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


 

McQueen: We Are Listening

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen published a letter to parents and families about the TNReady roll out. The letter discusses how the Department of Education is also disappointed in the roll out. I’m going to break down her letter with my thoughts. The letter was posted with the attached bolded sentences.

You have probably heard a lot about testing recently as schools have started the annual TCAP assessments, including the new TNReady in math and English. I want to thank you for your patience and support during this transition. As we always see in education, parents and teachers have gone the extra mile to put students first.

As you know, our goal was to administer TNReady online this year. However, due to unexpected issues with our test vendor, students are instead taking the exam on paper. While this is not how we had hoped students would first take TNReady, the paper version of TNReady was created alongside the online version, so it is reliable with questions that have been reviewed and approved by Tennessee teachers. 

As you can see, Commissioner McQueen is using this letter to literally highlight the talking points on TNReady. It is a good reminder that all TNReady questions were reviewed and approved by Tennessee teachers.

We know the shift has brought challenges for our schools. We too are frustrated and disappointed by our inability to provide students with an online test this year and by the logistical difficulties. We have been working tirelessly to provide a positive testing experience as much as is within our control and to reduce anxiety. Districts already have the option to exclude TNReady and TCAP scores from students’ grades. In addition, the governor proposed to give teachers the flexibility to only include scores from this year’s TNReady and TCAP tests within their evaluation if it benefits them. If you want to learn more about the paper test transition, please visit our website and our blog.

We fully believe that our students are more than test scores. TNReady provides one – but just one – way to help parents and teachers make sure students are ready for the next step by showing how they are progressing. It will give you better information about what your student is learning and retaining because it includes more complex questions that look for how students think and analyze problems.

Yes, the rollout of TNReady has caused a lot of challenges. It was a nightmare for many schools to have to keep updating their testing schedule to prepare for TNReady (plus everything the schools did up until that point to get ready for a computer assessment). Our school had to change the schedule multiple times before testing began. While our testing went very smoothly, there were times when we did not have enough answer sheets for our students. We also had to postpone one grade level’s test because we lacked testing materials.

I know teachers across the state cheered when they heard that Governor Haslam is offering flexibility in regards to using scores in our evaluations. MNPS has already emailed all teachers about this proposed changed to keep the teachers updated. TNEdReport will keep you updated on this proposed legislation.

As we all know and agree with, students are not just data points. But the data provided can be helpful.

Parents should be able to clearly understand what their students know, how they are meeting grade-level expectations, and how they are performing compared to their peers. In the past, parent reports were often difficult to interpret and offered little guidance on how you could support your child, but TNReady allows us to provide parents with more specific and thorough information.

To assure we are creating parent reports that will best inform you, we ask for your feedback as we finalize the design of these reports. You can provide your thoughts on specific pieces of the proposed parent reports through this online form.

While we have not see the scores for TNReady, I am excited to hear from parents once they receive this information. I am cautiously optimistic that the state will provide better information for our parents and teachers. We have been let down before, and I hope it doesn’t happen with the scores.

We are fortunate to have incredible leaders in our communities: parents, principals, and teachers who face challenges every day while leading remarkable work on behalf of kids. Over the past few weeks, I have witnessed firsthand the character, focus, and teamwork in so many communities across the state. Thank you again for leading the team in your own household and working in partnership with our schools to seek continuous improvement even in the midst of challenges.

I think the best thing Commissioner McQueen can do is to communicate with teachers, parents, and the public as often as she can. Teachers need to know that the state cares about what is happening in schools across the state. I like how the state has provided a way for citizens to ask questions of the state. I have submitted a question to the state, and I hope there is follow through from the state.

What are your thoughts on McQueen’s letter? Have you submitted a question to the state? If so, have you heard back? Tell us below in the comments.


 

Haslam on K-12 Education

Governor Bill Haslam delivered his annual budget address tonight. Here are his remarks on K-12 education as prepared for delivery:

Right now, the spotlight is on Tennessee. Who would have thought a decade ago that Tennessee would have significant positive attention around education? Strategic investments, increased accountability, and higher standards have changed the game.

