What We Always Knew

A story out of Maury County highlights the education disparities we all know about. It also makes clear the problem of inequality is societal and systemic. It’s something we can conveniently ignore when school is in session because we know then all the kids are being fed and watched and loved. We aren’t forced to see the impacts of wage stagnation, wealth consolidation, and a lack of access to health care.

Here’s more from the Columbia Daily Herald:

“It took this crisis to realize that we are working on two very different dynamics in our districts,” Jennifer Enk, president of the education association, told members of the Maury County Board of Education during an online board meeting this month. “Going forward, this is something that our state and our local [district] really has to look at.”

She said the ongoing stay-at-home order has shown that students’ access to the internet and the devices to access it dramatically differs across the county.

After encouraging the school district to continue offering stipends to local educators who prepare work packets for students, Enk recommends incoming funds from the federal government be used to “equal the playing field” for the county’s students.

Maury County Superintendent of Schools Chris Marczak previously told The Daily Herald that in the northern portion of the county, in the surrounding Spring Hill area, about 10% of the school district’s students live in a home without internet. In Columbia, the county seat located in the center of the region, 24% of the school districts students don’t have internet at home.

It’s not just internet access, of course. There are wide disparities in access housing, food, and health care. A report published last year noted:


High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.


The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.


They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.

So, while policymakers create plans focused on how much time kids are in school buildings and how to ensure they get to take tests, the real problems remain ignored.

Meanwhile, privatizing predators are on the prowl, ready to use the COVID-19 pandemic to open the doors to MORE taxpayer resources with little oversight or accountability.

Instead of trying to line the pockets of wealthy edu-profiteers, Tennessee policymakers should move forward with solutions that address the underlying challenges:

Addressing poverty would mean providing access to jobs that pay a living wage as well as ensuring every Tennessean had access to health care. Our state leads the nation in number of people working at the minimum wage. We lead the nation in medical bankruptcies. We continue to refuse Medicaid expansion and most of our elected leaders at the federal level are resisting the push for Medicare for All.

Yes, COVID-19 has highlighted inequality in our schools and beyond. It’s also highlighted the willingness of our top policymakers to simply walk by on the other side while their neighbors suffer.

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Coronavirus and School Funding in Nashville

$100 million. That’s how much the already struggling Nashville school district is being asked to cut in the wake of the economic challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tennessean has more:

Mayor John Cooper has asked Nashville schools to explore ways to potentially cut up to $100 million from its current budget as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the city’s revenue collections.

As non-essential businesses remain closed and Nashville residents are spending less time outside, city officials are forecasting a $200 million to $300 million shortfall in expected taxes and other revenue for the current fiscal year. 

The potential budget cuts come even as Gov. Bill Lee insisted on $41 million in state funding for his voucher scheme while cutting funds sent to districts for teacher compensation.

Teachers in Nashville already lag behind those in other districts when it comes to pay.

It’s not clear where MNPS will find room for cuts, but based on past actions, it seems likely some savings would be realized by moving more students to virtual schools. It also seems likely entire programs could be reduced or eliminated.

This difficult climate is happening in a state that clearly has yet to learn the lessons of the Great Recession. Tennessee is at least $1.7 billion behind where it should be to adequately fund schools, according to a report from the bipartisan legislative study group known as TACIR.

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100% for Charters, 4% for Teachers

Last year, Governor Bill Lee doubled the charter school slush fund while only offering a pittance to public school teachers. This year, he’s pulling a similar trick, again doubling the charter school slush fund — from $12 million to $24 million — while offering teachers a paltry 4% increase in the BEP salary number (which means an actual raise of about 2%).

Lee’s 2020-21 budget includes $24 million in funding for charter school facilities. This is a 100% improvement over the 2019-2020 budget. Simultaneously, Lee is touting a 4% increase in BEP funding for teacher salaries. This means an actual raise of less than 2% for most teachers. Even if you assume a net gain of 4%, you get a 70 cent an hour raise.

