Haslam: Haters Gonna Hate

Governor Bill Haslam this week lamented school funding lawsuits while also admitting that Tennessee has a history of under-funding schools.

From the Tennessean:

“Now if you’re an educator saying, ‘Well, you’re not putting enough money in’ … you’re right, as a state we historically have not put enough money — but we’re changing that,” Haslam said.

When asked about pending lawsuits claiming the state is failing to live up to its responsibility in terms of school funding, Haslam said:

Asked about the validity of the school funding suits as a result, Haslam said, “obviously anyone can sue over anything they want.”

“But it’s kind of strange when we’re making historic investments in K-12 education, it feels like it sends the wrong message to do that,” he said.

Haslam doesn’t seem to understand why supporters of public education may doubt his commitment. Here are three reasons:

1) Haslam promised in 2013 to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state in teacher salaries.” By April of the next year, the promise was gone. Additionally, the BEP Review Committee noted in its 2015 report that weighted average salaries in 2015 were lower than in 2013 as a result of the Haslam-Huffman elimination of the state minimum salary schedule. At the same time, the gap in pay among the highest-paying and lowest-paying districts in the state remains at an unacceptable 40%. Meanwhile, Tennessee suffers from one of the largest teacher wage gaps — that is, the gap between salaries paid to teachers and salaries paid to professionals with similar educational preparation.

2) In response to a lawsuit from Metro Nashville Public Schools, the state’s attorneys have said the state is not bound to follow the school funding formula Governor Haslam proposed and the General Assembly adopted. Grace Tatter reported the state’s response:

Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.

3) The state has a $925 million surplus as of the close of the 2015-16 fiscal year. That’s enough money to fully close the teacher wage gap and still leave more than $400 million for funding other important state projects. A more conservative approach would at the least meet the state’s funding obligations under the revised BEP formula, as Nashville is demanding in its lawsuit. From there, the state could phase-in further investment and do so without increasing taxes one cent. The current surplus comes after a year in which the state’s surplus topped $1 billion. During that budget year, Haslam and the General Assembly failed to adopt a salary proposal that would have provided teachers and state employees raises if revenues exceeded projections. They did, of course.

So, while Haslam is saying the right things and while there has been some investment in schools in recent years, it’s not hard to guess why school districts are filing lawsuits to get the money they need. Bill Haslam is right. Tennessee has historically under-funded schools. But he’s leaving out an important point. The only thing that seems to get the attention of the state-level policymakers — and get money into schools — is a court order.

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


 

Just Kidding

The Tennessee General Assembly this year approved changes to the state’s school funding formula (the BEP) and at the same time, refused to appropriate sufficient funds to pay for the changes.

As a result of this refusal, MNPS is suing the state and demanding full funding of the formula.

The state’s response is pretty remarkable. State lawyers maintain that even though new funding ratios are now state law, the state doesn’t have to follow this law.

Grace Tatter reports:

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves about a third of the state’s ELL population, is seeking a court order demanding that the state provide the district with funds promised under its recently revised funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

State lawmakers voted this year to increase ELL funding based on a 1:20 student-teacher ratio instead of the previous 1:30 ration, but only provided Nashville with money for a 1:25 ratio. That’s about $4 million short of what was promised this school year, say Nashville school leaders.

Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.

The state doesn’t have to follow through with its own spending plan? Then why even have a spending plan? The state adopted a new funding formula and put new funding ratios into Tennessee Code. But now the state is saying they don’t actually have to follow the laws they passed.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this entire situation is that Tennessee has a $925 million budget surplus this year. That’s following a $1 billion surplus last year.

Yes, we have the money to fully fund the formula. Instead, lawyers are now arguing that policymakers are not obligated to follow a formula they proposed and adopted. That’s a pretty strange defense.

The legislature could have phased-in the ratios. Or adopted different, more “affordable” ratios. But they didn’t. Now, the state doesn’t want to be held accountable for meeting the ratios Governor Haslam suggested and the General Assembly adopted. What other laws does the state view as mere suggestions?

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


 

MNPS Sues The State

MNPS has now officially filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee in regards to underfunding for English language learners.

