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


 

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