. It’s deflection and blame-shifting. The reality is that the state underfunds teaching positions. By a lot.

In fact, as Lee surely knows, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) issued a report suggesting the state underfunds schools by $1.7 billion.

That report noted:

 “In fiscal year 2018-19, the BEP funding formula generated a total of 62,888 licensed instructional positions, but school systems employed a total of 69,633 with state and local revenue.”

“Although the changes made in 1992 and since have resulted in substantial increases in funding to support the BEP, meeting local needs and the requirements imposed by the state and federal governments often requires more resources than the BEP funding formula alone provides. Consequently, state and local funding in fiscal year 2017-18 totaled $2.1 billion over and above what was required by the BEP formula, including a total of $1.7 billion in local revenue.”

In other words, Lee knows that adding $125 million to teacher compensation WITHOUT also increasing the total number of positions funded means that money won’t result in a meaningful raise for current teachers. Instead, districts will use the teacher compensation money to fund positions NOT contemplated by the current formula.

So, here’s the real question: Will Lee’s proposed new formula result in the addition of 7,000-10,000 MORE teachers?

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Is it Anything?

Last night, Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State Address and revealed at least some details related to school funding formula reform. Of note is the promise to increase state investment in public schools by $1 billion effective in the 2024 fiscal year and contingent on a new funding formula. This year, teachers will see $125 million in new money for salaries, which equates to a roughly 5% pay raise – or, at least a 5% increase in what is provided to local government for teacher compensation. Effectively, this will result in a salary increase of 2-3%.

$1 billion in new money is long overdue. It’s also about half of what the state needs to adequately fund public schools. Depending on how it is distributed in any new formula, it could amount to little in terms of significant improvement. Then again, it very well could be the start of something positive. Those who watch Tennessee education policy over time (like me) are likely skeptical. As always, the devil is in the details.

In fact, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown issued a statement on the proposal:

“Any increase in K12 spending is a step in the right direction. TEA is eager to see more details on the $1 billion in new recurring spending on public education Gov. Lee announced in his State of the State address.  It is a needed and warranted increase, but we do not yet see that reflected in the budget document released today.

Our students and educators are struggling right now because of a lack of resources. State leaders must stop stuffing cash into mattresses while students go without materials and programs they need for a quality education and underpaid educators are asked to do the job of six people while also buying their own classroom supplies.  

It does not have to be this way and we are hopeful the governor’s remarks tonight indicate a shift from the chronic underfunding that has plagued public education in our state. Tennessee can afford a significant increase in recurring investment in our students, educators and public schools immediately, without raising taxes.” 

If the $1 billion does materialize, it should be noted that not only is it significantly less than what is needed, but also that our state has the funds ($3 billion+ surplus) to fully close the funding gap. That Lee is not proposing $2 billion in more in funding when that money is absolutely available may well indicate that our state will continue its historic pattern of underfunded public schools.

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Bill Lee’s Tax Increase

The Tennessee Public Education Coalition and Pastors for Tennessee’s Children have an OpEd out explaining how Gov. Bill Lee’s lack of action on school funding means a tax increase for Tennessee families.

In the piece, the two groups repeat a familiar refrain: Tennessee schools are underfunded by $1.7 billion. Then, they note what that means for Tennessee families and communities:

a Tennessee family of four, on average, pays over $1,000 a year in additional local taxes to offset the state’s ongoing underfunding of K-12 education

Even with those local funds, Tennessee spends $4,300 less per student than the national average.

Lee’s reliance on local property tax revenue to fund schools is not surprising given his 2018 campaign based on privatizing public education. What should have county commissions and school boards screaming, though, is that our state is sitting on a giant surplus.

The two groups also explain why the current formula comes up short:

For instance, the BEP does not provide enough to cover teacher pay. TACIR and the Comptroller have pointed out that the BEP does not fund the actual number of teachers required for state-mandated class sizes leaving approximately 11,000 Tennessee teachers to be covered exclusively by local taxpayers, with no state contribution.

In addition, the BEP Review Committee, which provides lawmakers with a list of funding deficiencies every year, reports that the 2021 average Tennessee teacher salary was $55,917, but the BEP funds only $48,330 per teacher, resulting in a $7,587 gap in state funding per teacher.

This means local taxpayers cover both the cost of an additional 11,000 teachers outside the BEP, and the $7,587 shortage in funding per teacher.

Tennessee is NOT investing in teachers – the essential component of public education. There are not enough teachers to meet local needs and the funds from the state fail to provide adequate salaries. This begins to explain the current teacher shortage crisis.

While districts and public education advocates continue to highlight the unfairness and inadequacy of the current system, Lee is busy giving huge raises to corrections officers – sure, that’s a pay raise that’s needed, but it leaves teachers behind.

The current state minimum salary schedule for teachers sets the minimum salary for a Tennessee teacher at $38,000.