Let’s be clear: Governor Lee prioritizes charter schools over Tennessee’s public school teachers. His last two budgets make that plain.

It’s also worth noting that Lee has made NO effort to improve BEP funding even as the state’s own Department of Education indicates we are 9000 teachers short of proper funding:


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

So, we’re at a minimum of $500 million short of properly funding our schools and Lee’s proposal is to give the teachers we have a 2% raise. No word on improving the BEP. No word on a significant salary boost for existing teachers. Just 2% for teachers (4% in BEP funds), and another 100% increase for charter schools.

Could Gov. Lee’s priorities be more clear?

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Faison Pushing for Teacher Pay Raise

House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison of Cosby has indicated he’ll be pushing for a significant pay raise for Tennessee teachers when the legislature reconvenes in 2020. WJHL has more:


“Our teachers are some of the hardest-worked people in Tennessee and I definitely see a raise coming in,” says House Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison who was voted into the leadership position this past August.


Few doubt the K-12 teachers’ low pay compared to other states, but Representative Faison says the issue is especially acute in those districts away from urban areas.


“Our teachers in rural Tennessee are struggling,” said Faison in a recent interview. “If you are a single parent and you are a teacher and you have two kids, that’s like poverty wages.”

A recent analysis indicates that over the last 10 years, Tennessee has seen inflation-adjusted revenue growth of 7%. Over that same time period, teacher pay is down by 2.6%. That’s not surprising, given that Tennessee receives an “F” on a rating of funding effort for schools according to the Education Law Center.

In fact, Think Tennessee highlighted two important numbers relative to school funding in our state:

So, we’ve got some work to do — both in teacher pay and in overall investment in schools.

Back in 2014, I wrote about the state’s broken school funding formula, the BEP. The fact is, it’s still broken today. The solution propose then would also work now:


There’s an easy fix to this and it has been contemplated by at least one large school system in the state. That fix? Moving the BEP instructional component to the state average. Doing so would cost just over $500 million. So, it’s actually NOT that easy. Another goal of those seeking greater equity is moving the BEP instructional match from 70% to 75%, essentially fulfilling the promise of BEP 2.0. Doing so would cost at least $150 million.

The state should absolutely make a significant investment in teacher pay in 2020. We can afford it, with billions of dollars in surpluses coming in over the last five years. Frankly, we can’t afford NOT to do it. Ignoring the problem will just further exacerbate a growing teacher shortage.


For the past five years Tennessee has been running huge revenue surpluses as education needs go unmet. Over this five-year span the state collected nearly $3 billion more in general fund revenue than it anticipated. Last year alone the state general fund had a $580 million surplus. These are millions that could have gone to classrooms. 

Combining an improvement in teacher pay at a level of 5% or more with a move toward full funding of BEP 2.0 (a cost of some $500 million) would go a long way toward giving Tennessee teachers both the pay and resources they need. We have the money. The only question is will lawmakers like Faison find the collective political will to make the investment.

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Buildings Matter

While Governor Bill Lee’s administration distributes money to charter schools by way of a capital slush fund, schools in Shelby County and across the state are struggling to maintain infrastructure. More on the current challenges in Shelby County from Chalkbeat:

This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”

Building conditions impact student outcomes

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.

The report on infrastructure challenges in Shelby County comes on the heels of another report about lead in water at schools across Tennessee.

It’s absolutely clear that the State of Tennessee needs to make significant investments in our schools. It’s also clear that legislative leaders and Governor Lee have shown zero interest in making that happen. Instead, the Plaid Privatizer seems content to push an agenda of disruption while promoting charter schools and voucher schemes.

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Charter Schools, William Lamberth, and Math

I’ve written recently about Governor Bill Lee’s Charter School Slush Fund and how the funds are beginning to be distributed across the state. This money is dedicated to capital improvements and is available exclusively to charter schools, many of which not only receive BEP funds from local districts but also benefit from support from private funders.

