Of Lunch and Lead

March isn’t quite over, but two incidents this month at Metro Nashville Public Schools demonstrate a clear need for improved communication from the district.

First, on the issue of lead in drinking water and the use of filters to help solve the problem:

But district spokesperson Michelle Michaud, in an interview with CBS This Morning, claimed it would cost $8,000 dollars per school just to replace the filters.

“It’s a huge cost to the district, hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Michaud claimed, adding: “That’s a price of two teachers salaries.”

The story goes on to note these numbers aren’t accurate (the cost is much lower). However, it’s noteworthy that the response from the person paid to communicate the message from MNPS is that providing safe drinking water for students is too expensive.

Fast forward to this week, and the discussion of a plan to scale back the offering of free lunch. Here’s what a district official had to say:

“Based on what we are seeing on numbers, we are below that point where it makes financial sense,” Stark said. “We can’t do the program across the district the same way we have been doing it.”

So, to be clear: MNPS believes it costs too much to provide free lunch to all kids (the total cost absorbed by MNPS would be less than 1% of the entire budget) and that providing water filters to eliminate lead in drinking water is too expensive. That’s the message communicated: Our concern is cost. It’s right there in the first responses made in both scenarios.

Here’s an idea: Make safe water and access to meals a top priority. Budget for it. Ask Metro Council for the additional funds if necessary. When your first response to issues like these is “we are worried about money” that sends an unfortunate message.

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


 

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


 

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


 

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


 

$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


 

McQueen: Do It My Way

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said yesterday that despite a desire to move a struggling Memphis middle school into a proven local turnaround model managed by the district, she is insisting the school be moved into the failing Achievement School District (ASD).

Chalkbeat reports:

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that American Way Middle School must be converted to a charter school in the fall of 2019 under the state’s new accountability plan. If Shelby County Schools doesn’t decide by March 15 to do that on its own, she said, the state will take over the school and move it to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

While the Shelby County Schools iZone has been lauded for achieving solid results, the state’s ASD hasn’t gotten the job done. In fact, of the original schools taken over by the ASD five years ago, all but one remain in the bottom 5% of all schools in the state. That is, there’s be no significant improvement in performance.

So, why is Candice McQueen hellbent on moving American Way into a failed reform model? The Shelby County School Board has taken corrective action and set the school on a path that has gotten proven results at other schools. Further, McQueen’s chosen intervention is one that’s simply not getting results.

Will lawmakers in Nashville take action to stop this move? So far, efforts to rein-in the ASD have been met with significant resistance. However, the lack of a successful TNReady administration has hampered the ASD’s growth. McQueen says that will no longer be a problem:

The commissioner said the state’s decision to delay school takeover until 2019 is due to delayed test scores from the state. That won’t be the case in the next round of sorting schools into various “improvement tracks” under the state’s new school accountability plan. The state’s next list of its lowest performing schools is scheduled to be released next fall, which will inform decisions for future improvement plans.

Let’s be clear: Candice McQueen has presided over a failed transition to a new test and an aggressive intervention model for struggling schools that has left kids behind. Now, she’s insisting that Shelby County do what she says. Why would anyone trust their district’s students to Candice McQueen’s judgment?

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


 

Teacher Voice Tuesday

A couple excerpts from blogs featuring teachers on this Tuesday.

First, from former (and now current) teacher Mary Holden, who blogs about her experience teaching and offers thoughts on her return in her most recent post:

I know what to expect. MNPS is struggling, as usual. We have some frustrating leadership issues, in my opinion. We have some scripted curriculum we are being directed to teach. We are being told there isn’t time to teach whole novels in English classes. We are being reminded frequently of the importance of the tests. We still have a culture of fear, where many teachers are afraid to speak out about issues. We still have an unhealthy obsession with data, data, data. We still have a HUGE over-reliance on tests and test data that is supposed to be used to inform our instruction.

READ MORE from Mary

Next, Scott Bennett offered a post on TC Weber’s blog about his experiences as an MNPS teacher. Here’s how it started:

When I left my teaching position there was no exit interview. No survey. No request for feedback from the district.* At the very least I was anticipating an email from H.R. I gave my notice and letter of resignation roughly 115 days ago, and I left my classroom on February 9th. So my departure wasn’t a surprise for anyone. Either they assume to know my professional opinions or they don’t want to hear them. Both are deeply troubling to me as teacher, a tax payer, a voter, and a parent. I’m not sure what kind of leadership doesn’t want feedback, but I’ve never met any great leaders who have insisted that they knew everything. Additionally, this district has difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, support staff, and bus drivers. Some of that stems from the low pay, and some of it stems from the culture. If I’m a district leader and I can’t do much about the one, I’m sure as heck going to try and improve the other. As a teacher I’ve found that when students don’t care about the feedback I give, it is because they didn’t care about the assignment whether that is an essay or a presentation or a project. I end each semester asking about my teaching practices and how they can better align to student needs. I’m not sure what it says about an institution that doesn’t want feedback from it’s employees, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good.

READ MORE of what Scott has to say about his time in MNPS and the challenges teachers face.

If you’re a teacher who’d like to share a story about your experience, email me at andy AT tnedreport.com — If you’d like to share anonymously, that can be arranged.

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


 

Forced Disruption

Despite a lack of clear results, the Tennessee Department of Education continues to use the Achievement School District as a means of taking over district schools in Memphis.

The latest round of forced disruption comes as Shelby County Schools says the two schools being targeted are on a district-led path to improvement.

Chalkbeat reports:

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

Board members pointed out that the ASD simply isn’t working, and the results from schools in the ASD for five consecutive years demonstrate she’s correct.

From Chalkbeat:

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

The Achievement School District has been fraught with problems from the outset, from hosting happy hours to recruit teachers to a lack of transparency to pitting schools and communities against each other in a fight for survival. Then, of course, there’s the apparent mission creep, which could be why the program has faced so many challenges.

Now, the Shelby County School Board is pushing back. Will the Tennessee Department of Education force disruption on these two schools, or will they allow SCS to move forward on their own improvement path?

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


 

Amy Frogge Talks School Budgets

MNPS School Board member Amy Frogge highlights the importance of funding our public schools in her latest Facebook post:

As the old saying goes: Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value. Despite all the hype from politicians (particularly this election year) that education is a top priority, Tennessee remains 36th in the nation on education funding, and Nashville ranks 54th out of 67 urban school systems in per-pupil funding (according to the Council of the Great City Schools). What better investment could our state make than providing ALL students with an excellent education? Yes, that money should be spent wisely, but adequate school funding REALLY makes a difference. Just ask any teacher (who- at one point or another- has probably spent her last $20 trying to buy supplies for her classroom).

I remember a conversation I had about school funding back in 2012, around the time I was first elected to the school board. Another elected official told me how awful local schools were, rolling her eyes at the thought of investing more money into our “failing” system. The irony of this conversation was that this person was spending approximately $25,000 per year to educate her own child at a prestigious private school- a school where, in addition to the high funding, students enter class already well equipped with every possible advantage. This article is for those who live in such a bubble.

Folks like this “won’t mention that there is research . . . showing that states that did provide more money to low-performing schools got better results — but never mind. . . .

And, apparently, people who don’t believe in a link between funding and student achievement won’t listen to teachers on the ground who can tell them otherwise.”

Frogge then links to this insightful article from the Washington Post about the impact of inadequate funding.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee>

Not Really Improving

What’s Missing is What Matters

Coming Up Short

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