A Tennessee teacher with a bachelor’s degree would need to work for 10 years in order to achieve a mandated minimum salary above $44,000.

Now, however, brand new correctional officers will earn more than teachers with 10 years of experience. Yes, corrections officers deserve a raise.

Your taxes are higher to pay for Bill Lee’s refusal to invest in schools. Schools can’t find or keep teachers because Bill Lee refuses to use a $3 billion+ budget surplus to invest in schools. Bill Lee’s campaign in 2018 promised privatization paid for by local taxes – on this, he’s delivered.

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

Williamson County Schools Approves Mid-Year Pay Increase

Last night, the Williamson County School Board unanimously approved a mid-year pay raise for teachers and staff. If approved by the County Commission, teachers will receive a 3% raise and hourly staff will see a $1/hour pay increase, effective January 31st. The unusual move of raising pay for teachers and staff mid-year is happening because of severe teacher and staff shortages. The district currently has 71 teaching openings.

Williamson Strong live-tweeted the meeting and provided the key stats:

The move in Williamson County comes as districts across the state struggle with teacher retention issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

The move is also happening while Gov. Bill Lee and state policymakers examine Tennessee’s school funding formula. So far, that has not resulted in a serious discussion about dramatically raising teacher pay. In fact, this story highlights the level of priority placed on teacher pay in the state:

The current state minimum salary schedule for teachers sets the minimum salary for a Tennessee teacher at $38,000.

A Tennessee teacher with a bachelor’s degree would need to work for 10 years in order to achieve a mandated minimum salary above $44,000.

Now, however, brand new correctional officers will earn more than teachers with 10 years of experience. Yes, corrections officers deserve a raise.

It will be interesting to see what districts across the state do in 2022-23 and beyond to improve salary and working conditions for teachers and if the state’s new funding formula provides any help in this arena.

abundance bank banking banknotes
Photo by Pixabay on

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

$3 Billion

Tennessee consistently receives low grades when it comes to investment in public education. Year after year, Tennessee ranks between 44th-46th in total investment in schools and our state also typically earns among the lowest grades in the nation when it comes to funding effort.

I mean, our neighbors in Kentucky far outpace us when it comes to investment in schools – and, this investment gets results when it comes to student achievement.

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown points out the significance of this disparity in a recent email to educators. In it, she notes:

“It’s not about how the funds are divided, it’s about how many state dollars are put into education,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “To get to the Kentucky level of school funding, Tennessee needs $3 billion added to the state education budget.”

That’s just embarrassing. Here’s the thing: Tennessee can afford to do much better. In fact, we have a huge surplus. This means we can invest in schools without raising taxes. A boost of billions of dollars in state money for public schools would also have the benefit of helping to keep local property taxes low.

As the BEP reform discussion heats up, remember that any reform that fails to include significant new funding – in the billions of dollars – is not going to make a serious change in education in our state. We’re at least $1.7 billion behind where we should be according to state analysts. We’re $3 billion behind Kentucky. The overall formula is not the real problem – a huge lack of investment is the real problem.

Photo by John Guccione on

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.

We’ve Got Questions

The Nashville Public Education Foundation has some questions about a recently released framework for school funding reform.

Here’s what NPEF has to say about the early draft of BEP changes:

Will the base weight in the proposed framework accurately reflect the cost of running schools where all students thrive? We need an increase in funding effort from the state level that matches an aspirational vision for what is possible in public education, and what we want our teachers, students, and families to experience. 

How will weights be defined for student populations requiring additional funds to meet their learning needs? The proposed framework describes the weights as heavy, moderate, or light. What do these terms specifically mean and how will these weights be determined?

Are we also having the right conversation about fiscal capacity? It is critical to address the fiscal responsibility of the state versus that of local districts. As we design a new framework, we need to consider where the funds for the plan will come from in a long-term, sustainable way that does not place too high a burden on local districts and municipalities.

These are some great questions. In the past, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has noted the severe shortcomings of the current funding formula. That is, the formula itself may not be flawed, but the level of funding is inadequate.

In fact, in March of last year, the Tennessean reported:

“Bottom line, the BEP consistently underestimates what it takes to run schools and places an unattainable burden on local districts to pick up the difference,” said Katie Cour, president and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation, in a statement.

“Too often people feel relieved when they hear the state has ‘fully funded the BEP,’ but this statement is essentially meaningless. Tennessee is grossly underfunding schools that serve one million students each year – more than 82,000 just in Nashville,” she said.

The claim of underfunding is substantiated by a report from TACIR that suggests the state is at least $1.7 billion behind where it needs to be in terms of adequate school funding.

The note from NPEF on funding effort as multiple reports place Tennessee near the bottom of the nation both in terms of dollars invested in school and overall funding effort.

question marks on paper crafts
Photo by Olya Kobruseva on

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

Your support – $5 or more – makes publishing education news possible.