Bill Lee’s ED

Governor Bill Lee has been on a tour of rural Tennessee counties the last two weeks. During his stops, he’s touting what he’s calling a successful first legislative session. If by success, he means securing passage of a school voucher scheme by any means necessary, sure, he’s been successful. Maybe he means siphoning public money to private schools by way of his Education Savings Account (ESA) plan to the tune of as much as $300 million? Or, perhaps he means demonstrating how he really feels about public school teachers by including the lowest increase in BEP salary funds in the last four budget cycles in his budget — all offering new money and easier access to charter schools.

What Bill Lee hasn’t done on these stops is tell the real story. Because it’s embarrassing. No one likes to talk about it. It’s Bill Lee’s ED. His Education Deficit. Since Bill Lee won’t admit it, I took the liberty of compiling some data to help him talk about it.

Here’s a look at each of the seven counties Lee visited in the past two weeks on his ED tour. I’ve noted first the average salary increase teachers in those counties received since 2015. Next, I’ve indicated the “BEP Gap” — that is, the number of positions each county pays for above what the state funding formula generates. Here’s what this means: The school system NEEDS those employees in order to provide a quality education. But, the state formula won’t pay for them. So, local taxpayers are left footing 100% of the cost of those positions. Data provided by the Comptroller of the Treasury and the Department of Education.

County Avg. salary increase BEP Gap

Bledsoe 3.4% 13

Meigs 1.5% 20

Loudon 1.4% 46

Giles 0.925% 81

Lawrence 1.9% 94

Lincoln 1.8% 49

Bedford 2.25% 24

As you can see, we’ve got some work to do. Teachers in these rural counties have salaries that lag below the state average and receive relatively low annual salary increases. Plus, taxpayers in these communities are left footing the bill for a BEP that simply isn’t adequate to meet the needs of our schools in 2019. Bill Lee did nothing to address the structural deficits in the BEP. Plus, he offered teachers the lowest state funds for raises in the last four budget cycles.

While Lee likes to ride around on a horse to tout his vitality, it’s clear there’s an ED problem he just doesn’t want to talk about.

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Just Pay the Bill

This story about retailers attempting to be “good citizens” by offering discounts to teachers actually highlights two larger problems: We don’t adequately fund our schools AND we don’t pay teachers what they deserve.

We already know there’s a significant teacher pay gap across the country. That gap is particularly troubling in Tennessee — a state with a teacher pay gap above the national average. In fact, Tennessee has one of the worst teacher pay gaps in the Southeast. Teachers in Tennessee earn 27.3% less than their similarly-educated peers. Not only that, teacher pay in Tennessee is growing at a rate well below the national average:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

Then, there’s the issue of basic supplies for learning. Here’s the promotion that got the attention of the writer:

Target wants to help teachers stretch their back-to-school dollars on more than just supplies for their classrooms.

For the second year, the Minneapolis-based retailer will offer teachers a weeklong 15% discount on select items starting July 13, officials shared exclusively with USA TODAY Wednesday…

This year, in addition to school supplies and essentials, which include disinfecting wipes and food storage bags, adult clothing and accessories, Pillowfort furniture and Bullseye’s Playground items also are included.

Here’s the bottom line: School systems should just buy the damn supplies. School administrators should find out what teachers need — the basics, yes, paper, pencils, etc. And also find out what else is needed to run an excellent classroom at all levels and then forward that request to the school system.

Lots of these items could be found at reasonable prices due to bulk purchasing discounts. Moreover, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what it takes to run a classroom and a school.

Not once in the 20+ years that I’ve worked professionally have I been asked to purchase and bring in the supplies I need to do my job. But we ask that of teachers ALL THE TIME.

Stop it. As the writer says:

Stores that have “back to school” sales so parents can buy all those necessary supplies that (usually elementary) teachers post on their classrooms doors or windows?  Nope.  If public education is a public good, then the schools should provide the necessary supplies.

Is public education a public good in Tennessee? Our Constitution says so:

Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution says, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

That obligation was reinforced in the 1993 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in Small Schools v. McWherter:

“The constitution imposes upon the General Assembly the obligation to maintain and support a system of free public schools that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students.”

Simply put, Governor Lee and the General Assembly are not living up to this obligation. According to the Comptroller of the Treasury, we under-fund schools by at least $500 million.

We routinely ask underpaid teachers to fill in the gaps when it comes to supplies. And we applaud the businesses who offer discount promotions to teachers or back-to-school sales as if they are actually doing something. If they wanted real change, those business leaders would be at school board and county commission meetings asking for the needed revenue to fund schools adequately. Then, they’d go to the General Assembly — to the very politicians their businesses bankroll – and pursue policy change that resulted in excellent teacher pay and fully-funded schools.

Too often, though, those same businesses beg the state for tax incentives — enriching themselves at public expense while true public goods like education suffer.

