Trust Us and Stop Complaining

That seems to be the over-arching message from the Tennessee General Assembly as they continue to advance legislation designed to prevent those who disagree with the current “ed reform” agenda from having a strong voice.

The latest example is the so-called Educator Protection Act (HB645/SB604) designed to offer liability insurance to teachers at state expense. But, as Jon Alfuth notes over at Bluff City Ed, it seems the legislation has other implications:

 I can only speculate, but this looks like a quiet effort to continue the drive towards making the TEA irrelevant in the state. Pass this and one of the big draws of union membership, legal protection in the case of a law suit, suddenly becomes less important. The TEA does contend that teachers would still have to rely on them for legal fees according to the link cited above, but teachers wouldn’t need the liability coverage under the TEA any more as the state would provide it. It just removes one additional reason for teachers to join the union.

Weakening TEA and also Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) weakens the organized opposition to much of what passes as education reform – evaluations based on suspect statistical methods and vouchers, as just two examples.

This effort comes after just last week, an amendment was added to the state budget that was designed to limit local school boards in their efforts to seek more funding from the state.

The General Assembly seems to be sending a clear message to those who disagree with prevailing education policy: Trust us, and stop complaining.

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

 

My Time at the State Capitol

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the halls of Legislative Plaza at the State Capitol. I also visited the capitol a few weeks ago with members of the Tennessee Reading Association’s Advocacy Committee. Unlike some, I highly enjoy my time on the hill. Here are a few of my takeaways.

There were a lot more people in the education committees then there were in 2012 when I last worked on the hill. As many already know, more and more people are concerned about education in Tennessee. That means there are more advocates and stakeholders when it comes to education. While many people crammed into education committee rooms, other committees sat almost empty. This really shows you how important education is in Tennessee. A lot of time, energy, and lobbying are taking place in the education world.

I spoke to numerous people about Dr. Candice McQueen, the newly appointed Commissioner of Education. Everyone I spoke with only had praise for Dr. McQueen. With Commissioner McQueen at the helm of the department, I believe these next four years will be systematically different than the last four years. Commissioner McQueen was already highly revered in the education world before she became Commissioner, and I believe she will leave the Department of Education in an even higher regard. From the looks of social media, Commissioner McQueen is traveling around the state at every chance she gets. I like that.

With the Tennessee Reading Association, we visited with the education committee chairs. Each chair, Representative John Fogerty, Representative Harry Brooks, and Senator Dolores Gresham, were very receptive on our message of staying on course to retain high standards. While we were advocating for Common Core, we understood that the standards would most likely change names. I think everyone agrees that Common Core will go away, but with a high quality Tennessee State Standards left in Common Core’s place. Too much money has been spent on teacher training to just get rid of the standards all together.

Legislators are already reviewing comments that stakeholders are making through the Tennessee Education Standards Review. https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/ I hope that everyone will go online and take part in this review process. They need to hear from teachers!

If you don’t know who your legislators are, go to this site to find out. http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/ It’s important that you know who represents you at the state capitol. When contacting your member, tell your legislator that you are a constituent and a teacher.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport.


 

The End of the ASD?

State Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville has filed a bill that would abolish the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

The Bill (HB 508/SB 975) would give control of schools run by the ASD back to the LEA in which they are located. Charter schools authorized by the ASD would now be under the authority of the LEA in which they are located. The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Thelma Harper, also of Nashville.

One reason the two Nashville lawmakers may be looking to rid the state of the ASD is a particularly nasty episode involving Neely’s Bend Middle School and Madison Middle School. Ultimately, Neely’s Bend lost the battle and is now being taken over by LEAD Academy per arrangement with the ASD.

The ASD has struggled of late, with PR challenges in school takeovers in both Memphis and Nashville. Additionally, some early data suggest the ASD has a lot of work to do to reach its once lofty goals.

It seems unlikely the ASD will be closed at the end of 2015-16, but the filing of the legislation suggests the ASD will have some explaining to do and the path forward won’t be easy.

MORE on the ASD:

Our Interview with the ASD’s Chris Barbic

Take a Walk, ASD

ASD Flexes Muscles in Memphis

The ASD Responds to Critics

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

 

Still Opposed

After mistakenly suggesting that she might actually be listening to the teachers in her district on education issues, Dolores Gresham quickly issued a clarifying statement today setting the record straight.

