F for Effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Dreamer Stories: Jose and Kristifer

Tennessee State University students Jose Lazo and Kristifer Kremer talk about DACA and what it means to them.

Jose Lazo

My name is Jose Lazo and I am a Dreamer.

My eighth birthday was the saddest day of my life. There was no party, no piñata, no chorus of friends and family singing “feliz cumpleaños a ti.”

Just a couple months prior, I was uprooted from everything I had ever known – my school, my friends, my family – to begin a two-month journey out of central America, through Mexico and across the U.S. border into Brownsville, Texas, to escape what little was left of my home after the Salvadoran Civil War.

Up to that point, I hadn’t understood what was happening, but on my eighth birthday it finally clicked: I was here now – starting completely over. Nothing would ever be the same.

Soon after my birthday, my family moved to Tennessee. I started public school where I struggled to make friends and learn English. I remember standing up every morning to say the Pledge of Alliance but not really knowing what it meant. Looking back, it’s funny to remember that I was once a complete foreigner in a country that I now call home.

With time, things got easier. By high school, I was thriving. I held a leadership position in my school’s JROTC program – an armed force training program sponsored by the U.S. military. I was president of the Beta club and earned my Eagle Scout ranking in Boy Scouts. But most importantly, I applied for and received DACA status.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, safeguards immigrants who were brought to the United States as children if they are actively working or in school.

When I was 8 years old, learning that I was staying in America was the worst day of my life. But when I was 16, it was the happiest. Thanks to DACA, I’m a lot like all of you. I’m able to make memories with my family, like our tradition of going to the Wilson County Fair every summer. I’m also able to be at TSU studying political science and competing on the speech and debate team where I get the opportunity to represent TSU on both the state and national levels.

But since President Trump announced his decision to rescind DACA, my life has been filled with anxiety. I made the heartbreaking decision to quit the debate team, as traveling to out-of-state tournaments brings me increased risk of deportation. I frequently worry that my parents and I will get deported – leaving behind my 12-year-old native born sister is my greatest fear.

I’m not the only person who lives with this anxiety. There are other Dreamers here at TSU. And there are 800,000 of us nationwide.

I ask that we as a university – as students, faculty, staff and administration – strive to continuing making TSU a welcoming and inclusive campus for immigrants. It hurts when people say that we are unwelcome in this country. I am proud of my Salvadoran roots. And I am also proud to consider myself American


Kristifer Kremer

My name is Kristifer Kremer and I am a native-born American citizen. I met Jose when we were 14 years old. I never really saw him as any different than myself. After all, we went to the same high school and took the same classes. We were involved in the same extra-curricular activities, and actually earned our Eagle Scout badges from the same troop at the same time. We had similar interests, we and spent our time in-between classes and on weekends talking about music and watching movies.

It was only about a year into our friendship when Jose told me he was an immigrant. I didn’t really think anything of it; he was my best friend and it didn’t matter to me where he came from.

I know that there are a lot of Americans, including those in legislative leadership positions, who think that Jose shouldn’t be allowed to live in America just because he wasn’t born here. But I am confident that if they knew him they would change their minds.

Jose played such a formative role in my adolescence, and I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without him – I don’t want to imagine what my life would be like if he were forced to leave it now.

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


 

Bad Company

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

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

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

From the report:

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

A Lesson in Communication

Teacher and blogger Mary Holden got to teach a lesson in communication in real time yesterday as MNPS dealt with the predicted bad weather and an early dismissal.

Here’s a bit from her take on the situation:

Communication has long been an issue for MNPS. Perhaps they don’t have the right people in charge? I mean, the district’s public information officer – the public face of the district – was recently on the news discussing how we don’t have enough money for water filters in some of our schools where there is lead in the water. LEAD IN THE WATER. And we can’t pay for filters?! She came across as callous and tone deaf.

I don’t know. All I do know is that it is frustrating. I’m left with a bunch of questions…

Are there not communication protocols in place for this kind of event? Shouldn’t there be at least one official district email for all employees in a situation like this to prevent the spread of misinformation? As soon as a decision is made like today’s early dismissal, shouldn’t there be an immediate callout AND email to parents and teachers with all the necessary and specific information needed? Shouldn’t every avenue of communication be pursued at the moment the decision is made – instead of just one tweet??

READ MORE about Mary’s day and how she turned it into a teaching opportunity.

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


 

Elrod Announces Campaign for Nashville School Board

From a press release:

– Rachael Anne Elrod formally announces her candidacy for the District 2 seat on the Metro Nashville Board of Education.

“I’m raising my hand and running for school board to improve our schools so every child can thrive, and because I want every teacher to have the resources and support they need to succeed,” said Rachael Anne. “Our schools are made up of wonderful students, demanding parents, hardworking staff, and passionate teachers, and through listening and working together we can accomplish the goal of making our public schools the best they can be.”

 

Rachael Anne and her husband, Jeremy, have lived in District 2 for nearly a decade and currently reside in Crieve Hall. They look forward to seeing their three-year-old twin boys learn and grow in MNPS schools in the coming years. Between recent experiences with the school system, and ongoing conversations with parents, she knows the needs for system-wide collaboration, student-focused curriculum, improved classroom resources, and expanded Pre-K.

