It City?

I wrote a post about teacher pay over at Strong Schools — a non-profit I co-founded to focus on school funding in Sumner County. On reflection, I thought it might be interesting to those following education issues in Nashville and surrounding counties.

The post takes a look at teacher pay in 11 middle Tennessee school systems (Nashville and systems directly around Nashville). I’ve written before about the problems Nashville has had recruiting and retaining teachers. More recently, MNPS has announced some budget challenges. TC Weber has more on the details of the MNPS budget.

The bottom line: Nashville is not exactly the “It City” for teachers in middle Tennessee when it comes to the best financial package for teachers.

Here’s the breakdown of teacher pay in those 11 middle Tennessee districts:

Franklin          $52,446

Lebanon         $52,013

Murfreesboro $51,429

Montgomery   $50,377

Davidson         $49,918

Williamson       $49,489

Rutherford       $49,065

Wilson              $47,900

Sumner             $45,013

Cheatham         $44,907

Robertson         $43,684

These figures represent average teacher salary as reported by the Tennessee Department of Education. Notice that Nashville is ranked 5th in average pay.

As part of the analysis, I also took a look at the issue of health insurance. That’s a significant benefit that can help overcome otherwise low pay. Here again, even with pay + insurance, Nashville ranks fifth:

Williamson        $61,512

Franklin            $60,707

Rutherford        $60,439

Montgomery    $59,964

Davidson          $59,154

Lebanon           $58,918

Murfreesboro   $57,337

Sumner             $55,999

Wilson              $54,515

Cheatham        $52,888

Robertson        $52,670

So, new teachers considering a teaching career in the Nashville area have four options just outside of the city where they can earn better overall compensation. The problem with compensation is compounded by a rapidly rising cost of living, pricing many teachers out of being able to live in Nashville.

Oh, and it is tough to the “It City” for teachers when other cities are already doing a much better job in terms of teacher pay.

Anyway, Nashville has a half billion dollar convention center that is very nice and will soon invest in a soccer stadium, which I’m sure will be awesome. Somehow, the city can’t figure out how to adequately compensate educators or even provide safe drinking water and lunch to students.

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


 

Of Lunch and Lead

March isn’t quite over, but two incidents this month at Metro Nashville Public Schools demonstrate a clear need for improved communication from the district.

First, on the issue of lead in drinking water and the use of filters to help solve the problem:

But district spokesperson Michelle Michaud, in an interview with CBS This Morning, claimed it would cost $8,000 dollars per school just to replace the filters.

“It’s a huge cost to the district, hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Michaud claimed, adding: “That’s a price of two teachers salaries.”

The story goes on to note these numbers aren’t accurate (the cost is much lower). However, it’s noteworthy that the response from the person paid to communicate the message from MNPS is that providing safe drinking water for students is too expensive.

Fast forward to this week, and the discussion of a plan to scale back the offering of free lunch. Here’s what a district official had to say:

“Based on what we are seeing on numbers, we are below that point where it makes financial sense,” Stark said. “We can’t do the program across the district the same way we have been doing it.”

So, to be clear: MNPS believes it costs too much to provide free lunch to all kids (the total cost absorbed by MNPS would be less than 1% of the entire budget) and that providing water filters to eliminate lead in drinking water is too expensive. That’s the message communicated: Our concern is cost. It’s right there in the first responses made in both scenarios.

Here’s an idea: Make safe water and access to meals a top priority. Budget for it. Ask Metro Council for the additional funds if necessary. When your first response to issues like these is “we are worried about money” that sends an unfortunate message.

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


 

Lunch Money

The Tennessean reports on Metro Nashville Public Schools scaling back the offering of free lunch to all students.

Nashville schools is set to scale back a popular program that provides free lunch to all of its students.

The district currently provides free lunch to all students, regardless of income, but now plans to limit the program to 74 schools next year, while families at other schools must file paperwork to receive free-or-reduced lunch rates.

Why?

The district first began using the program in 2014, but must reapply for grant funding every four years, Stark said.

During that time, the number of students within the district recorded as needing federal assistance has dropped — from about 60 percent to just under 50 percent, Stark said.

