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


 

A Broken System

A former Memphis principal writes about a broken accountability system in Tennessee:

We set goals for students to meet 100 percent college readiness, but we don’t align our resources and professional development to help teachers to attain it.

We force teachers to use resources that are not useful because they come with perks and personal gains to the district level administrators.

We promote students to the next grade when they do not meet the standards and expectations of their current grade.

We develop compensation structures based on a mythical system of accountability and achievement goals we know we can’t attain.

He writes more and it’s worth a read.

Similar evidence of a broken system can be found in MNPS, where students in some schools are shuffled into virtual classes due to a teacher shortage that still hasn’t been solved.

His is the frustration expressed by many teachers, parents, and administrators around the state: We set goals, but don’t align our resources to meet those goals. Our state’s BEP is underfunded by some $500 million, we haven’t (yet) funded Response to Intervention, and TNReady has yet to have a successful year. Oh, and to top all of that off, our teachers are paid significantly less than similarly prepared professionals.

Mackin’s voice should be heard — and policy makers should respond not with words, but with action.

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


 

Hey, We’re Serious!

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent another letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, urging caution as President Trump’s budget moves forward.

McQueen had written previously to alert DeVos to the negative impacts of the budget on Tennessee.

The latest letter warned of deep impacts in rural communities. The Tennessean reports:

In her letter, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the elimination of Title II, part A funds in the upcoming federal budget would severely hinder the state’s ability to train teachers. McQueen estimated in the letter that the cuts would hit public school students across the state as well as more than 42,000 students in private schools.

Cuts in the overall federal budget could mean Tennessee could see larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs, according to superintendents and child advocacy groups.

I’ve noted previously that districts like Dickson County and Williamson County have County Commissions reluctant to fund school budgets.  Many of the state’s rural counties simply don’t have the funds to spend significantly on schools.

It will be interesting to see if County Commissions in the districts most impacted by the DeVos cuts are willing to spend the money to make up for  lost federal funds. Additionally, I’m curious as to whether County Commissions and School Boards are actively lobbying DeVos and their Members of Congress over the proposed Trump education budget.

As McQueen notes, should this budget pass, it will mean stark choices for many districts — and even impact a number of our state’s private schools.

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


 

Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville

These three nearby cities — similar in size and demographics to Nashville — pay teachers significantly more and have lower cost of living.

How can Nashville begin to close the gap?

Certainly, there’s a local responsibility. MNPS should work closely with Mayor Barry and Metro Council to make investing in teacher pay and support a top priority. There’s no reason these cities should be able to afford to pay significantly more than Nashville.

Next, leaders in Nashville should press the state to fund teacher compensation through the BEP formula at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Doing so would mean an additional $21 million a year for MNPS. Invested and distributed equally, those funds could mean a raise of over $3000 per teacher. That’s not enough, but it’s a start toward improving pay.

Of course, Nashville’s policymakers can’t get away with just blaming the state — Memphis also deals with Tennessee’s inadequate BEP and still manages to offer a pay rate that is better than Nashville’s with a cost of living that is lower.

Shelby County pays teachers about $6000 more per year than Nashville. Teachers in Cincinnati and Louisville can expect to earn around $7000 more per year than Nashville teachers after 10 years and about $15,000 more per year after 20 years of experience.

Tennessee should definitely step up and invest in teachers across the state, and that would certainly benefit Nashville. But Nashville leaders must making teacher compensation and support a top priority.

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


 

Dickson Doesn’t

It’s school budget time in Tennessee. By now, many school systems have passed budgets and some County Commissions have signed off on them. In some cases, there’s still work to do — ironing out differences in what a School Board requests and what a County Commission says it will fund.

We saw this play out in Williamson County, where County Commissioners who value low taxes and lattes won out over a School Board and Director who want to maintain a high level of service for students and the community. We saw a brief back and forth in Metro Nashville as the Board’s proposed three percent raise for teachers was lowered to two and then moved back to three. Even with MNPS moving teacher pay up a small notch this year, the district still lags behind similar cities like Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati.