 

“Navigating our school system should not be difficult for families, whether a child is an English language learner, has special needs, or is just trying to get the most of their school,” said Rachael Anne. “It should be easy for every parent to understand a child’s options so they can receive services to not only do well, but to excel.”

 

Rachael Anne holds a Bachelor of Science in Education from Austin Peay State University and taught first grade in Clarksville, Tennessee.

 

“Teaching my students was rewarding, but I went through some of the same frustrations just to do my job every day that MNPS teachers face,” said Elrod. “We have to support our teachers, who are the best and most important part of educating our children.”

 

Rachael Anne, 35, has extensive experience in corporate training and improving employee performances, where she was known for her problem-solving skills and results-driven development strategies.

 

“The people of Nashville have a unique spirit of innovating while building each other up and pulling together as a community,” said Elrod. “I want our schools to reflect the same values.”

The District 2 school board seat is located in South Nashville and currently held by Dr. Jo Ann Brannon, who has announced she will not run for reelection. To “Raise Your Hand for Rachael Anne,” visit ElrodForSchools.com or Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @elrodforschools.

 

Schools zoned for or located in District 2: Granbery Elementary, Shayne Elementary, Crieve Hall Elementary, Cole Elementary, Haywood Elementary, Tusculum Elementary, Croft Design Center, McMurray Middle School, Oliver Middle School, Valor Flagship Academy, Valor Voyager Academy, Cane Ridge High School, and Overton High School.

 

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


 

Beer Me

It seems one Nashville charter school is in need of new teachers and hopes to recruit them at an event with free beer.

Here’s a portion of the invite to an event hosted by Valor Collegiate Academies:

Come meet key members of Valor’s network and school-based teams, and enjoy a beer on us while learning about career opportunities at Valor! We have several openings on both our middle and founding high school teams in Fall 2018, which you can check out here!

The event is being held at Black Abbey Brewing Company on March 28th.

As an MNPS-authorized charter school, Valor receives taxpayer funds in the way of BEP (school funding formula) dollars based on the number of students who attend.

Is is explicitly against the law to use taxpayer funds to provide free alcohol at a teacher recruitment event? Not exactly. But, it is problematic.

First, imagine the principal of any other MNPS school hosting a recruitment event and using school funds to buy free beer for guests? What would happen if the principals at JT Moore or Hillsboro High tried this?

Second, while recruiting teachers is certainly important, that can be done without using taxpayer funds to buy alcohol.

Third, the state’s Achievement School District faced some trouble in the past when they held a teacher recruitment event and offered free alcoholic drinks.

In fact, a recent Comptroller’s audit of the Achievement School District noted:

In addition, “in recognition of ASD school leaders and support staff, management purchased $1,631 of alcohol using a purchasing card and charged the expense to Charter School Grant Funding, a private grant that provides restricted funding for operating expenses for school year 2015-16 Achievement Schools … .”

That purchase came up in the discussion among lawmakers Wednesday, with Rep. Harold Love of Nashville saying he was “alarmed and disappointed.”

“We advise all offices to never buy alcohol with taxpayer funds,” Mumpower said.

As a former state employee, I recall that on state-funded travel, we were always advised not to purchase alcohol with state funds and meal reimbursements were not to include alcohol.

Perhaps Valor will suggest they raised private funds to pay for the party and so should not be subject to scrutiny. Again, imagine the principal at your child’s school telling you they’d raised private funds to help the school and instead of using them for resources for the students or training for teachers, they were using those funds to buy beer to lure people into jobs there.

In any case, on March 28th at Black Abbey Brewing, there’s free beer courtesy of Valor Collegiate. Drink up!

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


 

 

Not So Fast

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

Then, by April of 2014, he promptly broke that promise, giving no raise at all in that budget year.

Since 2014, however, Haslam has found funds to modestly increase the BEP allocation for teacher compensation each year.

So, as we’re in the last year of Haslam’s term, I thought it’d be interesting to see if Tennessee has, indeed, been the fastest improving state in teacher salaries since 2013.

The short (and unsurprising) answer is: No.

Using state data compiled by the National Education Association, I looked at salaries across the states.

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

By contrast, states like California and North Carolina have seen increases of over 9% over the same time period, making them the two fastest improving states. Vermont is close behind at just over a 7% total increase.

Let’s pull back and take a look at teacher pay since Bill Haslam has been Governor (starting in 2011).

Tennessee teacher pay has increased by 5.3% over that time. The national average over the same time period was 5.7%. So, for the entire time Bill Haslam has been Governor of Tennessee, teacher pay in our state has been improving at a rate below the national average.

So, maybe we can’t be the fastest improving in the nation in teacher pay. Could we be the fastest improving in the South? Nope. That title belongs to North Carolina.

Let’s look at these states: North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Of these 11 states in the South, Tennessee ranks 9th in terms of average increase in teacher pay since the Haslam Promise. We’re not even at the average of these states, which is 3.3%. Since Bill Haslam promised Tennessee teachers their pay would increase faster than any other state in the nation, our teachers have seen their pay increase at half the rate of neighboring states.

That’s not very fast. At all.

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


 

No More Paper?

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

WTVF-NewsChannel 5 has the story:

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

However, that indeed had already happened.

“Overton did everything right,” said Evernham.

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

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

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


 

You’ve Got Questions

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

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

Here’s some of what he has to say:

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

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

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

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


 

 

$850

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

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

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

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

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers this analysis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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