How Much for Schools?

Tennessee continues to experience revenue growth beyond budgeted estimates. The latest numbers indicate the state took in $112 million more than was budgeted for June. That brings the amount collected over budgeted estimates to $789 million with one more month left to calculate for the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, in spite of recent increases in allocation to teacher compensation, school systems still aren’t seeing adequate BEP funding. Every district in the state hires more teachers than allocated by the BEP formula. The state doesn’t provide any funding for the mandate of providing Response to Intervention. The state’s BEP Review Committee indicates providing funding for RTI positions would cost about $28 million. That’s about 25% of this month’s surplus. YES, for the cost of 1/4 of one month’s surplus revenue, we can begin providing funding for RTI positions. Districts should be demanding this money. The state can afford it.

As for teacher compensation, the state pays 70% of the BEP calculated rate — which is now $46,225. The good news: That calculated rate has been increasing in recent years. The bad news: That rate is still $7000 LESS than the average teacher compensation paid by districts in the state.

What does this mean? It means districts have to make up a big difference in order to maintain their level of pay. As one example, Nashville is struggling to pay teachers on par with similar cities nationally. Based on current BEP formula allocations, funding teaching positions at the actual average rate would mean MNPS would receive an additional $21 million for teacher compensation. Those funds would certainly help close the pay gap that plagues the system.

It’s worth noting that Tennessee has one of the largest gaps between teacher salaries and salaries of similarly-educated professions. Add to that the low reimbursement rate for teaching positions, and it’s not difficult to see why our teacher pay lags behind other cities and states.

To recap: Tennessee pays 70% of a pay rate that is $7000 below the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Fixing that by funding teaching positions at the actual cost would mean spending $343 million more per year. Or, about three months worth of surpluses. For another $28 million, we could also fund RTI positions.

Tennessee is on sound financial footing. We have month after month of budget surpluses. We also have a clearly identified policy need that would consume less than 40% of those surplus dollars. That leaves plenty of money for savings, other investments, or new projects.

I write this story year after year after year.

Policymakers can choose to address the serious funding challenges facing our schools. They can do it without raising taxes. They can do it while still saving more than $600 million.

This should be easy.

If providing excellent public schools is a top priority, the state will move to fund teaching positions at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher.

Every candidate for governor should be asked if they support making this investment. Their answer will say a lot about the priority they place on public education.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport


 

Teachers Union Membership Is Down Again. What Should TEA Do?

A new report shows that 27 state affiliates of the National Education Association lost active members in the past year, including Tennessee. Tennessee Education Association’s (TEA) membership dipped last year and has been continuously decreasing over the past five years.

In Tennessee, TEA had 28,802 active members during the 2015 – 2016 school year. That’s down 7%, or 2,240, from their 2014 – 2015 total of 31,042. TEA has lost over 37% of their active members in the past five years.

The decrease in membership is a direct result of the state’s mission to do whatever it takes to make the union as weak as possible. Teacher’s collective bargaining and payroll deductions were stripped away, and the membership has been decreasing since then.

While TEA can no longer collectively bargain, they can do what is known as collaborative conferencing. Teachers at Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to start collective conferencing with the district this past school year. 

The Tennessean describes collaborative conferencing as:

Collaborative conferencing is a form of district and union negotiation where topics such as: salaries or wages; grievance procedures; insurance benefits; fringe benefits; working conditions; vacation; and payroll deductions can be discussed. Other topics outside those listed are prohibited in meetings and conversations.

Another reason to join TEA was the ability to gain liability insurance. Now, the state of Tennessee provides all public school teachers with liability coverage at no cost, though the amount of coverage is not clearly defined.

The Fund provides liability insurance coverage to covered individuals and protects against damages or claims arising out of the performance of their work and within the scope of their employment or assignment

I have spoken to many teachers who agree with the positions of TEA, but do not want to spend $670 a year to become a member of a union that no longer has power. The state of Tennessee has done everything it can to reduce the amount of power TEA has in hopes of reducing their membership. It looks like it has worked.