The lower percentage of students eligible means the federal government won’t cover as much of the cost to provide free lunch to all students, Stark said.

The cost to MNPS to absorb the shortfall and continue offering the program across the board is $8 million. That’s less than one percent of the entire system budget.

Angst?

Nashville schools will still continue to provide free breakfast to students next year, Stark said. The money to fund that program comes from other sources, he said.

“We are hoping that can alleviate at least some of the angst,” he said.

Interesting that the concern from the standpoint of MNPS is parent angst, not student hunger.

Also worth noting: This announcement came on the same day that legislation to prevent “lunch shaming” sponsored by John Ray Clemmons of Nashville failed in a House committee. That bill would have prohibited separating students who had an outstanding meal debt at school. Clemmons cited a story about one Tennessee school where students with unpaid lunch debt were made to eat a peanut butter sandwich in the principal’s office.

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


 

TC Talks MNPS Budget

So, there’s been some excitement around the MNPS budget and TC Weber has been following it all.

Here’s a bit from his latest post:

As anticipated, changes were announced to the distribution method of Title I funds yesterday. Going forth, schools who are above the 75% poverty level will receive $651 per direct certified student, and schools between 50% and 74% will receive $300. This will soften the blow for some schools, while getting the needed resources to others. The general feeling was that if this had been the initial proposal, then a lot of the turmoil that has embroiled the district over the last several weeks could have been avoided.

And:

At yesterday’s budget talk to principals, Joseph indicated that his budget would require an additional $45 million in revenue from the Metro Council. He was going to ask for $59 million, but being a frugal guy, he lowered the ask. This $45 million ask will come as Nashville itself is looking at a loss of $25 million in revenue. I would think that ask would be a lot easier if MNPS could demonstrate that the extra money they received last year was well utilized and produced measurable results. As it stands, there seems to be a dearth of evidence of progress and an abundance of questions. Hopefully the upcoming Metro audit will illuminate spending a little better.

Stay tuned for more in what is sure to be a very interesting budget cycle.

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


 

 

F for Effort

Another day, another story about how Tennessee is failing to invest in schools.

The National Report Card on School Funding Fairness indicates Tennessee is not trying very hard (the rhetoric of Governor Bill Haslam notwithstanding).

The Report Card analyzes several indicators of school funding to determine how a state supports schools. The most basic is raw spending on schools. Here, Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation. So, still near the bottom.

How does Tennessee distribute funding in high-poverty vs. low-poverty districts? Not great, but not terrible. The Report Card awards a grade of C and uses per pupil spending data to demonstrate that high-poverty districts (those with 30% or more of students on Free/Reduced Lunch) spend about 3% less than low-poverty districts. Of course, fairness would dictate that those high-poverty districts spend a bit more, but Tennessee is in the category of states doing an average job in this regard. Our state funding formula (the BEP) is supposed to ensure some level of equity, but the funding may not be enough in those districts lacking the resources to provide significant funds for schools.

Here’s the real problem: We’re not trying very hard to do better.

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

According to the Report Card, Tennessee ranks 42nd in wage competitiveness, with teachers here earning 24% less on average than similarly-prepared professionals.

I noted recently that we’re also not doing much to improve teacher pay (again, despite Bill Haslam’s claims).

The good news: There’s an election this year. A chance for a new Governor and new members of the General Assembly to take a fresh look at education in 2019. Voters should ask those seeking these offices how they plan to improve Tennessee’s low rankings and move our state forward when it comes to public education. Clearly, we can’t pursue the same low dollar strategy we’ve been using.

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


 

Bad Company

A new report released by the Education Law Center puts Tennessee in some bad company when it comes to school funding and student achievement. That is, Tennessee is among the states with low funding and relatively low student achievement compared to the national average.

Authored by researchers at Rutgers University and released by Education Law Center, the report shows that most U.S. states fund their public schools at a level far below what is necessary for students in high-poverty districts to achieve at even average levels in English and math.

It’s not good when in the key findings section, Tennessee is mentioned more than once — and not among those the report’s authors suggest are doing what’s best for students.