Our state needs leaders who will call this out — leaders not beholden to the private entities who want your tax dollars to boost their profits. Our public schools are a priority in our state Constitution. They should be a priority for our political leaders as well.

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Hamilton County Schools will “rework” Budget after Commission removes Tax Increase

The Hamilton County Commission last night removed a proposed 34 cent property tax increase that would have funded a school budget that included raises for teachers and hiring additional school counselors.

Here’s more on what the proposed budget would have provided to Hamilton County Schools:

The Hamilton County School Board put their stamp of approval on next year’s budget Thursday. That includes $34 million more than the 2019 budget. It would increase teacher pay and add more counselors to schools. It would also boost inclusion time for special needs students.

The move in Hamilton County follows a similar property tax increase rejection in Davidson County (Nashville). The financial strains in both Chattanooga and Nashville are indicative of the failing state school funding formula (BEP). By some estimates, the state underfunds the BEP by at least $500 million each year.

There’s currently a lawsuit pending challenging the adequacy of state funding for schools.

It’s also worth noting that the General Assembly passed a voucher plan this year that will mean less money available to fund school districts across the state.

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Bill Lee’s BEP Lies

Is the BEP fully funded? Bill Lee wants you to think so. A recent Tennessean story calls this issue into question, however. Taking into account the reality of the BEP is more complicated, but the bottom line answer is this: No, Bill Lee’s budget does NOT fully fund the BEP and he and his staff should know better.

The Tennessean points out that despite new investments from Governor Haslam and now Governor Lee, educators are not happy with the adequacy of the state’s funding formula.

There is good reason to be concerned. For example, Tennessee is now investing less per pupil than we did in 2010:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating.

It’s also worth noting that our teacher salary increases aren’t matching national averages:


Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.
By contrast, states like California and North Carolina have seen increases of over 9% over the same time period, making them the two fastest improving states. Vermont is close behind at just over a 7% total increase.

While talking about teacher salaries, it’s important to note the BEP does NOT fully fund teacher pay and in fact, funds a level far below the actual average cost of hiring a teacher:


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.

Then, of course, there are unfunded or underfunded mandates. One example, RTI – Response to Intervention:


One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Our own Comptroller, a Republican, also indicates the state is significantly behind where it should be to adequately fund the BEP:


The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability is out with a new report that suggests Tennessee is underfunding its schools by at least $400 million. That’s because the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) fails to adequately fund education personnel.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Bill Haslam created a fake BEP task force designed to let him out of the responsibility to adequately fund schools and then effectively froze BEP 2.0. In that sense, it’s actually inaccurate to say our state is “fully funding” the BEP. In fact, we’re funding “growth only” in a frozen formula. Facts matter. History is difficult, I know. But those talking about this issue would do well to cite the recent history in their reporting.

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.

Someone should tell Bill Lee and legislative leadership about this. They keep going around repeating the lie that the BEP is “fully funded.” The truth is quite different. I suspect Lee’s staffers know the reality, and are just not telling him. Alternatively, they don’t know the facts — in which case, they don’t deserve their jobs.

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The Case for Vouchers

In an absolutely epic Twitter thread, Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch makes a case for vouchers. Actually, he makes a case for voucher-level funding for public schools. Welch uses math to make his case. Here are some examples:

Welch notes the significant funding gap between vouchers and the dollar amount per student Williamson County receives from the state based on the BEP formula. This is an important distinction. The BEP formula generates a per student dollar amount (currently $7300) and then devises an amount owed to local districts based on each district’s ability to pay. So, in some districts, the state sends a lot of money and in others, like Williamson, not so much.

Factors involved in generating the total number are based on a school system’s average daily attendance. That number then generates a number of teachers, administrators, and other positions. The state funds each system’s BEP teacher number at 70% — that is, the state sends 70% of the average weighted salary (around $45,000 currently) to the district for each teaching position generated by the BEP.

Let’s be clear: The BEP is inadequate. Every single district hires more teachers (and other positions) than generated by the BEP. Local districts fund 100% of those costs.

Before the state was taken to court over inadequate funding, the BEP Review Committee used to list a series of recommendations on ways to improve the funding formula to adequately meet the needs of our state’s public schools.

While routinely ignored by policymakers, this list provided a guide to where Tennessee should be investing money to improve the overall public education offered in our state.

Here are some examples from the most recent version of this list:

Fund ELL Teachers 1:20  — COST: $28,709,000

Fund ELL Translators 1:200  COST: $2,866,000

Instructional Component at funded at 75% by State  COST: $153,448,000

Insurance at 50%  COST: $26,110,000

BEP 2.0 Fully Implemented  COST: $133,910,000

Some notes here –

First, BEP 2.0 was frozen by Governor Haslam as he “re-worked” funding distribution and supposedly focused on teacher pay.

