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.

 

 

 

 

Gresham Takes Swipe at Teacher Tenure Laws

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham this week began the process of questioning Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws.

According to a press release, Gresham has requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws in light of the recent decision in the Vergara v. California case.

From the release:

“This is a very important decision regarding teacher employment laws, which will reverberate to states across the nation, said Senator Gresham. “Tennessee, like California, has its own constitutional provision regarding student’s education rights in addition to the Equal Protection Clause afforded by the U.S. Constitution. We certainly need to make sure that we are on sound constitutional footing, and especially whether the reforms passed over the last several years will satisfy the constitutional tests as decided in this ruling.”

Gresham asked two specific questions:

1) Whether the current statutes or state law in effect prior to July 1, 2011 governing permanent employment violate students’ rights to a free education under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution.

2) If Tennessee law or the statutes in effect prior to July 1, 2014, governing layoffs or the dismissal and suspension of teachers violate student’s rights to a free education under the federal and state constitutions.

The Tennessee Constitution in Article 11, Section 12 states:

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.

It’s not clear how tenure protections for teachers would inhibit the provision (on an equal basis) of a free education for all students.

Tennessee’s tenure laws were changed in 2011.  Under those provisions, teachers must teach 5 years before tenure is considered. Only those teachers with two consecutive years of evaluation scores of 4 or 5 (the highest two scores) may be granted tenure. Teachers who fail to meet that standard cannot be granted tenure.

Under Tennessee law (TCA 49-5-511 and TCA 49-5-512), tenure affords simple due process rights to teachers.

That means that if a Director of Schools wishes to dismiss a tenured educator, the reason for dismissal must be provided in writing to the teacher.  Should the teacher wish to appeal the dismissal, the teacher has 30 days to request a hearing by an impartial hearing officer. That hearing must be scheduled within 30 days of the receipt of the request (a maximum of 60 days would pass between the notice of dismissal and the hearing).

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, in a unanimous decision, upheld the Tennessee law that requires both written notice and the opportunity for a hearing.

What’s not clear from Gresham’s early salvo is what about affording employees basic due process impedes a student’s right to equal access to a free public education.

It seems that abiding by a process that prevents arbitrary dismissal of teachers demonstrates to students a fundamental concept of fairness.  All teachers receive a TEAM evaluation score and since 2012, that score has been used in determining the granting of tenure. The dismissal process for tenured teachers is straightforward and allows both sides to present a case.  It prevents principals or Directors of Schools from simply dismissing teachers for reasons such as politics or personality issues.

Meanwhile, the free public education to which Gresham seems concerned that all students should have access to, is undermined by a General Assembly that balances the state’s budget on the backs of teachers and schools.  In the case of Gresham specifically, she has been a tireless champion of K12, Inc., a private, virtual school that receives Tennessee tax dollars yet fails to even approach adequately educating Tennessee students.

While the Governor has appointed a duplicative BEP task force designed to avoid the uncomfortable conversation around the inadequacy of current BEP funding, Senator Gresham is starting a fight about teacher tenure.  It’s the BEP funding that could, in fact, be unconstitutional in its current form as many systems find it inadequate to meet the needs of students.

Whatever the AG opinion says, this may only be the beginning of a legislative and legal fight over teacher tenure in Tennessee.

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

PARCC Delayed is PARCC Denied?

The Conference Committee Report on HB 1549/SB 1835 — legislation that would delay Common Core implementation — is out.

While the report does NOT recommend a delay in implementation per se, it does set out requirements for legislative notification prior to adoption of Common Core standards in science and social studies. Which may ultimately mean those standards are not adopted.

Perhaps most interesting is the section related to PARCC — the Pearson test associated with Common Core.

The Conference Committee Report contains language that would DELAY PARCC tests for one year — so, they wouldn’t start in 2015 as planned.  It goes further by requiring that the Department of Education accept bids for a test of Tennessee’s standards, including the Common Core in English/Language Arts and Math.

It’s possible, of course, that PARCC could still be the chosen option in Tennessee.  Then again, the state could go the way of Kentucky and Florida and drop out of PARCC altogether and contract for a different test.

Unless the General Assembly wants to stay in session for a few more days, it seems likely that this report will be adopted as the compromise position — allowing Tennessee to proceed with the Common Core as currently adopted and taking a step back to assess which test best meets the state’s needs.

Read the full Conference Committee Report.