Now, let’s look at Dickson County, where budget wrangling is ongoing.

I reported previously on plans by the Dickson County School Board to significantly raise pay. The proposal to give a ten percent raise was quickly shot down by the County Commission despite Dickson County being at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to teacher pay in surrounding districts.

Then, I noted that Dickson was among the “fortunate 46” districts mandated to raise their teacher pay by way of Tennessee Board of Education action. Those districts all had pay rates so low that to meet the new state minimum salary schedule (which itself is rather sad), they are required to implement pay raises this year. Dickson County teachers are slated to receive about $1750 per year more as a result of this requirement. Director of Schools Danny Weeks and the School Board wanted to push that amount to around $2500 per teacher.

Here’s what the County Mayor and County Commission have to say:

Last month, when the first two budget proposals were rejected, Rial said without a $2.6 million cut to the schools budget, a 26-cent property tax hike would be needed. The mayor has said previously that school system expenses increased by 8 percent over last year, but revenues increased by about 3 percent.

Weeks disputes that claim and notes the School Board’s budget proposal can be funded without using a tax increase and instead, relying on the system’s record of sound fiscal management which has led to a significant fund balance.

Weeks:

“Truthfully, we have enough fund balance to operate on the budget we have proposed without a property tax increase at all,” said Weeks last week to the board.

Using the previous year as a guide, Weeks said the school system is “budgeting much less than what we actually received the previous year.” Weeks told the board that if the school system “was allowed to budget our true, actual numbers with revenues,” it would likely need to cut about $750,000 to meet the county’s criteria — not $2.6 million.

While County Mayor Rial agreed that a tax increase wasn’t needed this year, he indicated an unwillingness to invest the money in schools.

After Weeks told commissioners a tax increase is not necessary — adding he would be “proud” to pay an extra $10 per month to support education — Rial said he agreed that a tax increase is not technically needed this year. And, the mayor noted that the school system has one of the largest fund balances in the state.

Here you have a school system under sound financial management with one of the largest fund balances in the state that has also received a 13% increase in funds for teacher compensation from the state over the past three budget cycles and yet county leaders won’t approve a budget that provides a modest but significant raise for teachers.

Two points worth noting: First, Dickson County should demonstrate the value it places on schools by investing as Director Weeks has recommended. Apparently, they can make this investment without a tax increase this year. Not doing so simply sends the message that schools aren’t that important.

Second, Dickson County leaders should be pressuring their state legislative delegation to demand proper funding of the BEP teacher salary component. Our state has a significant budget surplus and can well afford to invest the $350 million statewide it would take to improve the allocation districts receive for teachers. Adjusting the BEP formula to more accurately reflect actual teacher pay would result in an additional $2.8 million for Dickson County. That would allow for increasing teacher pay and other spending while also using less of the fund balance moving forward.

For now, it looks like the School Board will be looking at making cuts despite a rather ambitious start to their budgeting season. Funding schools is both a local and state responsibility. Dickson County leaders should do their part and then step up and demand the state fulfill its obligations.

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


 

How Much for Schools?

Tennessee continues to experience revenue growth beyond budgeted estimates. The latest numbers indicate the state took in $112 million more than was budgeted for June. That brings the amount collected over budgeted estimates to $789 million with one more month left to calculate for the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, in spite of recent increases in allocation to teacher compensation, school systems still aren’t seeing adequate BEP funding. Every district in the state hires more teachers than allocated by the BEP formula. The state doesn’t provide any funding for the mandate of providing Response to Intervention. The state’s BEP Review Committee indicates providing funding for RTI positions would cost about $28 million. That’s about 25% of this month’s surplus. YES, for the cost of 1/4 of one month’s surplus revenue, we can begin providing funding for RTI positions. Districts should be demanding this money. The state can afford it.

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.

It’s worth noting that Tennessee has one of the largest gaps between teacher salaries and salaries of similarly-educated professions. Add to that the low reimbursement rate for teaching positions, and it’s not difficult to see why our teacher pay lags behind other cities and states.