The petition, which was filed Thursday, comes after the school board voted to sue in June and a recent letter that 30 Metro Council members signed in favor of the lawsuit.

Amanda Haggard at the Nashville Scene:

The lawsuit argues that the state should follow code, which outlines that “funding shall be provided by the state at a ratio of 1:20 for teachers and 1:200 for translators.”

Currently the state is only funding ELL at an estimated ratio of 1:25 for teachers and 1:250 for translators.

Before the lawsuit was filed, the state agreed about the code and ratio, but referred Metro Legal to another section of the code, which says “the changes in components or factors of the BEP implemented by this at shall be implemented in accordance with funding as made available through the general appropriations act.”

In response to the lawsuit, Nashville Mayor Barry commended the school board.

I commend our School Board for seeking to use every tool available to them to ensure that our teachers have enough resources to provide a world-class education for our students. We have the opportunity to be a leader in the nation for providing high-quality ELL services for our students, but we need to ensure that the State of Tennessee is providing Davidson County with our fair share of tax dollars as required by law.

You can read the lawsuit here.

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


 

 

Priority Mail

The BEP Review Committee, the state body tasked with annually reviewing school funding in Tennessee and making recommendations for improvement, decided in late July to send a letter to the Governor and other key state leaders outlining priorities for future education funding.

Here’s what the committee’s minutes say about this letter:

The committee resolved with no dissenting votes to send a letter to the Governor, the Commissioner of Finance and Administration and the Commissioner of Education outlining the five priorities of the committee for funding.

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

Teacher compensation has been a big issue in the last few years. From Governor Haslam’s broken promise back in 2014 to consecutive years of salary increases included in the Governor’s budget and passed by the General Assembly.

In spite of all this, Tennessee still faces a significant teacher wage gap. That is, teachers are paid about 30% less than other similarly-educated professionals. The good news is the state now has a $925 million surplus, a portion of which could be used to help close the teacher wage gap. Doing this would also meet another long-term goal of the BEP review committee: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

This is the Committee’s #1 priority. They’ve told the Governor and others it matters. A lot. And Tennessee has the money to make a serious investment in teacher compensation in 2017 and beyond.

The second goal is better funding for English Language Learners in order to improve the ratio of ELL instructors to students. The cost of full implementation of the desired ratio is around $30 million. That’s also doable given the current budget situation.

Next, the BEP Review Committee wants an added commitment to guidance counselors. Fully funding this request would cost nearly $60 million.

A little further down the list is funding for dedicated RTI2 positions. It’s not clear what this could cost, but it’s pretty important because the unfunded RTI2 mandate is a significant part of the lawsuit filed by some school districts against the state charging the current funding formula is inadequate.

Finally, there’s technology. It’s pretty clear that despite recent investments, districts across the state would benefit from significant state investment in technology. That’s one thing the preparation for the failed TNReady test made abundantly clear.

It’s good to be able to prioritize our state’s education investments. Even policy idealists know we can’t do it all at once. The good news is, there’s money available to make meaningful investment and get pretty far down this list. It’s a multi-year project, to be sure. But it’s advice the Governor and others should heed.

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


 

Now 4=3

Readers may remember that last year, after Governor Bill Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly provided funds equivalent to a four percent increase in the BEP salary allocation, the State Board of Education accepted Commissioner Candice McQueen’s recommendation to increase the state’s salary schedule by two percent.

As McQueen wrote at the time:

We believe this proposal strikes the right balance between maximum flexibility for school districts and the recognized need to improve minimum salaries in the state. For the large majority of districts, the proposal does not result in any mandatory impact as most local salary schedules already exceed the proposed minimums. For these districts, the salary funds must still be used for compensation but no mandatory adjustments to local schedules exist.

This year, Governor Haslam and the General Assembly commendably added another four percent increase to BEP salary funds. The adjustment to the state’s minimum salary schedule, however, is up to the State Board of Education upon recommendation of the Commissioner of Education.

This year’s recommendation was a three percent increase. Today, the State Board of Education adopted that recommendation, making $32,445 the new base salary for Tennessee teachers, effectively the minimum a teacher in the state can earn.

As the State Board of Education notes:

An estimated total of 29  school districts will be required to make
increases to at least one level of their local salary schedule resulting in a specific and earmarked salary expenses.