We’ve always known that post-secondary education was not just about access. It’s really about success. And we knew that our students couldn’t succeed if they weren’t prepared when they left our high schools. It’s why we’ve worked so hard to improve student outcomes in our K-12 schools. And why it’s important that Tennessee students are still the fastest improving students in the country since 2011.

In Tennessee our public schools have roughly 1 million students. Since 2011, 131,000 more students are on grade-level in math and nearly 60,000 more are on grade-level in science. For the third straight year, Tennessee public high school students improved on their ACT. Our graduation rate has increased for the third year in a row and now stands at 88 percent.

We need to stop and take a moment – not to pat ourselves on the back – but to let all of that sink in.

A lot of you in this chamber remember when this state continually ranked near the bottom in national rankings, and you understand the progress Tennessee has made in just a few short years. Think about the teachers who continually rise to the challenges their students might bring through the door every day. Teachers and students are doing more than ever before, and their achievements must be recognized. We’ve raised our expectations and our standards. Through the process approved by the General Assembly last year we are well on the way to having in place our new Tennessee Standards that we spent so much time discussing over the last two years. Teams of educators have been working to review each standard, and their work is being reviewed by other professional educators with input from thousands of Tennesseans. The new standards should be voted on by the Board of Education this April.

While much of the rest of the country is still arguing about what to do on Common Core standards, Tennessee went to work developing our standards that continue to raise the bar of expectations. This is what we do. We respond to a changing world and make sure our students are prepared for tomorrow.

I personally believe that investing in education is the smartest thing we can do for economic development. But I also believe it’s a smart long-term investment. One of the things I want to make certain that we do with this budget is invest money that will save us money down the road. The facts are clear: a more educated population will spend less money on health care. Less money on incarceration. If we’re going to be about anything, it has to be about opportunity for all Tennessee students.

One of the things I think we should be the most proud of is that Tennessee – working together – has been a national leader in investing in K-12 during this administration. Tennessee is in the top 10 for elementary and secondary state education expenditures in the nation. We are also outpacing the national average increase in teacher salaries, and that’s before this year’s investment.

Hear me now, our commitment to education continues in a big way tonight. This budget proposal includes the largest investment in K-12 education in Tennessee’s history without a tax increase. We’re funding the Basic Education Program (BEP) portion of teacher salaries with $105 million. Between the current fiscal year’s $153 million and this year’s proposed $261 million investment in K-12 education, Tennessee state government will invest more than $414 million new dollars in our schools, more than $200 million of those additional dollars for teacher salaries.

We’re also including nearly $30 million for the 12th month of health insurance so teachers are offered year-round insurance through the state. And we’re doubling the state investment for a total of $30 million in recurring state dollars going to technology needs at our schools.

Our TCAP tests this year showed that we are making great progress in math and English in our high schools and that proficiency in math and science is increasing in all grades. However, those same tests showed that we are not making the kind of progress that we would like to see in third through eighth grade reading. Because of that, we’re investing $9 million to create a network of literacy coaches and regional coordinators supporting literacy efforts all across the state. Our students have shown incredible growth, but reading remains a challenging area that we have to get right.

What’s important in all of this is that we’re not investing in the same old public education system in Tennessee. We’ve raised our standards. We’ve linked teacher evaluations to student performance. And we’ve expanded education options for children. We are showing historic progress, and we can’t back up. We are a system that is committed to the basic premise that all children should have access to a quality public education regardless of zip code, and we are shrinking the achievement gap for historically underserved and low-income students. None of us should want to go back to ranking in the 40’s. This state will continue to do what has brought our students success: investing more in education while raising our standards and making certain that how well students are learning is reflected in teacher evaluations. I’m grateful to no longer be in the 40’s, but I’m not satisfied to be in the 30’s.

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