To recap: Tennessee pays 70% of a pay rate that is $7000 below the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Fixing that by funding teaching positions at the actual cost would mean spending $343 million more per year. Or, about three months worth of surpluses. For another $28 million, we could also fund RTI positions.

Tennessee is on sound financial footing. We have month after month of budget surpluses. We also have a clearly identified policy need that would consume less than 40% of those surplus dollars. That leaves plenty of money for savings, other investments, or new projects.

I write this story year after year after year.

Policymakers can choose to address the serious funding challenges facing our schools. They can do it without raising taxes. They can do it while still saving more than $600 million.

This should be easy.

If providing excellent public schools is a top priority, the state will move to fund teaching positions at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher.

Every candidate for governor should be asked if they support making this investment. Their answer will say a lot about the priority they place on public education.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport


 

The Fortunate 46

I reported earlier this week that the State Board of Education increased both the minimum base salary and the salary matrix at each step by four percent. I noted then that this would require salary increases for teachers in 46 districts across the state.

Here’s the list of the districts where the salary schedule increase will mean a mandatory raise for teachers:

Cannon                         Hollow Rock

West Carroll                 Carter

Claiborne                      Clay

Cocke                            Crockett

Alamo                           Cumberland

Decatur                        Dekalb

Dickson                        Fayette

Fentress                       Humboldt

Milan                            Bradford

Grainger                       Grundy

Hancock                       Hardin

Hawkins                       Haywood

Hickman                      Humphreys

Jackson                        Johnson County

Lake                              McNairy

Monroe                        Morgan

Overton                       Perry

Pickett                         Rhea

Scott                            Oneida

Sequatchie                 Smith

Sullivan                      Unicoi

Union                         Van Buren

Wayne                        Weakley

Here’s a link to the new minimum salary schedule.

The new minimum base pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $33,745 and the new minimum for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and more than 10 years experience is $40,595.

Yes, these numbers are pretty low. So, it’s unfortunate that 46 districts are being forced to raise pay based on the schedule adjustment. But, these are largely rural districts that are heavily dependent on state funding to run their systems.

The action of the SBE this week is a welcome change from the past few years when they increased the salary schedule by only a fraction of the new money allocated for teacher compensation through the BEP. If this trend continues, Tennessee may well become the fastest-improving state in teacher compensation.

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


 

 

Finally 4=4

Over the past three years, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved significant increases in funds for teacher compensation. Unfortunately, those dollars haven’t always made it into teacher paychecks. There are a number of reasons for this. One of those is the State Board of Education’s decision in the past two years to approve smaller adjustments to the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers.

Today, the State Board of Education met and voted on the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers for 2017-18. This year, the Board approved a 4% increase in the minimum salary and also adjusted each step on the scale by 4%. This matches the appropriation of the General Assembly, which passed a budget that included a 4% increase in BEP funds for teacher compensation.

According to the state’s analysis, this change will require 46 of the state’s 141 districts to raise teacher pay. These are mostly rural districts on the low end of the state’s teacher pay range. This will mean a number of teachers across the state should see meaningful increases in their paychecks in the coming year.

The new minimum salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $33,745. The top of the scale for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 11 years of experience (the scale includes only 4 steps for teachers with bachelor’s degrees, just three if you have an advanced degree) is $40,595. For advanced degrees, salaries must start at $37,300 and step three (11 years experience or more) requires a minimum of $45,075.

That $40,595 figure after 11 years of teaching seems disturbingly low. In fact, I’ve argued before that Tennessee should aim for a starting pay for teachers of at least $40,000.

That said, this year’s State Board of Education represents real progress that will result in significant pay increases for teachers in nearly a third of the state’s districts. Perhaps the upward pressure will also encourage other districts to push their pay up. We’ve already seen Metro Nashville move toward a 3% raise, as one example.

Here’s how the Tennessee Education Association viewed today’s salary move:

For the first time in four years, the Tennessee State Board of Education voted Wednesday to apply the full raise budgeted by the General Assembly for teachers to the State Minimum Salary Schedule. TEA has pushed the legislature and the state board for years to reinstate the practice of applying the full amount to the salary schedule as it is the best way to ensure all Tennessee teachers receive the raise promised to them by the governor and their legislators.