Next, the state currently provides districts 45% of employee health insurance for ONLY the BEP -generated positions. Districts must fund 100% of the benefit cost for teachers hired about the BEP number.

Finally, beefing up the instructional component by 5% as recommended here would mean significant new dollars available for either hiring teachers or boosting teacher pay or both.

Here are some “wish list” items on teacher pay, which reflect that our state has long known we’re not paying our teachers well:

BEP Salary at $45,447  COST: $266,165,000

BEP Salary at $50,447  COST: $532,324,000

BEP Salary at Southeastern average $50,359  COST: $527,646,000

BEP Salary at State average (FY14) $50,116    COST: $514,703,000

These are FY14 numbers — so, that’s been a few years. Still, funding teacher pay at the actual average spent by districts (just over $50,000 a year) would mean significant new funding for schools that could be invested in teacher salaries. We don’t fund teacher pay at the actual average, though, we fund it at a “weighted” average that is thousands less than this actual number. Then, districts receive only 70% of that weighted number per BEP position.

Making the large scale jump necessary to truly help direct state BEP dollars into teacher paychecks and provide a much-needed boost to salaries would cost close to $500 million. Bill Lee’s budget this year provides a paltry $71 million, continuing the tradition of talking a good game while letting teacher pay in our state continue to stagnate.

Here are some other recommendations — ideas that Welch suggests districts could pursue if only they were funded at the same level Bill Lee is proposing for private schools:

Change funding ratio for psychologists from 1:2,500 to 1:500  $57,518,000

Change funding ratio for elementary counselors from 1:500 to 1:250  $39,409,000

Change funding ratio for secondary counselors from 1:350 to 1:250  $18,079,000

Change funding ratio for all counselors to 1:250  $57,497,000

Change Assistant Principal ratio to SACS standard  $11,739,000

Change 7-12 funding ratios, including CTE, by 3 students  $87,928,000

New BEP Component for Mentors (1:12 new professional positions)  $17,670,000

Professional Development (1% of instructional salaries)  $25,576,000

Change funding ratios for nurses from 1:3,000 to 1:1,500  $12,194,000

Change funding ratios for Technology Coordinators from 1:6,400 to 1:3,200  $4,150,000

Increase Funding for teacher materials and supplies by $100  $6,336,000

Instructional Technology Coordinator (1 per LEA)  $5,268,000

If you look at these numbers, you see that a state committee of professional educators (the BEP Review Committee) has been telling state policymakers that Tennessee needs to do more.

They’ve been saying it for years.

Now, we have a Governor who is suggesting that instead of spending state dollars to meet these needs, we’re going to spend them to prop up private schools with little to no accountability.

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Ready for Action

A new statewide group of teachers is “ready for action,” including a strike, if necessary.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:


A new group aims to unify Tennessee teachers in advocating for public education, following a blueprint that led to teacher strikes that rocked states like Arizona, Kentucky and West Virginia. 


They are following a blueprint established by teachers in states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona where grassroots efforts outside of union organization resulted in massive teacher work stoppages.

The article notes the group includes current TEA local affiliate leader Tikeila Rucker of Memphis as well as former Knox County Education Association President Lauren Sorenson and Amanda Kail, a candidate for President of Metro Nashville Education Association.

While the three leaders say they aren’t necessarily planning a strike, they indicated that as the group grows, a strike may be an option.

Issues such as persistently low teacher pay, over-testing, and the diversion of public funds to private schools by way of vouchers have caused concerns among teachers.

Tennessee Teachers United plans to raise these issues with key policymakers while organizing across the state to build support among teachers.

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

Tennessee Teachers Could be Next to Strike

A new organization of Tennessee teachers has formed in response to persistent underfunding of schools and over-testing of students. Chris Brooks of Labor Notes has more:

Tennessee teachers have taken a pummeling over the years.

They’re grossly underpaid and their professional autonomy has been stripped away. Their students are over-tested and their schools underfunded.

But what has been the collective response?

To lie low.

Keep their heads down.

This is especially true of the leadership in their union, the Tennessee Education Association. They’ve pursued a strategy of “it’s better to be at the table than on the menu.”

This strategy emphasizes access over confrontation. They hope that small incremental change will be possible through a combination of lobbying and writing checks to political campaigns. And since the union isn’t being adversarial, isn’t pushing too hard or too fast, they hope they won’t be a target for political retribution.

Those hopes have been misplaced.

Across the state, conditions in schools have only gotten worse. Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom of the country in per-pupil spending. Experienced and qualified teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

Now, newly elected Governor Bill Lee is taking direct aim at public education. He just announced a state budget that doubles funding for charter schools and is pushing lawmakers to approve $25 million for vouchers. Governor Lee’s disastrous privatization agenda will further drain resources from schools that are already struggling to get by.

The lesson here is that we can’t incrementally lobby our way out of the hole we are in.

