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


 

MNPS Hosts Early Childhood Summit

From a press release:

Metro Schools brought together early childhood educators, community partners and businesses to connect and collaborate at MNPS’ Excellence in Early Education Summit 2017 on June 21.

Attendees learned about MNPS’ pre-K program developments throughout this past year, and the program’s work towards building quality pre-K across Davidson County.

The summit also highlighted the milestones met through the federal Preschool Development Grant – Expansion (PDG-E), which has provided MNPS the opportunity to expand access to high quality pre-school programs by adding new classrooms and strengthening the quality of existing classrooms.

Dr. Shawn Joseph and Mayor Megan Barry provided remarks during the summit focused on the importance of building a strong learning foundation to support and develop Nashville’s youngest learners. Dr. Elizabeth Alves, assistant commissioner for the Office of Early Learning and Literacy at the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), provided the keynote and discussed the importance of quality pre-K programs throughout Tennessee.

MNPS Pre-K community partners participated in a round table discussion, including: Conexión Américas, Global Education Center, KinderCare, Nashville Public Library, MNPS Pre-K Comprehensive Services, MNPS Plant the Seed, MNPS Pre-K Coaching and Instructional Support, The Headstart Program (Metro Action Commission), United Way of Metropolitan Nashville and Vanderbilt Peabody Research Institute. During their presentations, they provided attendees with an overview of their organization, and discussed their work through the PDG-E grant and the impact they have had on Metro’s pre-K program and students.

This is the second Excellence in Early Education Summit hosted by Metro Schools. The event was sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Education with Preschool Development Grant-Expansion Funds.

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


 

The Curious Case of Williamson County

Williamson Strong has more on the evolving situation in Williamson County where a County Commission reluctant to raise revenue is forcing the School Board to make budget cuts.

Using information on spending relative to peer districts, Williamson Strong notes there’s no spending problem in Williamson County, and in fact, Williamson spends significantly less than other top districts and even has lower per pupil expenditures than the state average:

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.

For reference, Franklin Special School District, the K-8 district that sits in the heart of Williamson County, spends $13,386 per student – almost 50% more per child than WCS. WCS also spends below the state average – $554 per student less than Tennessee’s average $9,499. Keep in mind that Tennessee is typically in the bottom ten states for per pupil expenditures. (See former School Board member Eric Welch’s graphs for comparison to state and national figures as well as to area private school tuitions.)

Additionally, WCS’ average teacher pay of $49,934 is $3,729 below the average of the top 10 districts in the state. Williamson’s spending on salaries is not out of control, and in fact, is less than peer districts. Again, for comparison, FSSD’s average teacher salary is $55,305.

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.

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


 

McQueen vs. DeVos

President Trump’s education budget is bad news for Tennessee’s schools. So much so that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, penned a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking that the proposed cuts be reconsidered.

Jason Gonzalez of the Tennessean reports:

Tennessee officials say heavy cuts to children’s programs in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could hinder the long-term progress the state has made helping poor and disadvantaged kids.

The $4.1 trillion White House budget proposal calls for cuts to school and health care funding that helps the state’s neediest children.

The cuts could mean larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs.

McQueen warned:

“Tennessee’s rural areas and poorer districts are especially dependent upon these funds, as their local budgets are unable to provide additional support for professional learning,” McQueen wrote.

According to the State Report Card, federal funding accounts for 11.72% of all education funding in the state. While all of those funds wouldn’t be eliminated in the Trump-DeVos budget, the proposal does make significant cuts. Rural communities are often more dependent on federal funds and so would be hit hardest, as McQueen notes.

While Tennessee has made some progress in recent years on school funding, the state is still behind where it should be in terms of full funding of the BEP — the funding formula for schools. Losing a significant amount of federal dollars would deal a blow to a state finally inching forward in terms of education progress.

The McQueen letter may be the first public evidence that the Haslam administration is at odds with the leadership from Washington. It’s encouraging to see McQueen take this stand and publicly fight for the needs of Tennessee’s poorest districts.

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


 

New Franchise

I’ve written before about the state’s Achievement School District eyeing Chattanooga for an expansion of it’s reach.

Now, it seems the speculation is nearing an end and Chattanooga will see some form of state intervention. Will it be the major league of the ASD? What seems more likely is a minor league effort, a “partnership zone.”

More from Chalkbeat on how that might work:

In a partnership zone, clusters of schools are essentially turned into mini-school districts that are freed from many local rules and governed jointly by local and state officials. Local leaders get to experiment the same way that charter schools can, but they continue to have a say in how their schools are run. State officials get to push for needed improvements, but they aren’t solely responsible for strong results — something that has proven elusive so far for them.

The partnership zone idea originated in Springfield, Massachusetts, where an “Empowerment Zone” is finishing its second year. There, educators and community leaders who might oppose school takeovers — or be displaced by them — have embraced the zone, which has nine schools and is set to grow. As a result, people there say, changes in schools are gaining traction.

This would mark a change in approach from the ASD’s top-down, low communication, high confrontation efforts in Memphis and Nashville. I’ve previously noted that the ASD is being reined-in after years of an aggressive approach that won the district plenty of enemies while failing to generate measurable results.

Time will tell if the state’s new approach and developmental league effort will be more well-received and/or more successful than the ASD.

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