What should TEA do to increase membership? I would love to hear your ideas.

What Happens When Public/Private/Charter Teachers Work Together?

This is a guest post by Alecia Ford. Ms. Ford is a teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

It’s so easy to demonize others: people on the other side of political issues, borders, the railroad tracks.

Each summer I choose a 1 – 2 week long professional development opportunity. This year, I applied to The Educators’ Cooperative because Greg O’Loughlin at University School of Nashville was purposefully getting us “others” together. The Cooperative is a public/private/charter educator group in its second year that exists for “creating, supporting and sharing best practices in teaching and learning”, @Ed_Cooperative #forteachersbyteachers on Twitter. Greg is the Director and founder of the Cooperative.

Ideally, 30 teachers are selected from the applicants: 10 each from public, charter and private/independent schools according to the website. While our cohort didn’t hit that mark exactly, we had educators representing grades K through 12, a variety of content areas and years of experience, from magnet, zoned, charter, private and religious schools in Nashville. I have taught 12 years in Metro zoned and magnet schools, my last 7 years at J. T. Moore Middle.

Nashville has struggled to have civil dialogue about charters, public education and ed policy. The whole country is struggling with civil dialogue. In all honesty, I didn’t just want to learn more about my craft. I also wanted to get in there and meet these teachers from the “other” schools (not zoned public schools) and understand where they were coming from – no loaded words or posturing, no middlemen/women between us. I guess I was wondering… how could they?

Here’s what I learned:

  • I still and always love being a student and learning from and with others.
  • All of us are interested in professional growth and improving our craft.
  • All of us are interested in providing excellent educational opportunities for our students, in both academics and in social/emotional growth.
  • All of us chose teaching. Some of us came from non-traditional pathways, some as second career teachers, some always knew they wanted to be teachers. WE BELIEVE IN THIS MISSION.

We practiced a Critical Friends Protocol that uses small groups to generate ideas and solve problems. We explored design thinking with stoke.d one afternoon. We had a panel of mindfulness coaches answering questions. In between, we got to know each other and liked each other. We built trust all week. No time was wasted. And I wondered, what would it be like to talk about equity with this cross-section of inspired, talented, open-minded educators from across the city?

Toward the end of the week, Greg orchestrated an Ed Camp. Edcamp is a structure where participants suggest topics which are then organized into common themes and scheduled into time slots. Also called un-conference, it’s a way to catch anything you didn’t get to talk about yet and network around common interests. There is no leader in each session, just interested participants who can discuss and share ideas.

I put up post-its with EQUITY, Systemic Racism, Vouchers and Ed Policy written on them, assuring myself I wasn’t being divisive or political just for the sake of it. I reminded myself of a Brittany Packnett tweet, ‘Calling out racism isn’t divisive – racism is divisive.’ We need to be able to talk about tough topics.

Ten minutes later I was in a room with like-minded educators from all types of schools who are also interested in equity and systemic injustices. We all know some schools simply have greater needs while other schools have greater resources, financially and socially. We worry about public tax money going to private, religious and for-profit schools. We wonder why and how schools with such high concentrations of poverty still exist in Nashville. We worry vouchers will only subsidize middle class and affluent families already attending private schools, and accessibility will keep out families without transportation. We wonder whether these ideas will help or harm our most vulnerable students. We want there to be excellent choices for every family, no matter your zip code.

I saw a dedicated teacher at a new charter school working to create opportunities for her students. I heard zoned school teachers wondering if a single pot of money split by a larger number of schools would automatically mean less resources for their students and schools. I saw a private and public school teacher start talking about a shared garden space. But I didn’t see “other” anymore, not in that classroom.

