Rhetoric vs. Reality

Gov. Bill Lee recently denied a request from Williamson County Schools for a waiver of TNReady and other requirements for the upcoming school year in light of COVID-19.

In response, the President of education-focused group SCORE tweeted this:

Here’s the thing. If Gov. Lee were actually an advocate of strong and student-centered policy, he wouldn’t have cut improvements to teacher pay from his budget this year. He’d implement a statewide mask mandate. He wouldn’t push an unproven voucher scheme only to see it overturned in the courts. He would work to make progress on the $1.7 billion deficit in the state’s funding formula for schools.

But. He’s not. He hasn’t been. He won’t be. Tennessee schools and the students and teachers in them will continue to be left behind as a result of the aggressive privatization strategy Lee is pursuing.

The Future is Now

Nashville education blogger TC Weber came out strong this week with a compelling argument that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing an evolution in public education. His central premise: schools aren’t going back to “normal” after the crisis passes. Here’s a nice summary from his post:

My main point here is that if a district is treating its reopening plan as simply crisis management, and failing to adequately consider future implications, they are leaving themselves at a serious disadvantage. The time for crisis management was back in the Spring, we have since moved into the realm of evolution, and participation is not an option. If LEAs don’t develop their own future policies and protocols, others – including parents – will do it for them. The world ain’t returning to a shape that we are familiar with and the only option is to embrace and try to positively impact the future.

Read the rest here:

BEP Headed to Trial

Tennessee’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is going to trial next year. Chalkbeat reports that a Nashville judge has scheduled a trial in case claiming the state funding formula is inadequate. That trial is set for October 2021.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle set the long-awaited trial date during a conference call last week with attorneys in the case. The litigation pits school districts in Memphis and Nashville against the state over whether Tennessee allocates enough money for K-12 education, especially for its urban students.

The trial’s outcome could have major implications for how Tennessee public schools are funded. If successful, the case could force the state to invest more in K-12 education, which already consumes about $6.5 billion of the state’s $39.6 billion budget.

https://tn.chalkbeat.org/2020/7/15/21326022/judge-sets-trial-date-for-tennessees-5-year-old-school-funding-lawsuit

A recent report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) found that Tennessee underfunds schools by around $1.7 billion a year.

So Essential They’re Not Worth a Raise

Teachers: They are “essential employees” but just aren’t worth giving a raise. That’s the message from Maryville as reported in a recent article in the Daily Times.

Maryville’s reopening plan designates all staff members “essential critical workers” and allows them to continue working following a potential COVID-19 exposure if they are asymptomatic and follow guidelines such as wearing a face covering for 14 days.

Winstead said that the provision is designed to allow schools to operate with enough staff if there is exposure to a child with the coronavirus.

But also note:

Faced with funding and other uncertainties as classes are about to resume for the first time since the pandemic, the Maryville Board of Education voted Monday, July 13, to rescind a planned raise and spend about $128,000 to disinfect buildings.

The article notes the raise was cut as a result of the state reducing salary funds to the district. At Gov. Lee’s urging, the General Assembly eliminated all salary increase funds from the BEP (the state funding formula for schools).

Walsingham Calls for Federal Investment in Education

In an interview with the Johnson City Press, 1st District congressional candidate Blair Walsingham noted she’d like to see more federal dollars flow to public schools.

Basic income, educational programs and modern vocational training will increase opportunity.

We need to focus our resources on improving our infrastructure, educational system, eliminating health care deserts and expenses, and providing a universal basic income to all Americans. 

Read more: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/news/walsingham-believes-tax-dollars-should-be-invested-in-education/article_99c394da-c216-11ea-a549-8b28102eac11.html

This

Peter Greene explains pretty much everything you need to know about public education in this post about returning to school amid COVID-19:

Finally, we know that based on everything we think we know right now, the price tag for safely opening schools again is huge. Lots of folks are trying to run numbers, and everyone agrees that the figure will be in the billions—many of them. And simply throwing up our hands and going back to some version of distance learning is, we already know, not much of an option—unless we pour a bunch of money into getting it right.

Teachers know, in their guts, where this is headed. They have seen versions of this movie before. For instance, in 1975 Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which promised every student with disabilities a free appropriate public education. Knowing that meant extra expenses for school districts, Congress promised funding to back IDEA. They have never, in 45 years, honored that promise, and schools have just had to find their own way to meet that unfunded mandate.

We’re having a national conversation about controlling the spread of coronavirus in classrooms where teachers still have to buy their own tissues and hand sanitizer.

THAT^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

And, well, this:

It would be great—absolutely great—if elected officials responded to the current situation by saying, “There is nothing more important than our children’s education, so we are going to do whatever it takes, spend whatever is necessary, to make sure that every single schools has every single resource it could possibly need to make its students and staff safe and secure and able to concentrate on the critical work of educating tomorrow’s citizens. We will spare no expense, even if we have to cut other spending, raise taxes on some folks, or spend more money that we don’t actually have.”

Nobody who has been in education longer than a half an hour expects that to happen.

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Sounding the Alarm

Tennessee teachers are raising concerns about school budgets as new demands are created in response to COVID-19.

Tennessee Lookout has more:

Districts across Tennessee currently have task forces composed of members of the community and most have released few details about reopening schools for the fall. Metro Nashville Public Schools announced Tuesday three different scenarios for the fall reopening while Shelby County Schools announced their plan to combine in-person and distance learning. The Hamilton County Schools task force, with administrators, teachers, parents, students, community leaders and health professionals, say too many variables and possible changes could occur within the next two months to announce a plan yet.

Initial announcements have caused concerns due to the implied need for increased resources, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and social-distancing protocols that will require more staffing. 