“When the board moved away from applying the entire raise percentage to the salary schedule, disparities in teacher pay and stagnant wages increased statewide,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “While Governor Haslam and the state legislature have done their part to increase teacher salaries, only a fraction of the budgeted raises were actually trickling down into teacher paychecks. The state board action this week should begin to remedy that problem.”

The recommendation by the Department of Education and the vote by the state board to increase the salary schedule and each step by 4 percent are in direct response to TEA’s advocacy efforts. Hundreds of TEA members have contacted legislators to let them know their teachers back home were not receiving the raises passed in the General Assembly. Members and TEA staff worked closely with the administration and legislators to find a way to correct the issue.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” Gray said. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college. The pressure applied by state elected officials was critical to reversing the State Board’s pattern of diminishing the raise passed by the General Assembly, a move which should finally make our teachers whole and help them support their families.”

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


 

 

Did You Read the Whole Letter?

The BEP Review Committee met today as it begins the process of outlining priorities for BEP improvement for 2018. The group received an update on how Governor Haslam and the General Assembly responded to the priority list it created for this year.

Here’s the list of priorities the committee identified for 2017:

The five priorities, in order:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Committee members noted that Governor Haslam funded an increase in teacher compensation and improvements in ELL funding. As of today, that budget has passed the House of Representatives and awaits final approval by the Senate on Monday.

The committee also noted that no movement was made to improve the ratio of school counselors to students and no funding was provided for RTI positions. Technology funding also remained constant.

There was an opportunity to address the RTI issue. Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville sponsored a bill that would have added to the BEP formula funding for 3 RTI positions for each public school in the state. That bill carried a cost of $167 million. Despite a nearly $1 billion surplus this year, funding was not provided for this legislation.

Committee members — representatives of school boards and superintendents — noted that the RTI program can be successful if properly implemented. Directors of Schools in particular expressed frustration at the state of RTI, noting the program is mandated, but not funded.

The legislature referred Pitts’ bill to the BEP Review Committee for study and further recommendations.

In addition to the lack of funding for RTI positions and school counselors, MNPS Chief Financial Officer Chris Henson noted that historically, the committee has recommended an improvement in funding for school nurses. While that wasn’t in the top 5 this past year, Henson advocated for getting it back on the list. Committee staff indicated members would be surveyed over the summer, with an eye toward a new list of priorities released by August.

One other issue worth noting: Committee staff highlighted increases in BEP funds for teacher compensation over the past three years and suggested this indicates a commitment to the committee’s top priority. However, the BEP Review Committee’s own 2016 report , actual total compensation for teachers has increased by only 1% per year over the last two years.That’s less than the rate of increase from a decade ago, when total teacher compensation was increasing at a rate of about 3% per year. This in spite of repeated commitments to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay.

So, the BEP Review Committee will make a new priority list. Issues like funding RTI positions and school counselors seem likely to make a repeat appearance. The question, then, is will these items receive the attention they deserve?

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


 

Now that’s Teacher Appreciation

The Dickson County School Board is proposing a budget that includes a 10% raise for all school system employees.

The Tennessean reports:

The raises for certified and non-certified educators will increase the schools budget more than $3 million, according to preliminary numbers presented by Schools Director Dr. Danny Weeks.

“I think that it’s important to the success of our school system and important to the future of the children in our county that we pay our educators competitively and commensurate to their value in our community,” said School Board Chairman Tim Potter. “Teacher pay should be substantially increased.”

Potter asked Weeks to determine the cost of 10 percent raises for teachers to the school board.

The proposed raise, if adopted, would bring the average teacher’s salary in Dickson County up to just over $47,000 per year. That rate would make Dickson County competitive with Montgomery and Williamson counties.

The County Commission will have to approve the budget, including the raises.

UPDATE: As of 5/2/2017, the County Commission has rejected the proposed budget. This means the School Board will have to submit a new proposal to the Commission. 

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