From the report:

  • In numerous states – including Arizona, Tennessee, Alabama, Michigan, and Georgia – only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to reach national average student achievement outcomes.

And:

Alabama, New Mexico, Michigan, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee are not far behind in that they also have very low per pupil spending and low outcomes relative to the national average.

We’re not in good company. When Tennessee is mentioned in this report, which uses NAEP data and district level per pupil spending, we are mentioned among those states not investing sufficiently in high-poverty districts to achieve even average outcomes.

A number of Tennessee’s high-poverty districts lack the local fiscal capacity to improve investment. Improving state level spending could address this issue.

This may explain why under the old TCAP testing system, scores tracked the poverty and investment rates of districts. The same may well be true of TNReady, though it is new and has yet to be fully administered in a successful fashion.

While a tiny bit of effort is being made this year in terms of providing funds for as yet unfunded RTI mandates, Tennessee has much more to do in order to improve the education situation across the state.

Our own Comptroller suggests we’re about $500 million short of where we need to be in order to properly fund public education. A pair of lawsuits from school districts are pending, each of which claims our state is failing when it comes to funding schools. This report lends credence to those claims.

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


 

No More Paper?

Apparently, Metro Nashville Public Schools is in such dire straits due to a so-called “budget shortfall” that at least one school was denied a request for paper.

WTVF-NewsChannel 5 has the story:

“We would not allow any school to go without paper, we would not allow any school to go without materials,” he said.

However, that indeed had already happened.

“Overton did everything right,” said Evernham.

The school’s principal, Dr. Jill Pittman, put in a request for paper funding but she was denied. So parents, instead, took matters into their own hands and on Wednesday morning delivered cases of paper for the entire school.

While this issue has seemingly been resolved (paper was to arrive this morning), it highlights the continued confusion around the surprise budget crisis that has created a hiring and spending freeze in the district.

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


 

You’ve Got Questions

If you are involved in public education in Nashville, you’ve been hearing a lot recently about budget issues. You’ve got questions. The answers are still elusive, however.

TC Weber takes a crack at explaining a bit more about the MNPS budget and the two issues (an enrollment drop and a shift in funding priorities) causing some concern around the district.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

The first question is why this short fall wasn’t identified and adjusted for at an earlier date. Some of you may not be familiar with how the state funding process works. Each student is assigned a dollar value by the state. Every 20 days the district submits a count to the state in which funding is based on. Twice a year, the state cuts a check. So, I’m curious why this shortfall, or potential shortfall, wasn’t spotted in October. Or November. Or December, Finding it in February is a little curious. Unless people were just ignoring it till February when they went out to the mailbox looking for a check and the mailbox was bare, so then questions arose.

The second question arises from the size of the shortfall. I say, “$7.5 million” to you and your eyes get wide. But if I put that 7.5 next to 900 million, it ain’t so eye widening. What I’m saying is, we should be concerned, but does this warrant a crisis like reaction? And that’s how we’ve reacted. A hiring and traveling freeze has been imposed. Individual school budgets – monies that have been pre-approved and are part of the this years budget – if not already spent, are required to be re-submitted for approval.

TC takes the time to explain a bit more about Title I funding, too. Check out the post for more on the puzzle that is the upcoming MNPS budget.

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


 

 

$850

Metro Nashville Public Schools finds itself in a bit of a budget crunch. NewsChannel 5 has this report:

Teachers braced for impact after Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph made the stunning admission that the district was set to lose $7.5 million in state funding, due to a unpredicted drop in student enrollment numbers.

A grim fiscal outlook for next fiscal years, means some principals may be forced to cut as many as 17 positions at schools where enrollment decreases are the highest.

For the first time in 15 years, Metro Nashville Public School’s enrollment numbers have dropped. District officials thought they would add more than 1,500 students in 2017 instead the district lost 500 students.

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers this analysis:

The memo raises a number of issues for me. Joseph cites an unexpected enrollment decrease this year, which means $7.5 million less in state funds. Why the decrease? All of us can look around and see that Nashville is growing by leaps and bounds, so why is enrollment dropping? I’m not discounting that there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for this decline, but shouldn’t that be grounds for discussion? Shouldn’t there be a strategy to counter the pending decline in enrollment? Is this a trend or an outlier?