We all want what’s best for OUR kids. What if we (Nashville) valued ALL kids as OUR kids? What if every student could get what they needed to thrive? We need to keep this conversation going, keep practicing civil discourse, keep reaching across the lines of other. Thank you, Greg, for bringing us together. We have work to do.

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


 

Teacher Turnover in MNPS

It is a problem. A big one. The Tennessean reports:

Over 50 percent of the teachers leaving Metro Nashville Public Schools are within their first three years of teaching, according to district officials.

The article notes the district is taking some steps to address this:

Due to the high turnover, district leaders said they hope to expand retention initiatives in the coming year by making mandatory a new teacher introductory program, as well as ensuring all new teachers have a seasoned mentors to guide them.

Those are both important. Mentoring can be a great way to help new teachers navigate their first years in a very challenging profession.

School Board member Amy Frogge also raised the issue of teacher pay. It’s certainly worth examining.

As I noted earlier this week, teachers in Nashville aren’t paid as well as their counterparts in similar urban districts, like Louisville. They also face a city with a rising cost of living.

This fact should be of concern:

The salary to live comfortably in Louisville is $49,000. Teachers in Louisville hit that pay rate by year 5. A teacher in Nashville isn’t making $49,000 even after 10 years of experience. The pay scale in Nashville simply isn’t moving up quickly enough.

Teach your heart out in MNPS for 10 years and you still don’t make $50,000 a year. Is it any wonder teachers leave early on to pursue other, more financially rewarding careers?

No, it’s not all about money. But when teachers in Nashville can’t even earn enough to live comfortably in the city, we have a problem. When teachers in Nashville earn $15,000 less than teachers in Louisville after 20 years of experience, we have a problem.

Leaving behind the comparison to Louisville, one big problem is teacher pay relative to cost of living:

Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

Another part of the problem with teacher pay in Nashville can be attributed to a state government that has historically kept teacher pay relatively low. In fact, teachers in Tennessee earn roughly 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Certainly, a number of factors contribute to high teacher turnover among early career teachers. Teaching is a difficult job and doing it well requires resources and support. Teacher pay is certainly a part of the equation. Adding mentors and mandating an introductory program may help, but addressing pay is also essential. As the Tennessean article notes:

Last year, the district faced more than 100 vacancies by the end of July and with about a week until school started. That was higher than in previous years, given the district has averaged about 40 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year.

It’s difficult to sign people up for a challenging job that pays 30% less than other professions requiring similar preparation. It’s clearly challenging to keep people in those jobs once they’ve taken them.

How long will MNPS’s relatively low pay for teachers be sustainable?

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


 

The Brentwood Bargain

On the same day the Williamson County Commission voted in favor of more lattes and less taxes — meaning less investment in schools — the Brentwood City Commission was presented with a request to explore the operation of an independent city school district.

The Tennessean notes:

As Williamson County Commission struggles to come up with long-term funding for the projected influx of students to enroll in its public schools over the next several years, Tabor argued that future tax increases to fund the school district would affect Brentwood residents disproportionately.

“We would feel increases more than anyone else in the county due to our home values,” he said.

Tabor said there’s a “fundamental funding gap” between what Brentwood contributes to Williamson County School and what the city is getting in return.

The argument that Brentwood residents aren’t getting value for their money invested in Williamson County Schools is one that simply does not make sense. Williamson County Schools are consistently among the best in the state in terms of student achievement. The district has an average ACT score of 24.6. Williamson County has the lowest per pupil spending of any district rated in the top 10 in terms of student achievement. In fact, Williamson County spends $1790 less per student than the average PPE of the top ten districts in the state.

Now, let’s examine the idea that a city school district might be a better value. Or, as Tabor may not have said but his comments implied: Would it be cheaper to have a city school system?

No.

Example one is Franklin Special School District. A school district located in the city limits of Franklin inside Williamson County. Interestingly, while Williamson County’s PPE is the lowest of any district in the top 10 in terms of student achievement, Franklin’s is the highest. Franklin SSD spends $13,984 per student. That’s $5,039 MORE than Williamson spends. A portion of that is attributable to teacher pay, which is roughly $6000 higher in Franklin than in Williamson.