Admittedly, this year’s increase in funding and the State Board action represent progress.

Last year, I made the following recommendations representing a way to truly improve teacher compensation in our state while supporting local districts:

  • Set the minimum salary for a first-year teacher at $40,000 and create a pay scale with significant raises at 5 years (first year a TN teacher is tenure eligible), 10 years, and 20 years along with reasonable step increases in between
  • Fund the BEP salary component at 75%
  • Adjust the BEP to more accurately account for the number of teachers a district needs
  • Fully fund RTI2 including adding a BEP component for Intervention Specialists
  • Adopt the BEP Review Committee’s recommendations on professional development and mentoring so teachers get the early support and ongoing growth they need

While the General Assembly did pass some BEP reforms this year, more should be done. For example, the new BEP formula freezes funding for the BEP salary component at 70%. Also, an adjustment in the calculation for number of teachers is still needed.

Again, however, this year’s legislative action and today’s State Board of Education action represent measurable progress.

 

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

Decision Time

I reported last week on the potential fight brewing between Williamson County Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education over End of Course testing this year.

Now, Melanie Balakit at the Tennessean reports that the time for a decision is fast approaching.

From the story:

“There is only one district where administration of high school and end-of-course exams have been suspended,” Chandler Hopper, state department of education spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We are continuing to have discussions with this district and are hopeful that the commissioner’s authority to issue penalties will not be necessary.”

It is not clear what, if any, penalties would be issued from the Commissioner. The Department of Education did threaten to withhold BEP funds from districts who refused to administer Phase II of TNReady prior to the events that led to the cancellation of that portion of the test.

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

BEP. BEP 2.0. BEP 1.5?

Following a lawsuit filed by rural schools in Tennessee dubbed Small Schools, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the state’s funding of public schools was unconstitutional. They ordered the General Assembly to come up with a more equitable way to distribute education funding. The result was the Basic Education Plan (BEP) which both equalized state funding to schools and injected $1 billion into the state’s schools over six years.

While Rep. Bill Dunn says that money didn’t improve schools, a generation of students in rural schools who experienced expanded educational opportunities likely disagree.

Subsequent lawsuits (Small Schools II and III) resulted in additional changes, including a salary equity fund for rural districts.

Then, in 2007, with bipartisan support, Governor Phil Bredesen secured passage of BEP 2.0 and began with an injection of more than $200 million in new dollars to schools.

2008 brought the Great Recession and prevented further investment in BEP 2.0, but the state’s BEP Review Committee has consistently recommended full funding of the newer formula, which would provide more funds to nearly all districts while leveling the playing field for those educating more “at-risk” students.

Enter Governor Bill Haslam. He appointed his own BEP Task Force independent of the statutorily mandated BEP Review Committee. At the time, I speculated this was because he didn’t like the Review Committee’s recommendations and its insistence that the state was at least $500 million behind where it should be in education funding.

Now, he’s proposing a “BEP Enhancement Act.” This so-called enhancement is sailing through the General Assembly. It is seen as the most likely vehicle to get money to rural districts and in a year when education funds are increasing, why sweat the details?

As I’ve written before, a few districts lose significantly in the move because it eliminates the Cost Differential Factor (CDF).

It also freezes BEP 2.o. Gone are the dreams of full funding of this formula. The law makes permanent the 70% state funding of BEP-generated teaching positions and funds teacher salaries at a rate well below the state average salary.

Back in 2014, I wrote about the broken BEP and the need to improve it and noted:

First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.

Next, the state sets the instructional component for teacher salary at $40,447. The average salary actually paid to Tennessee teachers is $50,355.  That’s slightly below the Southeastern average and lower than six of the eight states bordering Tennessee. In short, an average salary any lower would not even approach competitiveness with our neighbors.

But, this gets to the reason why salary disparity is growing among districts. The state funds 70% of the BEP instructional component. That means the state sends districts $28,333.90 per BEP-generated teacher. But districts pay an average of $50,355 per teacher they employ. That’s a $22,000 disparity. In other words, instead of paying 70% of a district’s basic instructional costs, the state is paying 56%.