Interestingly, House Majority Leader William Lamberth has been a proponent of capital investment funds for fast-growing districts like Sumner County, where he lives. He’s even sponsored legislation that would provide a mechanism for these districts to access funds. The legislation has failed to advance because of a price tag of just over $18 million.

So, if Lamberth is really focused on securing state funds for capital investment in the district he represents, he COULD suggest that Sumner County convert all of its schools to charter schools. That way, they could access the Charter School Slush Fund.

Based on current enrollment numbers, the Charter School Slush Fund provides roughly $285 per student for charter schools. If every single school in Sumner County became a charter school, the district could access over $8 million in capital funding from the state.

State law specifically authorizes local districts to convert existing schools to charters. TCA 49-13-106 provides:

(g)  A public charter school may be formed by creating a new school or converting a school to charter status pursuant to this chapter.


(3)  An existing public school may convert to a public charter school pursuant to this chapter if the parents of at least sixty percent (60%) of the children enrolled in the school, or at least sixty percent (60%) of the teachers assigned to the school, support the conversion and demonstrate such support by signing a petition seeking conversion, and if the LEA approves the application for conversion. The percentage of parents signing a petition must be calculated on the basis of one (1) vote for each child enrolled in the school.

So, instead of Lamberth running his capital improvement bill next session, he could simply ask the Sumner County School Board to convert their schools to charters. That way, they’d be sure to be on Governor Bill Lee’s radar AND they could access monies from the Charter School Slush Fund.

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Revenue Up, Teacher Pay Down

Economic analysts are predicting a slowing of the growth that has driven the Tennessee economy in recent years, according to an article in the Tennessean. Those same analysts indicate tax revenue growth in the state over the past 10 years has been 7% when adjusted for inflation. Here’s more:

Most of Tennessee’s cities have reaped the benefits during this longest economic boom in history with double-digit jumps in employment and gross domestic product. 

However, Tennessee tax collections have only increased 7% in the past decade, when adjusted for inflation. 

“That’s not a lot of growth,” said William Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Revenue growth would have been stronger, but we had a number of policy decisions to reduce revenues.”

An analysis provided by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) indicates that average teacher pay in the state is actually down by 2.6% over the same time period when adjusted for inflation.

TEA also notes:

For the past five years Tennessee has been running huge revenue surpluses as education needs go unmet. Over this five-year span the state collected nearly $3 billion more in general fund revenue than it anticipated. Last year alone the state general fund had a $580 million surplus. These are millions that could have gone to classrooms. 

Not only is Tennessee bringing in more revenue than anticipated but also, as Fox notes, the state has used that good fortune to reduce future revenue. In fact, the state of Tennessee phased-out the inheritance tax (previously paid on estates worth $5 million or more) and is phasing out the Hall Income Tax on investment income. Here’s more on that from the Department of Revenue:

The Hall income tax is being phased out through December 31, 2020.  The tax is fully repealed beginning January 1, 2021.  See important notice 17-09 for more information.

Some estimates indicate completely eliminating the Hall Income Tax means foregoing $180 million in state revenue each year. That’s roughly the equivalent of foregoing a 7% raise in teacher pay each year.

So, let’s be clear about a few things: 1) State lawmakers prioritized tax cuts for wealthy Tennesseans over raising pay for teachers and 2) Even with these tax cuts, there is significant money available to fund teacher raises and 3) Now that the economy is slowing a bit, legislators are being encouraged to exercise caution — which likely means less money to invest in teacher pay and other public service needs.

Shorter: Tennessee policymakers have not made investing in teachers a priority.

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F

That’s the grade Tennessee gets from the Education Law Center’s latest report on school funding in the United States. To be clear, Tennessee earned an F in both funding level and funding effort. We earned a C in distribution of the paltry sum our state dedicates to schools.