Smaller class sizes, more nurses and counselors are just a few of the many resources necessary for students to return to school, according to TEA.  

“In order to meet the needs of our students, their safety needs and academic needs, we need more resources, not fewer,” said Beth Brown, president of TEA. 

MORE>

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Knox County Group Pushes for School Funding

From a Press Release:


This next school year will have huge challenges: many families have had their lives upended, kids will come back to school anxious, even traumatized, and teachers will be stressed. Given the central role
Knox County School staff has played during this pandemic, it’s vital that we fully fund the system to deliver the best possible educational outcomes. Our students deserve nothing less.


In addition, more than 900 additional students are anticipated next year. Additional students require additional resources and staff, and the Knox County Education Coalition has worked with the schools to identify needs that are in excess of the current budget.


After a few weeks of virtual learning, most parents realize the value that Knox County Schools provide. In fact, during the coronavirus crisis, KCS educators and employees have proven to be a vital resource for students and their families by providing meals and emotional support. That support will be needed more than ever in August.


Staff, materials among additional needs


From guidance counselors, social workers and nurses to textbooks and computers KCEC has identified several gaps that should be addressed in the 2020/2021 KCS budget.


Our children’s schools have too few guidance counselors, social workers and nurses. While we are fairly close to the national standard for school nurses, the system is woefully understaffed with regard to social workers and guidance counselors. The system needs to add more than 200 professionals in those areas to reach the national standard.

Our most vulnerable children have been the most affected by the school shutdown. The district works hard to address disparities and has identified the need for additional trainers, special education teachers and school culture staff to close achievement gaps.


The system needs to purchase language arts textbooks aligned with current standards and maintain existing books. Additional funding is required to provide and maintain personal computers for student use, but even the projected needs would not get the district close to one device per student.

These are not our only needs. We need equitable pay to retain our teachers, bus drivers, custodians and support staff.

The Knox County Education Coalition consists of several community organizations dedicated to supporting public education. These organizations include Justice Knox; Knoxville Branch of the NAACP; Knox County Education Association; Kindred Futures; Latino Student Success Coalition; League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County; Stop School Push Out; Students, Parents and Educators Across Knox County and What’s the Big I.D.E.A.?Please follow the coalition on Facebook and Twitter for more information.

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Guaranteed

Tennessee’s Constitution guarantees a free public education. Specifically, it states, “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” Tenn. Const. art. XI, § 12. 

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center provides some insight into what constitutional guarantees to public education — like the one included in Tennessee’s Constitution — mean in the time of a global pandemic.

In the wake of closing physical school buildings and classrooms, states are legally mandated to educate all students while they are sheltering at home, regardless of student need or the conditions in the district in which they are enrolled. And this affirmative duty means that states cannot simply pass the buck to school districts to figure out how to respond to the impact of COVID-19 on their students and teachers, nor to shoulder on their own the responsibility for continuing instruction by remote, digital means.

To fulfill their Education Article duty during the COVID-19 school closure, the states, through their education agencies (SEAs), must take these minimum proactive steps:

  • Issue robust emergency guidance to school districts requiring the continuation of student learning through remote means and equitable opportunities for all students to access remote learning. The guidance must be comprehensive, addressing the full range of challenges faced by school districts, including addressing the specific legal rights and needs of students requiring interventions and supports, such as students with disabilities, English language learners, homeless students, students in foster care and those academically at-risk.
  • Provide intensive assistance to those districts serving high enrollments of low-income students and students of color to address the “digital divide” resource gaps that disproportionately affect these groups of students and impede delivery of remote instruction, including lack of internet access and devices and the need for online learning platforms, professional supports for teachers and other crucial assistance.
  • Collect data from districts on the extent of the “digital divide” with a focus on low-income students and students of color and make the data publicly available on a rolling basis.
  • Launch and implement a statewide campaign to make certain every student in need has access to meals and other supportive services while at home.
  • Issue guidance on district use of federal CARES Act emergency relief funds, prioritizing digital resource gaps and publicizing district plans for use of those funds.
  • Begin planning, through a statewide task force or work group, for appropriate supports to be in place when schools reopen, including the need for significant resources to compensate for student learning loss during school closure and support services for students experiencing trauma.
  • Ensure all public funds, including federal funds, are used exclusively to maintain and support the public education system and are not diverted to private virtual schools, tutoring services or other private education uses.

States are constitutionally obligated to make certain all children, no matter their life circumstances, have access to learning opportunities during the pandemic, and that students return to schools that are fully resourced and ready to meet their short- and long-term educational needs. Information on these resource needs will be crucial to inform the difficult budgetary decisions legislators and governors must make in the coming months, given the staggering fallout from the pandemic on state and local revenues.

The bottom line is this: states cannot close school buildings and then fail to educate children or permit and tolerate educational disparities among districts or vulnerable student populations. The constitutional obligation to provide public education belongs to the state, and only the state, and this responsibility cannot – and must not – be left to local district discretion, conditions or circumstances.

Privatizing Prowlers

Sciarra takes an opportunity here to caution against those who seek to profit from the pandemic by privatizing public schools. He notes that states should:

Ensure all public funds, including federal funds, are used exclusively to maintain and support the public education system and are not diverted to private virtual schools, tutoring services or other private education uses.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen our Tennessee profiteer friends at Pearson and K12, Inc. taking steps to use the COVID-19 crisis to grab even more taxpayer dollars with little accountability or oversight.

As the Tennessee General Assembly grapples with how to handle the inevitable budget challenges created by the current emergency, it’s important to remember Sciarra’s warning. The State of Tennessee MUST provide the resources necessary for a free public education for ALL students. This means directing necessary funds to local districts rather than simply relying on them to “make up the difference” between state funding and student needs.

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

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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.

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

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