Even with the upward adjustment of state money for teacher salaries, the state won’t be anywhere close to funding 70% of the actual cost of Tennessee teachers. Don’t even think about reaching the 75% goal imagined by BEP 2.0.

Nashville School Board Member Will Pinkston, who worked for Governor Phil Bredesen during the development of BEP 2.0 had this to say of Haslam’s proposed changes:

“With this proposed ‘BEP 1.5,’ Gov. Haslam is taking a huge step backward when it comes to public education funding. In 2007, Gov. Bredesen and the General Assembly made a significant commitment to K-12 schools by proposing and approving a new formula that now is universally recognized for its equitable approach to distributing public education dollars. At the time, Gov. Bredesen cautioned that new revenue generated by a tripling in the tobacco tax would be only a ‘downpayment’ toward fully funding the new formula. Then the Great Recession happened, and then a political transition occurred in the governor’s office. Those of us who care about education funding were hopeful that Gov. Haslam would continue the Bredesen legacy of investing significant new dollars in public education as the economy turned around. Instead, he’s given only lip service to education funding and has, at best, just shifted dollars around to give the appearance of increased funding. The reality is: The legislature, by its own admission, has acknowledged that public education in Tennessee is getting short-shrifted by the state to the tune of at least $500 million. And that means the real number is likely closer to $1 billion or more. By proposing a halt in the implementation of BEP 2.0, the governor is essentially proposing a massive funding cut. If he claims to truly understand the plight of public education funding, he should abandon BEP 1.5 and recommit to fully funding BEP 2.0. To do anything less would be breaking the state’s promise.”

That’s a pretty strong critique. But it’s not difficult to see why education advocates should have concern about the long-term impacts of Haslam’s BEP 1.5 effort.

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

Much Ado About Nothing?

Representative Bill Dunn of Knoxville has proposed an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that purports to remove the requirement that the General Assembly adequately fund public schools in the state.

However, an Attorney General’s opinion published on March 29 notes:

“… the proposed amendments to the public schools clause of the Tennessee Constitution do not substantively change that clause.”

The opinion was issued in response to a query from Rep. Dunn regarding the amendatory language and the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Here’s some relevant discussion from the opinion:

The amendatory language proposed in HJR 493, if adopted, would do nothing to change the fact that any legislation enacted in furtherance of the public schools clause must comply with the equal protection guarantees of the Tennessee Constitution.

But the opinion also says:

It is, therefore, redundant to add that the General Assembly “as the elected representatives of the people” shall provide for free public schools.  The General Assembly cannot provide for public schools in any capacity other than as representatives of the people.  Similarly, it is superfluous to add that the General Assembly shall provide for free public schools “in such manner as the General Assembly shall determine.”  It is already implicit in the current version of article XI, § 12, that the General Assembly determines the manner in which to provide for the required system of free public education.

If the new language is “redundant” and does not “substantively” change the Constitution, then it would not prevent local districts currently seeking relief due to alleged inadequate funding from finding that relief through the courts.

But, that’s not what Bill Dunn thinks.

In his advocacy for the amendment, he noted that courts in Kansas and Washington had used clauses similar to Tennessee’s Article XI, Section 12 to require those states to provide additional funding for their public schools.

When the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that schools there required additional funds to meet the state’s Constitutional mandate, the reply went like this:

“A political bullying tactic” and “an assault on Kansas families, taxpayers and elected appropriators” is how the president of the Senate, Susan Wagle, a Republican, responded to that ruling, which was based on requirements in the state Constitution. Mr. Brownback spoke darkly of an “activist Kansas Supreme Court.”

In his remarks, Dunn warned Tennessee lawmakers of future activist courts that may require the General Assembly to actually follow the Tennessee Constitution.

Of course, he also fudged the numbers and claimed that the Small Schools lawsuits and the resulting BEP did little to improve education outcomes in the state.

So, here’s the bottom line: Either the Attorney General is right, and the amendment proposed by HJR 493 does nothing OR, Rep. Bill Dunn is right, and the proposed amendment would prevent the Supreme Court from finding in favor of districts seeking to force the General Assembly to fund a system of free public schools.

Either way, the resolution should be rejected.