Joseph goes on to outline steps that the administration is taking to counter the loss. Steps that only make me more confused.

“All spending for the remainder of the year should be carefully reviewed and placed on hold if not essential to operation or to the implementation of our district priorities.” Huh? Does he presume that there are schools out there sitting on bags of money that they are planning to spend without consideration? Has this review not already been done? Shouldn’t this have been a part of the initial budget process last year?

His next bullet point talks about scrutinizing travel. Was this not promised last year? Did we stop scrutinizing travel somewhere along the way?

Here are some thoughts I’ve had as I try to digest this news and what it means:

First, how was MNPS this far off in projecting student enrollment? The district projections indicated growth of 1500 students and budgeted accordingly. As TC points out, Nashville is growing rapidly, so one would expect the student population to reflect that. Additionally, the team running the numbers at MNPS has been in the business for some time. Sure, they may not always hit the nail on the head, but they were significantly off the mark this time. In fact, district officials expected MNPS to grow by the size of an entire high school and instead, they lost the population of an elementary school. Why? As TC wonders, is this an outlier?

Second, in the grand scheme of the MNPS budget (approaching $900 million), the amount of funds lost is relatively small. To put it in context, let’s say your household budget was based on a family income of $100,000. Then, you learn that you won’t get the customary year-end bonus. Bummer! You’ll be out a total of $850 for the year. Yes, MNPS is losing less than 1% of it’s total projected revenue. If this were your family budget, would you freak out? Even if you knew you couldn’t count on that $850 next year, you’d probably make a few minor adjustments and move forward.

Now, I know school system budgets aren’t family budgets and that $7.5 million is certainly important. I also would expect MNPS to build-in funds for unexpected surprises — like losing an entire high school worth of students. Nashville as a city has the ability to provide excellent funding for schools. Instead, the city faces a teacher shortage and significant numbers of students shifted to virtual learning.

While there is certainly some blame to be laid at the feet of Metro Nashville leaders, it also bears noting that our state significantly under-funds public schools. According to Tennessee’s Comptroller, we’re short some $500 million as state in terms of what we need to properly fund the BEP — the state’s funding formula for schools. If that formula were properly funded, MNPS would see some $30 million a year in new revenue. Even if you account for the unexplained drop in students (and resulting loss of state funds), you’d see just over $21 million a year in new money.

The MNPS School Board is set to take up the budget issue at tomorrow night’s meeting. It will be interesting to learn more about why this situation happened and what can be done about it.

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


 

Amy Frogge Talks School Budgets

MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge highlights the importance of funding our public schools in her latest Facebook post:

As the old saying goes: Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value. Despite all the hype from politicians (particularly this election year) that education is a top priority, Tennessee remains 36th in the nation on education funding, and Nashville ranks 54th out of 67 urban school systems in per-pupil funding (according to the Council of the Great City Schools). What better investment could our state make than providing ALL students with an excellent education? Yes, that money should be spent wisely, but adequate school funding REALLY makes a difference. Just ask any teacher (who- at one point or another- has probably spent her last $20 trying to buy supplies for her classroom).

I remember a conversation I had about school funding back in 2012, around the time I was first elected to the school board. Another elected official told me how awful local schools were, rolling her eyes at the thought of investing more money into our “failing” system. The irony of this conversation was that this person was spending approximately $25,000 per year to educate her own child at a prestigious private school- a school where, in addition to the high funding, students enter class already well equipped with every possible advantage. This article is for those who live in such a bubble.

Folks like this “won’t mention that there is research . . . showing that states that did provide more money to low-performing schools got better results — but never mind. . . .

And, apparently, people who don’t believe in a link between funding and student achievement won’t listen to teachers on the ground who can tell them otherwise.”

Frogge then links to this insightful article from the Washington Post about the impact of inadequate funding.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee>

Not Really Improving

What’s Missing is What Matters

Coming Up Short

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