Now, let’s turn to the most recent experiment in independent school districts: Shelby County. Six cities on the outskirts of Shelby County formed special school districts recently as a result of the merger between Memphis City and Shelby County schools.

The average per pupil spending for those districts is about $8500. That’s just a touch less than Williamson spends. On the high end, Millington spends over $10,000 per student.

What would Brentwood’s experience be? Would they pay teachers less than both Franklin and Williamson County in order to keep costs low? How likely would they be to be competitive in providing the resources that families have come to expect in Williamson County if they operated on an even lower per pupil expenditure than Williamson County does?

Tabor presented an item for discussion: Would it be a good value for Brentwood to operate an independent school system. The answer is no. Williamson County Schools provides one of the best values for the dollar invested of any school system in the state. Oh, and they do it with the lowest tax rate of any county in middle Tennessee.

Brentwood, your current situation as it relates to schools is a bargain.

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


 

 

Budget Day in Williamson County

From a post on the Williamson Strong Facebook page:

Today’s the big day! The County Commission will spend the whole day discussing and voting on “approximately 50 resolutions concerning the county budget, including a total county general budget proposal of $557 million, a school budget of $337 million, various capital projects and over 20 new positions in county government.”

In advance of today’s meeting, the WCSB cut the proposed 2017-18 WCS budget by $6 million “eliminating multiple proposed instructional positions, including counselors, special education support staff and proposed central office positions.” With the cut eliminating the need for a tax increase this year, the school budget should be approved with little debate.

“Looney explained that if the school district is forced to cut its budget again in other areas next year, and beyond, to avoid a tax increase, with no incoming revenue, the school district will be unable to maintain its current high level of service.”

You might think from reading this that Williamson County is struggling financially. Or that they lack the fiscal capacity to maintain a high level of school services. But, the reality is they simply have a County Commission that prefers lattes to tax increases.

As I noted previously:

So, the School Board passed budget cuts of $6 million this week. The alternative would have been for the County Commission to raise property taxes by six cents. That would cost a taxpayer with a $400,000 home $60 a year. Or, one Starbucks drink a month.

While this may not be a huge setback this year, it’s unsustainable in a district growing as rapidly as Williamson County. At some point, the level of service provided to students will noticeably suffer. Until then, have another Caramel Macchiato.

Director of Schools Mike Looney echoed that sentiment when he noted that if this type of budgeting continues, Williamson County will no longer be able to provide the high level of service students and families have come to appreciate and expect.

While no one likes higher taxes, Williamson’s are comparatively low:

Here’s what’s interesting: A property tax increase of 6 cents would basically cover the projected shortfall. Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in Middle Tennessee. It’s 35 cents lower than the second-lowest, which is Sumner County. A 6 cent increase would mean Williamson’s tax rate would still be the lowest, and still be 29 cents lower than Sumner. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 roughly $60 a year.

Also low: Williamson County’s spending relative to top performing counties. In other words, Williamson County Schools is getting the maximum bang for taxpayer bucks:

Of the top 10 districts in terms of academic performance (measured by ACT/TCAP), WCS has the lowest per pupil expenditure. WCS spends only $8,945 per student – $1,790 less than the average PPE of the top 10 districts.

In spite of all the evidence and data, and the enviable position of being a high-performing school district with relatively low investment per student and the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee, Williamson County is set to start down a path that could result in losing ground. It may not be noticed in the 2017-18 school year, but as Looney notes, if the trend continues, there will be a loss of services.

How long will Williamson County Commissioners hold on to the myth that you can have excellent schools without maintaining your investment in them?

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


 

Not Nearly Enough

How much are MNPS teachers paid relative to their peers in similar districts? This was a question I attempted to answer two years ago. The results then were discouraging. They clearly indicated MNPS needed to do much more in terms of compensation for educators.