Tennessee Solution?

In response to Governor Bill Haslam’s betrayal of his promise to improve teacher pay, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House is proposing a series of budget amendments they are calling the “Tennessee Solution.”

The plan costs $90 million and provides teachers and state employees a one-time bonus and adds a 1% raise to that bonus if state revenues reach certain targets.

Here are some details provided by the Tennessee Education Association:

Amendments to the governor’s budget plan will be presented this Thursday. The bipartisan plan includes a raise and bonus for teachers. Please contact your legislators immediately to show support for this plan.
The governor’s proposed changes to the budget – including the removal of his promised raise to teachers – passed both the House and Senate Finance committees yesterday. It is scheduled for floor votes this Thursday. Please contact your legislators immediately to ask for their support of the plan to reinstate the pay increase for teachers and state employees.

The bipartisan group of House legislators plan to propose two amendments they are calling the “Tennessee Solution.” The amendments include the following:

  • One percent raise for teachers and state employees, contingent upon revenue collection. A portion of the raise will be included in the current budget to be paid-out if and when revenue numbers reach the total required amount for the raise. 
  • One-time bonus for teachers and state employees, possibly for employees with three or more years of service

 

While it seems unlikely the raise portion of the plan will be met unless underlying revenue concerns are addressed, the plan does provide a one-time bonus that would, at least for this budget cycle, boost teacher and state employee pay.

A more ambitious plan would have addressed long-term revenue concerns and/or provided for cuts in other departments in order to fund investments in education.

As the plan details became available, the House broke into Caucus meetings with Republican leadership stressing that the conservative stance was to oppose the “Tennessee Solution” and support the betrayal of Tennessee’s teachers and state workers.

A vote on the proposed amendments is expected Thursday.

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

Helping Haslam

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, has some advice for Governor Haslam:

The critic, Niccolo Machiavelli, taught us that assertions of virtue and integrity in politicians are often grinning masks of deception. So we are not surprised when politicians routinely over-promise and under-deliver. State leadership must coherently articulate K-12 Education Policy to citizens in a truthful manner.

By state leaders continuing to ignore legitimate concerns, such as a vocal opposition to the Common Core State Standards and PARCC Assessments, policymakers and stakeholders across Tennessee have now been negatively impacted. This message has largely fallen on deaf ears at the highest level of state government, who continue to believe all is well. Members of the Tennessee General Assembly have listened and we are grateful to those legislators. Many citizens share the opinion that school teachers, principals, and superintendents are regarded by the administration as impediments to school improvement rather than partners.

As an organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee have embraced higher standards, with the caveat that we should always seek higher standards and a commitment to student achievement. We were very enthusiastic when Governor Haslam pledged to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries in October 2013 and again in the State of the State in February 2014. We intend to help him keep his word.

Governor Haslam has justly boasted “we are one of only six states in the country that has consistently increased state spending on K-12 education as a percentage of our total budget.” He has added that since 2011, “we’ve had the fourth largest increase in education spending compared to the rest of the country.” The questions we need to ask:  How much of this has been Race to the Top Funds?  Where were all those funds allocated?  How much money was actually earmarked to the classroom?

If policymakers boast that Tennessee is the fourth largest state for increase in education spending, then funds from RTTT need to factor into that calculation. Our estimation is that roughly $252 million of the RTTT grant was retained by the Tennessee Department of Education and never saw the inside of a school or classroom. These dollars went toward consultants’ contracts and partnerships.

Our belief is that every dollar earmarked for education should be spent to benefit Tennessee school children. A teacher’s working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. If Tennessee had the most ‘growth’ of any state on the latest NAEP results led by our state teachers, why were their promised salaries a lower priority than unproven PARCC Testing or adding Media/Marketing and Event Coordinators at the Tennessee Department of Education?

We support a delay and/or for the state to rescind the mandate for LEA’s to create a differentiated pay plan. Without the state’s increased financial contribution this creates an unfunded mandate on our local school systems. If the state mandates a requirement they should subsequently provide the necessary funding to facilitate that obligation at the local level. Unfunded mandates fly in the face of conservative orthodoxy and sound public policy.

Teacher attrition is a serious issue. We must keep experienced educators in our classrooms. Tennessee colleges and universities are very adept at meeting the demand for producing quality educators in this state. Historically, approximately 50% of the teachers that graduate with a degree in education do not find a teaching job.