The confusion began when Gresham reportedly told the Associated Press  she was “OK” with the Common Core State Standards.

The AP reported that Gresham said:

“I have talked to teachers who have told me in so many words, at last, we are no longer dumbing down our children,” she said. “That kind of encouragement is very important when other people are not so enthusiastic.”

Gresham’s statements appeared to be a reversal of position, as she is the prime sponsor of legislation that would repeal Common Core in Tennessee and replace it with Tennessee Standards.

Gresham has historically been more responsive to her donors than to teachers in her district, carrying legislation that authorized K12, Inc.’s failing Tennessee Virtual Academy and supporting a voucher scheme backed by Koch-brothers funded Americans for Prosperity.

Just this summer, she seemed to be on the hunt for an attack on teacher tenure when she requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the issue.

However, when it appeared she might be asking for and responding to educator input on education policy, Gresham was quick to put out a statement saying she still opposes Common Core and wants it repealed in Tennessee.

According to the Tennessean, Gresham wasn’t available to further clarify her statement. But it seems her momentary intimation that she may actually be further considering her stance may have been a verbal lapse rather than a thoughtful reflection.

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

 

Haslam Really Wants to Raise Teacher Pay

But he probably won’t.

Not in 2015, anyway.

Just yesterday, the Tennessee Education Association called on Haslam to deliver on his teacher pay promise.

But Haslam says the state is out of money and can’t possibly be raising anyone’s pay.

Back in October, Haslam said paying teachers more, “might be a good idea.”

But again, the issue comes back to where to find the money.

Why isn’t there any money?

Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote back in April:

Where’d the Money Go? Governor Haslam blames the $160 million hole in the budget on lower than expected corporate taxes.  However, no mention is made of the $46 million in lost revenue from a 1/2 cent decrease in the state portion of the sales tax on food.  While removing or reducing the sales tax on food is a laudable goal, doing so without finding revenue to replace it is irresponsible.  The sales tax on food is the most reliable portion of state revenue. Additional revenue is lost by the gradual phase out of Tennessee’s estate tax, previously impacting estates over $1 million.  The plan is to phase that out entirely by 2016, with an estimated revenue loss of around $30 million this year and around $97 million in 2016-17′s budget. So, that’s roughly $76 million, or close to half of the projected shortfall for the upcoming budget cycle. To his credit, Haslam says he wants to hold off on efforts to repeal the Hall tax on investment income – a tax paid by a small number of wealthy Tennesseans with investment income.  However, he has also said reducing or eliminating the Hall tax is a goal. Phasing out the tax, as proposed in legislation under consideration this year at the General Assembly, would mean a loss of $20 million in the 2015-16 budget year and an ultimate loss in state funds of $160 million a year and in local revenue of $86 million a year.

The interesting thing is, overall revenue collection is UP in Tennessee for the first three months of FY2015.

Yes, collections for certain corporate taxes contiue to fall, but despite this, overall revenue keeps going up.

Here’s the breakdown based on reports from the Department of Revenue:

Month          Overall Increase               Sales Tax Increase

July                 2.4%                                          3.1%

August         3.7%                                            6.7%

Sept.            7.4%                                            5.3%

Oct.              5.7%                                           7.3%

 

So, net revenue is up before any tax loopholes that are allowing business tax revenue to escape are closed.

If that trend continues, it would seem difficult for Haslam to keep making the argument that there’s just no money available to invest in schools.

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

 

 

TEA Calls on Haslam to Deliver on Teacher Pay Promise

The Tennessee Education Association is asking Governor Haslam and the General Assembly to give teachers a 6% raise in the next session of the General Assembly. The association says it is Haslam’s chance to deliver on his promise to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay.

The group suggests that revenue is available, as sales tax collections continue to improve. Additionally, the group notes that closing corporate tax loopholes could stop losses in Franchise and Excise tax collections and allow for investment in teacher salaries.

From a press release:

The Tennessee Education Association today called on Governor Bill Haslam to fulfill his October 2013 promise to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay.” The call comes just days before Haslam conducts his first budget hearing for the Department of Education.