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

The Biggest Losers

Grace Tatter over at Chalkbeat has a breakdown of Governor Haslam’s BEP changes. While this year’s budget includes an influx of dollars, it also freezes BEP 2.0.

Tatter explains:

Though the governor’s plan nixes BEP 2.0, it permanently increases the state’s spending on English language learners (funding ELL teachers at a 1:20 student ratio and translators at a 1:200 student ratio), and special education students, technology and teacher pay, especially when it comes to teachers insurance. For years, the state only paid for teachers to have 10 months of health insurance. Last year, the General Assembly mandated that the state provide for 11 months of insurance. Haslam’s proposal this year finally gives teachers’ year-round insurance.

It’s important to note here that districts are already paying for year-round insurance for teachers, now they will receive some funding for it. The state funds teacher insurance at 45% of the projected cost for a district’s BEP-generated teaching positions. Until last year, it funded 45% of this cost for only 10 months, now it will shift to 12 months. It’s also worth noting that every single district in the state hires teachers beyond the BEP-generated number. Typically, around 12-15% more than what the BEP formula generates. Districts cover the full cost of salary and insurance for all teachers hired beyond the BEP number.

If districts only hired the BEP number of teachers, they could reduce local costs, but they’d also likely have some pretty unhappy parents on their hands. So, yes, the Governor’s proposed changes do direct additional funds to districts. But the changes do not address the underlying problem with the BEP. Doing so would cost another $250 to $300 million. That would be the cost of adjusting the ratios by 10-15% for teachers. That’s not to mention nurses, counselors, and other positions. And it doesn’t include capital funding.

The BEP Review Committee has been highlighting these deficiencies for years to no avail.

Additionally, Tatter mentions:

Another carryover from BEP 2.0 is the eventual elimination of a “cost differential factor,” known as CDF, that 16 districts in five counties receive to address a higher cost of living. Reducing the CDF would cut state spending by about $34.7 million. Almost half of that money would have gone to Shelby County Schools and the municipal districts in Shelby County. Other counties that would be impacted are Davidson, Anderson, Williamson and Sullivan.

While BEP 2.0 envisioned elimination of the CDF, it also envisioned the state covering 75% of teacher salaries for BEP-generated teachers. The Haslam changes makes the current 70% permanent.

Here are the districts losing money under the CDF elimination. The CDF is cut in half for the upcoming year and then completely eliminated in 2017-18.

Shelby
             30,873,136
Davidson
             17,570,727
Williamson
             11,073,924
Bartlett
                2,111,966
Collierville
                2,007,525
Germantown
                1,411,972
Franklin SSD
                1,260,978
Arlington
                1,169,503
Millington
                   672,030
Anderson
                   473,867
Oak Ridge
                   320,368
Lakeland
                   243,331
Sullivan
                      78,161
Clinton City
                      72,903
Kingsport
                      54,638
Bristol City
                      30,682
Total
69,425,713

It’s not clear whether these changes will impact the current lawsuits regarding funding adequacy. And the additional funds still don’t address the unfunded RTI mandate.

The ultimate impact of the changes will take a few years to determine. However, without significant structural changes, it is difficult to see this “new BEP” adequately meeting the needs of Tennessee’s schools.

More on the BEP:

Bill Dunn Wrong

They Noticed

Clay County and the Broken BEP

Why is TN 40th?

About BEP 2.0

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

Corra Talks Cash

Over at Rocky Top Ed Talk, Charles Corra talks about the importance of investment in schools, using the fairly extreme example of Detroit Public Schools as a cautionary tale.

Corra concludes:

DPS’s situation is certainly an extreme one, but clearly not unrealistic.  The legislature in Tennessee needs to look at DPS’s crisis as a warning  – school funding is critically important and should not be overlooked.  Yes, an entire state being underfunded by $500 million is certainly a big difference from a city school district being in debt $350 million, but the point still stands – funding matters, and its not a game.

While he notes that the DPS example is extreme, it is worth noting that the legislature is in the middle of some serious school funding games, with some lawmakers attempting to abdicate the state’s responsibility to fund schools.

Yes, school funding matters. And being $500 million behind as a state is problematic, especially during a growth period when we have a surplus of $1 billion.

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