We would suggest a review and delay for all Teach for America (TFA) contracts. Researcher Elaine Weiss revealed that Tennessee spends more money per Teach for America recruit than any other state. Some reports state that total compensations ranging from $5,000 to $9,000, to as high as $15,000, have been paid to Teach for America for their recruits. If this is true, we should turn to our own graduates of traditional colleges of education looking for an opportunity to teach in their own state.

Teaching is higher calling for professionals, not a pre-career placeholder. Therefore, it makes little sense to employ temporary teachers and spend scarce tax dollars and resources then watch a teacher leave after two years. Our goal should be hiring and retaining quality teachers that want to live, play, and worship in our communities long-term, instead of marking off days until a loan is forgiven and entrance to graduate school is accomplished.

We do not seek to be unduly critical of Governor Haslam. We recognize that there are many competent people in the Department of Education and administration. However, the media may be the only hope to reach the Governor. We encourage the Governor to confront issues directly, answer emails timely and regularly meet face-to-face with education stakeholders on a consistent basis, not through intermediaries. Governor Haslam, you need our help and we want to extend our hand to offer the assistance you need.

More on how Tennessee came to be short on revenue.

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

 

The Governor, The Budget, and Making Teacher Salaries a Priority

This article was written by JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

By now Governor Haslam is aware of the disappointment by educators in his decision to remove increases in teacher salaries. In reneging on this promise, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation when it comes to teacher salaries, it is clear his priorities have shifted. This pay raise was promoted with great fanfare.

In October 2013, Professional Educators of Tennessee applauded Governor Haslam’s decision to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries. We must be equally concerned about the abandonment of this pledge and reneging on this statement within such a short period of time.

Public school teachers do incredible work across the state of Tennessee and the nation. They are often not recognized for their tireless dedication to a very demanding job, in which most educators identify as a calling. It has been fashionable to lay all the ills of society at the feet of teachers, but it is not fair. Every intelligent debate on student achievement would be wise to consider factors beyond the control of most teachers and schools.

No generation of educators in the history of the world has been asked to do what we now demand of our public schools. The challenge and responsibility has grown, yet public schools gladly commit to teach all children who enter their classrooms.

Everyday teachers are challenged by a wide-ranging mixture of social, psychological, and physical problems that impede the improvement of so many students entrusted into their care. You cannot reduce salaries or fail to reward Tennessee Educators and hope to attract and retain the best teachers to prepare students for the jobs of the future. This must be a legislative priority.

We need to take a very close look at teacher attrition. It is difficult to create a stable and world class education with a highly unstable teaching workforce. You cannot continue to make teachers, or state employees for that matter, a non-priority. When legislative priorities are more focused on the results of a test given at the end of a school the year, rather than those educating children then we have lost our focus as a state. We have made textbook companies and test publishers prosperous while we engage in a rigorous debate over a 2% raise for a teacher. People deserve a higher priority.

I understand Governor Haslam’s conundrum; business tax revenues are roughly $200 million less than projections. However, educators cannot understand how the Haslam Administration could have changed course so quickly and made educators bear the brunt of his decision making. In a political environment rampant with ideological conflict and tainted by partisanship, surely no policymaker of either party can be satisfied by the decision to abandon minor raises for teachers and state workers.

Policymakers understand that state policies and budget decisions affect the lives of Tennesseans. Any budget proposed must decisively connect tax dollars to state priorities. When teacher salaries are cut from the state budget you may well be creating another unfunded state mandate on LEA’s due to the state mandated differentiated pay plan. We encourage policymakers to discuss this directly with LEA’s in their community.

Like many policymakers, we feel disconnected when we hear of decisions impacting public education through the media, and not from the governor or his staff directly. Stakeholders should have a chance to weigh in on the cumulative effects of a policy change. This is poor leadership and lacks transparency.  We would maintain that when confronting a calamity of this nature, government needs to be transparent about the situation, the people, and the decisions which must be made. Transparency breeds accountability, accountability leads to trust, and trust will allow Tennesseans to know their tax dollars are used wisely.

Research clearly and consistently demonstrates that the quality of the classroom teacher is the number one school based factor in student learning. This is not what is reflected in Governor Haslam’s budget. It is up to policymakers and constituents to ask the Governor why teacher salaries are not a priority.

More on Governor Haslam’s broken promise here.