The question of the adequacy (or, rather, inadequacy) of MNPS teacher compensation is relevant again in light of a recently published study in Business Insider. Here’s the key finding:

It takes a salary of $70,150 to live in Nashville today.

Here’s how they came up with that number:

Live comfortably factors include housing, groceries, utilities and health insurance premiums. Monthly costs were totaled and multiplied by 12 to get the annual dollar cost of necessities in each city. This dollar amount for necessities was then doubled to find the actual annual income needed to live comfortably in the city, assuming a person is following the 50-30-20 budgeting guideline, which requires an income double the cost of necessities. This study also compared the amount of income needed in each city to each city’s actual median pretax household income, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The amount of money specified for savings is equal to 20 percent of the total income needed, and the amount specified for discretionary spending is equal to 30 percent of the total income needed.

And, I’m going to point out again:

It takes a salary of $70,150 to live in Nashville today.

So, how are Nashville’s teachers doing in the “live comfortably” index? Not so good.

Teachers in Nashville will receive a 3% raise this year, so that’s positive. Getting to that point did take some back and forth between the School Board and Mayor Barry, but it got done. However, it’s not nearly enough to get them to a “comfortable” salary. Or even one that is competitive with similar cities.

In my 2015 analysis, I compared Nashville to a number of similar cities. For this case, we’ll look at Louisville, Kentucky. It’s roughly the same size, has slightly more students, and is just a few hours away. A teacher graduating from MTSU or Western Kentucky could reasonably look at jobs in Nashville and Louisville and be close to friends and family in either city.

Teachers in Nashville start at $42,100 with a bachelor’s degree. In Louisville, they start at $42,700. So, starting pay in Nashville is competitive. But, let’s look longer term. That same teacher after 10 years in Nashville will earn $47,000. In Louisville, it’s $54,974.

Oh, and let me note this: The salary to live comfortably in Louisville is $49,000. Teachers in Louisville hit that pay rate by year 5. A teacher in Nashville isn’t making $49,000 even after 10 years of experience. The pay scale in Nashville simply isn’t moving up quickly enough.

So, what about after 20 years? A Nashville teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years experience makes $56,000. In Louisville, that teacher makes $71,000. A teacher working in Louisville with 20 years experience earns $22,000 more a year than that city’s “comfortable living” salary. In fact, they earn more than Nashville’s “comfortable” salary.

How about the top of the pay scale? At year 25, a Nashville teacher earns $57,000. In Louisville, it’s just over $72,000.

Some may note that teachers often earn advance degrees over the course of their career and that boosts pay. That’s true. So, a teacher with a master’s degree working in Nashville earns $62,600 at the top of the scale. In Louisville, it’s $78,000.

Imagine working for 25 years in the same profession, earning an advanced degree in your field, and making $7000 less than the “comfortable living” salary for your city? That’s what’s happening in MNPS.

One more note: If Nashville teachers want to come closer to the comfortable living salary, they could make their home in Nashville and commute to Williamson County, where teachers at the top of the scale with a bachelor’s degree earn just over $61,000 — or $4000 more than Nashville teachers. Got a master’s degree? You can earn just over $65,000 at the top of Williamson County’s scale.

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

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


 

Where’s Herb?

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is no stranger to signing letters or joining lawsuits to make political points or weigh-in on policy. He did so recently in opposing DACA in spite of the benefits the program carries for Tennessee families and communities.

This week, Attorneys General in 18 states filed suit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her to keep a rule designed to protect student loan borrowers.

NPR reports:

Attorneys general from Massachusetts, New York and 16 other states filed suit against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her department Thursday, accusing DeVos of breaking federal law and giving free rein to for-profit colleges by rescinding the Borrower Defense Rule.