“Governor Haslam has said he intends to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in terms of teacher pay,” said TEA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder. “Teachers are eagerly anticipating his budget hearing on Friday to see if he will start living up to that promise.”

State teacher salaries have remained flat since 2011, Haslam’s first year in office, when compared with the Consumer Price Index.

“When you factor in rising insurance premiums, some Tennessee teachers’ salaries are worth less now than they were when Haslam took office,” Crowder continued. “We are hopeful that the governor will rectify this situation and include a desperately needed raise in his proposed budget.”

TEA is asking Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly to ultimately increase the state’s BEP funding for teacher salaries from $40,000 to $45,000 per BEP-generated teacher. Based on 2014 salary numbers, that would be a net increase to the average teacher’s salary of 11.3 percent.

“We’re not asking for this to happen all at once, but we are asking for the governor to get serious about investing in our teachers. The povertization of the teaching profession in Tennessee must stop,” Crowder said.

TEA’s proposal would mean a 6 percent increase in pay this year, with the remainder of the increase to be phased in over two to three years.

Crowder notes that many teachers didn’t get a raise this year or last, while inflation and classroom supplies coming out of teachers’ pockets have hit family budgets hard.

“Six percent is fair and critical, helping us break even with inflation because of stagnation at the state level and gets us on the road to becoming the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay.”

By building the pay increase into the BEP formula, local school systems would receive additional financial support from the state.

“This proposal represents an investment in our state’s teachers and their students, but it also represents an investment in communities across Tennessee struggling to meet their budgets. We’re simply asking Governor Haslam to honor his promises and make investing in public schools a priority.”

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

Koch Brothers, Haslam Gang Up on Gloria Johnson

The race for Tennessee’s 13th District House Seat features incumbent Democrat Gloria Johnson versus an army of out-of-state special interest groups who have teamed up with Governor Bill Haslam to unseat one of the most outspoken defenders of public education in the General Assembly.

Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity has sent mailer after mailer comparing Johnson to such horrible figures as Lane Kiffin and Barack Obama (it is difficult to tell which of the two is viewed less favorably in Knoxville).

The Tennessee Federation for Children has spent $100,000 against Johnson. The outfit is curiously named, since it is based in Washington, DC, and doesn’t have a Tennessee presence until it is time to push for risky and expensive voucher schemes at the General Assembly. Thanks in part to Johnson’s leadership, the TFC’s voucher plans have failed in two consecutive General Assemblies. Now, they’re coming after Johnson.

Joining (leading?) the parade of attacks against Johnson is Governor Bill Haslam. His Advance Tennessee PAC is spending $50,000 on a new TV attack ad against Johnson.

What’s Haslam’s beef against the Knoxville teacher-legislator? Gloria Johnson has routinely criticized Haslam for his lack of leadership and general failure to communicate, especially when it comes to education issues.

Johnson correctly warned that Common Core would die in Tennessee unless Haslam did a better job of talking with teachers and parents about the merits of the program.

The good news for Johnson is that Haslam and the Koch Brothers teamed up with TFC in the primary in August to challenge Republicans who weren’t sufficiently in support of privatizing public schools, and they lost many of those races.

Of course, a teacher and defender of public schools can’t compete dollar-for-dollar with such intense spending. But the focus on House District 13 when the GOP already holds a big majority in the General Assembly makes one wonder what exactly these groups want for their money.

I wrote a piece about the GOP 2013 legislative agenda on education that I think is exactly what these groups want to see pass in 2015. If only they can get Gloria Johnson out of the way.

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

Shelby County Schools Seek More State Funding

The Commercial Appeal reports that the Shelby County School Board has passed a resolution asking the state to properly fund public schools through the state’s BEP funding formula.

The board is asking the state to pay $10,000 more toward teacher salaries and fund 12 months of insurance premiums for district staff, instead of 10. The requests are also the top recommendations from the state Basic Education review committee from last year.

If the two requests were funded, SCS would receive $99.5 million in state funding, enough to give teachers the biggest raise they’ve had in years, while also offsetting the cost of monthly insurance premiums. The cost for the year now is spread over 10 months.