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

Prioritizing Education

Gov. Bill Haslam tweeted on October 3, 2013: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

The first hint that being fast-improving might take some time came in the Governor’s 2014 budget presentation, when he proposed a 2% pay raise for the state’s teachers.  By way of comparison, Kentucky’s Governor also proposed a 2% raise for his state’s teachers. It’s tough to be the fastest improving when you move at the same rate as your competition.  It’s like being down 40-30 at halftime of a basketball game.  Then, in the second half, you match the other team and score 40 points.  You end up losing 80-70.  To be fastest-improving, you have to score more points, but maybe Haslam’s not a sports fan.

Then, comes yesterday’s news that Haslam’s budget is facing trouble because state revenues are down.  So, surely he’s going to focus on keeping those all-important teacher raises and commitment to K-12 education, right? Wrong.  Haslam is balancing the state budget by denying promised raises to teachers and state employees and ditching his proposed increases to higher education. What’s worse, Haslam’s Commissioner of Education convinced the state Board of Education to mandate that Tennessee school districts adopt differentiated pay scales.  The 2% increase in salary money available to districts was to help them meet this goal.  Now, the districts still face the mandate but will lack the state support to make truly meaningful change.

Below Mississippi? The Tennessee Education Association was quick to jump on the proposed cuts as unacceptable.  Citing research by the National Education Association, the TEA notes in a press release that Tennessee will now invest less per student than Mississippi.  According to the research, Tennessee’s per pupil investment is 45th in the nation and below every neighboring state but North Carolina. TEA President Gera Summerford said, “In order to attract and retain the best teachers, it is critical that the state properly fund teacher salaries.”

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.

Other options? It’s not clear, what, if any other options were considered.  In Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear proposed a budget that included 5% cuts to most state departments while raising teacher pay and increasing investment in K-12 education. So, while his state faces a tight budget situation and difficult choices, he chose to put forward a budget that increased spending on public education and invested in Kentucky’s teachers, who are already better paid than Tennessee’s. The Kentucky General Assembly passed a version of that budget this week. Tennessee’s General Assembly may make changes to Governor Haslam’s proposals, of course. But it’s difficult to claim that Bill Haslam is putting education first.  Of course, that tweet back in October could also have been a set up for a rather cruel April Fool’s Day joke.   For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Silencing the Opposition

Joey Garrison has the story about some legislators who wish that local school boards didn’t hire lobbyists to represent their interests before the legislature.

To that end, they’ve filed legislation that would allow County Commissions to revise a School Board’s budget as it relates to lobbying expenses (HB 229/SB 2525).

Many school boards in the state are members of the Tennessee School Boards Association, which hires a lobbyist to represent the interests of school boards at the General Assembly. Additionally, some local boards hire contract firms and/or in-house government relations specialists to monitor state policy.

Of course, many County Commissioners are members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Organization, which employs a lobbyist to represent the interests of County Commissions at the General Assembly.  And many local government bodies also contract for or hire government relations specialists.

And of course, if local citizens don’t like how their School Board spends money, they can speak out at public meetings, talk to Board members directly, or even vote in new Board members.

None of this seems to matter to sponsors Rep. Jeremy Durham of Franklin and Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville.

This legislation would give County Commissions unprecedented authority over School Board budgets.  In districts that hire in-house lobbyists, the Commission would theoretically have staffing authority over that position.

In Tennessee, School Boards propose budgets and determine how funds are spent, County Commissions either fund all or part of the proposed budget.  But, Commissions have no authority over how school dollars are spent.  Their only recourse is to reject a budget and suggest amendments or improvements – which the School Board can adopt or not.

However, it seems likely that resistance to recent reform efforts by School Boards is at the root of this issue.  Recently, groups like TSBA and some prominent local School Boards have been vocally opposed to school vouchers, a state charter authorizer, and even portions of the state’s new teacher evaluation plan.

And, outside groups like StudentsFirst and the deceptively-named Tennessee Federation for Children have been spending significantly to push a pro-reform agenda.

From Garrison’s story:

Out-of-state organizations StudentsFirst and the Tennessee Federation for Children — both of which want a voucher system to let public dollars go toward private schooling — have ramped up lobbying again this fiscal yearafter spending some $235,000 to $455,000 in lobbying-related efforts the year before. The Tennessee Charter School Center is armed with eight lobbyists this session.

So it seems that rather than looking out for local taxpayers, Durham and Bell are looking out for outside special interest groups seeking to influence how local tax dollars are spent in Tennessee.

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