Lying low doesn’t work, but there is another way.

All across the country, teachers are supercharging the routine of lobbying and elections with a far more powerful tool: they are going out on strike.

Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Kentucky have used collective action to transform the political landscape. They’ve decimated charter and voucher legislation, stopped further spending cuts, and pushed policies that actually benefit student outcomes: lower class sizes, more nurses and counselors, an end to toxic testing, and paying teachers adequately so school systems can retain them for more than a few years.

There is clear tangible evidence that strikes work. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “protests by teachers and others last year helped lead to substantial increases in school funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.”

It didn’t matter that striking is illegal in many of these states or that the state government is dominated by anti-union Republicans.

When teachers found the courage to strike they found out that the community—and often even their boss—had their back

With so many school districts struggling to make ends meet, striking teachers found that their demands for increased state funding had the support of their local administrators. Because superintendents closed their schools during the nine-day West Virginia strike, teachers didn’t lose pay and the strike rolled on.

Parents know that issues like class size and funding matter. It’s common sense. Would you rather your child be in a classroom with twenty other students or forty? Do you want your child to be taught by a capable, qualified professional or to be endlessly drilled in preparation for a high-stakes test?

Unsurprisingly, teachers everywhere have received an outpouring of support from parents and community members when they hit the picket lines.

Teachers living with anemic unions and deteriorating conditions in their schools have created their own Facebook groups to communicate with each other and coordinate actions across school sites. Examples include West Virginia Public Employees United, KY 120 United, and Arizona Educators United.

Now there is TN Teachers United.

“This group is for any public school educator who is tired of their students’ needs being put last and is tired of their voices being ignored,” said Lauren Sorensen, a second grade teacher at Halls Elementary School in Knox County and a longtime leader in her local union. “If you are ready to organize and act, then join us.”

The group was formed following a video call organized by Labor Notes between Tennessee teacher activists and two of the rank-and-file organizers of the statewide walkouts in Arizona and West Virginia (see video below).

Tennessee teachers face the same issues and challenges as teachers in West Virginia and Arizona—and they are just as resourceful.

They just have to ask themselves: are they going to keep lying low or are they going to start fighting back?

Chris Brooks is a former organizer with the Tennessee Education Association and currently works as an organizer and staff writer for Labor Notes.

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Lunchroom Bullies

For the second year in a row, a committee in the Tennessee General Assembly has essentially endorsed lunch-shaming.

Here’s more on yesterday’s shocking vote:

Republicans voted 4-2 to defeat The Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act—a bill with three measures to ensure students can eat school lunches and not be punished when parents fail to pay meal fees or a meal debt.

The bill sponsor Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, District 55, said the bill would stop school employees from throwing away a served meal if the student could not pay and would also prohibit schools from punishing or shaming students who accumulated a meal debt.

“We certainly do not want to have a child stigmatized or punished in any way for simply incurring a lunch debt at no fault of their own,” Clemmons said. “We have had incidents in recent years in Tennessee where students have been treated adversely or stigmatized in some manner. Whether it’s placed or made to eat in the principal’s office and eat a peanut butter sandwich by themselves simply because they had a lunch debt or being prevented from going on field trips because of a lunch debt.

Last year, an education subcommittee also rejected a bill sponsored by Clemmons that would have prevented lunch shaming. Every legislator who has opposed this bill in the last two sessions has been a Republican.

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Gold Strike

If Tennessee teachers really want to improve the state’s overall investment in schools, including in teacher compensation, they may need to walk off the job.

A new study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicates that in states that have seen recent teacher protests, investment in public education has improved significantly.

More from Chalkbeat:


In four states where teachers walked out of their classrooms in protest last year, education spending is up, helping to make up for deep cuts in those states in the wake of the Great Recession.


That’s according to a new analysis that suggests the walkouts and strikes made a difference in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank, found that baseline state funding jumped 19 percent in Oklahoma last year, while North Carolina and West Virginia both saw 3 percent upticks.

Tennessee’s overall investment in public education is 44th nationally and we actually spend less per pupil in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did in 2010. Additionally, the rate of pay increases for our teachers is relatively small and lags behind the national average:


Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

It seems unlikely this will change until policymakers are made uncomfortable. One sure way to cause discomfort is through a massive protest or job action. Tennessee teachers who are tired of the status quo may well need to take to the streets to see real change for them and for their students.

daguerreotype, circa 1852, on display as part of ‘ California Gold Rush’. The Jaunts column will pay a visit to the California Oil Museum in Santa Paula previewing the new exhibit, California Gold Rush. DIGITAL IMAGE SHOT ON 10.31.2000 (Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Coincidence?


Think Tennessee is out with a digital data dashboard highlighting Tennessee’s rankings in a number of categories related to health, education, quality of life, and well-being.

I present these two numbers without further comment:

 

 

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