The filing by 18 states and Washington, D.C., asks a U.S. District Court to declare the Education Department’s delay of the rule unlawful and to order the agency to implement it. The states say they have pursued “numerous costly and time-intensive investigations and enforcement actions against proprietary and for-profit schools” that violated consumer protection laws.

Slatery wasn’t among the Attorneys General signing-on to the suit.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey framed the issue this way:

“Since Day 1, Secretary DeVos has sided with for-profit school executives against students and families drowning in unaffordable student loans,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a news release about Thursday’s court filing. “Her decision to cancel vital protections for students and taxpayers is a betrayal of her office’s responsibility and a violation of federal law. We call on Secretary DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education to restore these rules immediately.”

Here’s Slatery’s record: For using state resources to separate families and weaken our economy by suing to end DACA, against using state resources to protect Tennessee students who take out loans to attend for-profit colleges.

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


 

Stein vs. Slatery

Educator and blogger Mike Stein takes on Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery over Slatery’s opposition to the federal DACA program.

Interestingly, Stein cites a study from the conservative Cato Institute to support his case:

The Cato Institute describes itself as “a public policy research organization–a think tank–dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” On January of this year, they released a report on their website titled “The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Repealing DACA.” Cato Institute’s research indicates that “working and earning a higher level of income in the formal sector means that the DACA workers pay more taxes, both through payroll, income, and sales as a result of greater consumption associated with higher incomes.” Additionally, “59 percent of DACA recipients reported getting their first job, 45 percent received a pay increase, 49 percent opened their first bank account, and 33 percent got their first credit card due to their participating in DACA. All of these factors contribute positively to the economy.” This report draws the strong conclusion that the “total cost estimate of immediately eliminating the DACA program and deporting its participants of $283 billion over 10 years. In other words, the United States economy would be poorer by more than a quarter of a trillion dollars if President Trump were to make good on his threat to repeal it.”

The point: Slatery is on the wrong side of this issue. DACA is good for Tennessee and it is the right thing to do for kids living in Tennessee. Slatery’s support for the Texas letter lacks a basis in reality. As Stein points out, suing the federal government over DACA would waste Tennessee tax dollars to stop a program that’s actually helping boost Tennessee’s economy. Plus, it’s good for kids. It’s not clear why Slatery wants to be on the wrong side of this issue. What is clear is that Stein makes a strong argument against Slatery’s position.

The entire piece is worth a read.

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


 

More Testing, Please

Even with proposals that reduced total testing time this year, Tennessee students spent about twice as much time taking tests than they did in 2012.

Chalkbeat has more:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

The Tennessee Education Association had this to say about the trend:

“While Tennessee is just at the beginning of the TNReady experiment, most teachers and parents believe there is too much time spent on testing and test prep,” says a statement by the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Tennessee is part of a nationwide trend toward longer tests, as states move away from purely multiple-choice assessments to ones with questions that are supposed to be better measure student learning — and take more time to answer.

Testing mandates increasing:

In addition to TNReady, the state mandated 14 separate tests this school year, including short diagnostic assessments for its intervention program, called RTI.

The new normal?

While TNReady has been disappointing in terms of the crash last year and the quick score mess this year, it appears it will continue to be the norm for Tennessee schools going forward.

More tests. Longer tests. All to satisfy the demand for accountability. We still don’t know how well TNReady works to assess standards because it simply failed last year. We haven’t seen test questions or answers. And while some parents attempt to opt-out, Commissioner McQueen stands against allowing that choice.

When resisting opt-out, McQueen and others often cite federal law requiring districts to test 95% of their students. But, here’s the thing:

The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

As we see both problems with test administration and score delivery, we may also see more parents move to opt their children out of the growing number of tests students face. It’s important to note that when those wishing to opt-out are told it will cost their district money, that claim is not backed up by any federal action. It’s up to Tennessee’s Department of Education to decide whether or not to allow opt-outs or to punish districts by withholding funds. Ultimately, the Department of Education is accountable to the General Assembly.

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