Here’s how Education Law Center defines those terms:

  • Funding Level – the cost-adjusted, per-pupil revenue from state and local sources
  • Funding Distribution – the extent to which additional funds are distributed to school districts with high levels of student poverty
  • Funding Effort – the level of investment in K-12 public education as a percentage of state wealth (GDP) allocated to maintain and support the state school system

The report notes that Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in overall funding level and 47th in effort. The effort category is of particular interest because it indicates that Tennessee has significant room for improvement in terms of funding level. That is, there are untapped resources Tennessee is NOT using to fund schools.

Shorter: Funding schools is NOT a key policy priority in Tennessee.

Additional evidence for this can be found in graphics shared by Think Tennessee earlier this year:

Tennessee is (and has been) at or near the bottom in school funding and even in funding effort. That’s not changing. Instead, Governor Lee and his policy acolytes are diverting education dollars to voucher schemes and charter schools.

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Briley and MNEA on Teacher Pay

Dueling statements were released today from Mayor David Briley and the Metro Nashville Education Association on a move to boost teacher pay in Nashville.

First, from Mayor Briley:

Mayor David Briley announced today that all MNPS teachers and employees will receive another 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) on January 1, 2020, in addition to the 3 percent COLA the Mayor made possible by allocating nearly $30 million in new funding for schools for FY2020. This allocation was six times the allocation in the last budget.

For weeks, the mayor has been working to find ways to get teachers more money this year while avoiding a tax increase. Thanks to MDHA’s help and the work done by the Council’s Tax Increment Financing Study and Formulating Committee, Mayor Briley is able to free up $7.5 million that would have been paid out of the MNPS budget to repay TIF loans. These funds are recurring, so the raise is “paid for” moving forward. This move does not require Council action since it will simply result in a reduced expenditure for MNPS.

This will bring all teachers to a 6% raise on January 1, 2020, which equates to a 4.5% increase over the course of the year. This is .5% higher than the COLA increase in the proposed substitute budgets that would have raised property taxes.

“I have been working on the MNPS budget with Dr. Battle and Dr. Gentry, trying to find the best possible way to get recurring dollars to teachers while not penalizing the 40% of MNPS teachers who are “topped out” and while avoiding a property tax increase this year – something that would have hurt in-county teachers more than the proposed raises would have helped,” Mayor Briley said. “With this increase in place, we will continue our in-depth talks about comprehensive pay plan restructuring for teachers so the more than half of all teachers who are topped out of receiving meaningful increases will get them in future years. There’s work to be done, but this is an important first step.”

This plan has the support of MNPS School Board Chair Dr. Sharon Gentry and MNPS Director Dr. Adrienne Battle.

“Mayor Briley’s investment shows a deep commitment to our teachers and staff members, and we thank him for his leadership and support for public education,” Dr. Battle said. “When Mayor Briley saw an opportunity for supplemental revenue, he ensured that it was dedicated to funding a raise for staff members, which is in addition to the raise they are receiving at the start of the year. We are only as successful as our amazing staff, and the Mayor’s actions show how he values them. Our goal is that these resources also ensure that we are able to maintain funding for other new strategic investments. MNPS is thankful to partner with the Mayor and Metro Council who are dedicated to the success of our students and staff.”

The $7.5 million will come to schools in the form of a reduction in the $11.2 million they would otherwise have paid to MDHA for TIF loan repayments this year. In short, it cuts that bill by $7.5 million, freeing up those funds for raises. MNPS will continue to pay what it is required to pay MDHA each year.

“I am grateful to Dr. Adrienne Battle, the MNPS Board, MDHA and the members of the TIF Study and Formulating Committee, whose hard work and support made this additional COLA possible,” Mayor Briley continued. “I plan to keep at it, and I know we have more great things to come for all students and teachers in our schools.”