For more than two decades, the state has paid health insurance on a 10-month basis. Last year, the cost to cover 12 months was estimated at $60.4 million. This year’s estimate is $64 million.

In 2007, the state attempted to address the BEP funding shortfall by passing BEP 2.0, but that program has never been fully-funded.

Tennessee consistently ranks at or near the bottom of the country in terms of per pupil spending. Additionally, Tennessee’s teacher salaries consistently grow at a pace below the national average.

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

 

Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Receives Top Marks from TREE

Parent advocacy group TREE – Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence – released a legislative report card ranking lawmakers based on votes on education-related isues.

Votes that made up the Report Card included:

  • Charter Authorizer. TREE opposed this bill, which passed.
  • For-Profit Charters. TREE opposed this bill, which failed.
  • Vouchers. TREE opposed this bill, which failed.
  • Charter Conversion a/k/a Parent Trigger. TREE opposed this bill, which failed.
  • Testing Notification. TREE supported this bill, which passed.
  • Teacher Pay Restoration: TREE supported this bill, which passed.
  • Elimination of School Board Representation. TREE opposed this bill, which failed.

Legislators were ranked from A+ to F based on their votes on the issues of importance to TREE.

Senators receiving top grades: Charlotte Burks (D-15), Lowe Finney (D-27), Thelma Harper (D-19), Jim Kyle (D-30), Becky Massey (R-6), Doug Overbey (R-2), and Ken Yager (R-12).

Of those, Senators Burks, Finney, and Kyle will not be in the General Assembly in 2015 due to retirement.

Representatives receiving top grades: Raumesh Akbari (D-91), John Forgety (R-23), Gloria Johnson (D-13), Bo Mitchell (D-50), Joe Pitts (D-67), and Mike Stewart (D-52).

TREE billed the release as a means of informing voters ahead of the November elections.

View the full report card.

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

 

Fitzhugh, Frogge Take on Tennessee Ed Reform

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge both had Tennessean op-eds this weekend that challenged the state’s education establishment to start listening to teachers when it comes to deciding what schools and students need.

Fitzhugh referenced a recent letter to teachers from Governor Bill Haslam and noted its very tone was insulting. Teachers have also responded to Haslam.

From Fitzhugh’s op-ed:

Tennessee teachers don’t need the governor to explain to them that too many students are unprepared for a postsecondary education — they see it firsthand every morning. Instead of lecturing on the issue, the governor should give our teachers the tools they need to succeed, starting with the raise they were promised in 2014 and working to increase per pupil spending beyond our woeful $8,600 a child.

Instead of talking down to our teachers, instead of blaming them for the state of our workforce, we need a new conversation.

We need to talk about a new evaluation system that grades teachers on students they actually teach and rates their performance in a fair, objective manner. We need to talk about per-pupil spending, teacher salaries and where our priorities are as a state. We need to talk about prekindergarten and the real effects of early learning.

In her article, Amy Frogge also pushes for more respect for teachers and argues that evidence-based practices chosen by teachers should be driving education policy:

As a community, we must ensure that every child comes to school ready to learn. Research confirms that poverty, not poor teachers, is at the root of sagging school performance. Indeed, the single biggest factor impacting school performance is the socioeconomic status of the student’s family. Nashville has seen a 42 percent increase in poverty in the past 10 years, and our child poverty and hunger rates remain alarmingly high throughout the U.S. Too many of our students lack basic necessities, and many suffer what experts have termed “toxic stress” caused by chronic poverty. Our efforts to address this problem must extend outside of school walls to provide “wrap-around services” that address social, emotional and physical needs of children through community partnerships and volunteers.

Other evidence-based, scalable school reforms include:

• excellent teacher recruitment, development, retention, and pay;

• socioeconomic diversity in schools;

• increased parental engagement;

• early intervention programs such as high quality pre-K, particularly for low-income children; and

• increased school funding. Let’s focus on these reforms, maintain local control of schools, and allow educators — not hedge funders — to have a voice in the direction of education policy.

 

Fitzhugh and Frogge offer an alternative vision from that dominating Tennessee’s education policy landscape. It is a vision of trusting teachers, investing in schools, and putting students first.