A response from MNEA:

Today, the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education received a sudden offer of $7.5 million in additional funding from Mayor Briley in the form of an adjustment to $11.2 million previously slated to be diverted from Metro Schools to fund tax increment finance (TIF) debt. While teachers and schools welcome additional funding for our cash-strapped public schools, the method by which this “plan” was developed smells of political intrigue, vote buying, and extortion. Briley’s letter to the board of education intentionally leaves ambiguous the question of whether the $7.5 decrease in TIF funding will extend beyond 2019-2020.

Unfortunately, the Briley plan comes with a demand that the board not fund teachers’ step raises but use his approach to adjust salaries. If Mayor Briley truly wanted to help schools, he should have supported the Vercher amendment rather than threaten a veto designed to hamstring the Metro Council. His games unnecessarily exposed certain brave, schoolsupporting council members to unnecessary risk of criticism by voters on the right and forced other council members to betray organized labor and our schools.

At the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal year, MNPS was compelled to transfer $3.5 million dollars to MDHA to meet increased TIF obligations to MDHA based on tax collections in excess of budgeted projections. In the 2018-2019 budget TIF transfers were budgeted to increase, but MNPS was not required to pay the complete amount. Today, Mayor Briley admitted TIF loan obligations have been overstated, and there is no need to extract additional tax revenue from our schools in 2019-2020. Nashville’s chronically-underfunded schools deserve deliberate, honest funding streams that do not rely on selling assets or require refinancing schemes that ultimate cost more money to our tax payers. No one should mistake Briley’s newest shell game as a magnanimous gesture to support teachers or schools. See it as vote grab!

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TEA on State of the State

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown offered these remarks in response to Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State:

“The Tennessee Education Association is pleased to hear Gov. Bill Lee intends to build on the substantial investments made in recent years to increase state funding of our great public schools. TEA supports his commitment to increasing career technical education programs, STEM initiatives and teacher salaries.

The teacher salary funding is substantial at $71 million, making it approximately a 2.5 percent increase. The key will be to ensure that money actually ends up in teacher paychecks. Additionally, if the $25 million going to vouchers and the $12 million earmarked for privately owned charter buildings were redirected to teacher salaries, the state could keep up with the cost of inflation and reimburse teachers for the hundreds of dollars they spend on classroom supplies.  

We have concerns about Lee’s proposal to increase funding for charter schools and pave the way for rapid charter school expansion. Charter schools are proven to destabilize public school budgets and damage existing classrooms where there is rapid expansion. Charter schools need to be a local decision, because local taxpayers bear a majority of the costs. The Tennessee Constitution clearly states that we have a responsibility to provide a quality public education for every student in Tennessee. Improving public schools requires more money, not less, to provide a well-rounded education for students.   

TEA also has deep concerns about massive funding for Education Savings Accounts, which are vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse. In a time when teachers across the state have to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm students in other states. Let’s support Tennessee students and teachers by directing taxpayer dollars to our public school classrooms, not vouchers that harm student achievement.     

There are many proven ways to improve public schools, such as reducing class sizes so educators can spend more one-on-one time helping students. We should invest in what we know works, including recruiting and retaining qualified and committed educators, creating inviting classrooms, supplying students with modern textbooks, and providing the other resources that can set all students off toward a great future. That’s how taxpayer funds should be spent.  

I believe we have common ground with the governor around the state TNReady assessment. While we welcome his commitment to ensuring students and educators do not experience the system failures of years past, it is important to recognize that even in a year where there are no issues administering the test, standardized test scores of a test like TNReady are not valid measures of student achievement, teacher effectiveness or school performance.

Students and teachers benefit most when tests are used as diagnostic tools to identify where students may be struggling and need extra instruction. The high-stakes TNReady system we have in place does not equip educators to diagnose and teach. TEA wants to see educators involved in the design and implementation of accountability alternatives, including a proper pre-test/post-test system, creative use of benchmark testing, and other accurate gauges to ensure student progress. TEA members statewide are committed to working with Gov. Lee’s administration and the General Assembly to advocate for legislation that is in the best interest of all Tennessee children.”

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