Tennessee Solution?

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

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

Here are some details provided by the Tennessee Education Association:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A vote on the proposed amendments is expected Thursday.

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

Helping Haslam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on how Tennessee came to be short on revenue.

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

 

Prioritizing Education

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

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

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

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

Where’d the Money Go? Governor Haslam blames the $160 million hole in the budget on lower than expected corporate taxes.  However, no mention is made of the $46 million in lost revenue from a 1/2 cent decrease in the state portion of the sales tax on food.  While removing or reducing the sales tax on food is a laudable goal, doing so without finding revenue to replace it is irresponsible.  The sales tax on food is the most reliable portion of state revenue. Additional revenue is lost by the gradual phase out of Tennessee’s estate tax, previously impacting estates over $1 million.  The plan is to phase that out entirely by 2016, with an estimated revenue loss of around $30 million this year and around $97 million in 2016-17’s budget. So, that’s roughly $76 million, or close to half of the projected shortfall for the upcoming budget cycle. To his credit, Haslam says he wants to hold off on efforts to repeal the Hall tax on investment income – a tax paid by a small number of wealthy Tennesseans with investment income.  However, he has also said reducing or eliminating the Hall tax is a goal. Phasing out the tax, as proposed in legislation under consideration this year at the General Assembly, would mean a loss of $20 million in the 2015-16 budget year and an ultimate loss in state funds of $160 million a year and in local revenue of $86 million a year.

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

Huffman Chairs Pie-Slicing Task Force

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is chairing Governor Haslam’s Task Force on the Basic Education Plan.  Haslam appointed the task force after districts began complaining that the current structure of the BEP is unfair.  In doing so, he essentially ignored the work of the standing BEP Review Committee, which annually reviews and recommends changes to the BEP formula.

After the committee’s initial meeting, Huffman said, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press:

“The purpose of the task force is not to say Tennessee needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more of money that we may or may not have,” Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, said following the meeting. “The purpose of it to look at are the right components included as part of the formula, and given a fixed pie, how would you distribute that pie based on capacity.”

So, Huffman is in charge of a committee that’s tasked with deciding how to divide up an already inadequate pie.

If he’s serious about the work, he’d do well to go back to the reforms proposed under Governor Bredesen with the help of then-state Senator Jamie Woodson. Those reforms, dubbed BEP 2.0 changed BEP allocations and also added some new funding allocations.

The cost of fully funding BEP 2.0 would be around $150 million.

Finding that money may mean making difficult choices.  Just north of us, in Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear has proposed a budget making tough choices in order to fund education.  While many departments see budget cuts in his proposal, K-12 education sees budget increases.

While Governor Haslam and his legislative partners seem intent on eliminating the Hall Income Tax and reducing revenue, education suffers.  And if that agenda is what they believe is absolutely essential to Tennessee’s future, surely some cuts in other areas can be found in order to boost investment in public education.

Of course, proposing a budget that cuts most departments but increases funding for public schools requires leadership and tough choices.

Instead, it seems we have a committee focused on redistributing the slices of a shrinking pie.

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

 

Haslam Appoints BEP Task Force

Governor Bill Haslam yesterday announced he’s appointed a task force to study the state’s education funding formula, known as the Basic Education Program (BEP). This is likely a response to some school districts, like Nashville, complaining that the current formula is unfair.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, who will chair the group,  says the plan may need revision and updating and that this task force will provide recommendations about how to “distribute available resources in a responsible manner.”

Neither Haslam nor Huffman mentioned providing more resources to the formula as a means of further investing in Tennessee’s schools.

Someone probably ought to tell the Governor that there’s a group of people (school directors, city and county representatives, school board members, and other education stakeholders) that meet regularly to review and study the BEP.  It’s called the BEP Review Committee and it is required by law, specifically: Tennessee Code Annotated 49-1-302(4)(a).

This task force meets 4 times a year and makes recommendations annually for upgrades or improvements to the BEP.  Here’s the latest report, issued November 1, 2013.

The top recommendation of the task force is to continue the phase-in of BEP 2.0 — a revision to the formula developed by Governor Bredesen and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers in 2007. The projected remaining cost of full implementation is $146 million.  The Committee is recommending a phase-in approach, so something along the lines of $50 million a year each year for the next three years could meet this goal.

Other recommendations of the BEP Review Committee include:

  • Reducing the class size ratio used to generate teachers for grades 7-12. This would have the impact of sending more dollars to districts for hiring teachers. The Committee recommends a reduction of 2-3 students at a projected cost of $81 million.
  • Providing funds for professional development of teachers at a rate of 1% of the total dollars spent on instructional salaries. This would cost $22 million.
  • Providing funding for a comprehensive mentoring program for all new teachers and principals with a  1:12 mentor/teacher ratio.  The mentoring program would cost $14 million.

The Committee makes recommendations about changing the ratio for funding school nurses and improving technology, including creating a funding element for technology coordinators.

The bottom line is, there’s already a BEP task force, it’s been doing it’s work for some time now, and it has made solid recommendations for improving the formula.

I suppose the first assignment of the task force could be to review the work of the BEP Review Committee.

Of course, one might expect legislative Democrats to take up the cause and fight for improvements to the BEP by way of legislative proposal or budget amendment.  Perhaps proposing a BEP 2.0 phase-in or championing mentoring for new teachers?

However, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh tells us that’s not going to happen. In an interview we published yesterday, he said:

There are a few proposals before the General Assembly that deal with BEP, primarily with the state’s portion of funding. At this time, I’m not aware of any other Democratic proposals that will change the BEP, especially in light of a tight budget cycle.

So, the task force will meet and report and the BEP might (or might not) be improved.  And the BEP Review Committee will continue to meet and issue reports that go largely ignored on Capitol Hill. Ignored so routinely, apparently, that the Governor forgot the Committee even existed.

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

 

Education Monday

Monday will see two events focused on the state of education policy in Tennessee.

The first is sponsored by newly-launched TREE and will be held at 9:30 AM in Legislative Plaza Room 31.

The event features Elaine Weiss discussing Race to the Top, Poverty, NAEP Scores, and the state of Tennessee schools.  Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

The next event is hosted by SCORE. At 11 AM SCORE will release and discuss its “State of Education” Report highlighting Tennessee’s education status and listing priorities for 2014.

SCORE has released such reports in the past. They have focused on student achievement, educator quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher preparation among other topics.

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

The Education Agenda

What’s the best way to move Tennessee schools forward? It seems lots of people have opinions about this.  And some organized groups (teachers, superintendents, parents) are familiar faces around the General Assembly as education legislation is discussed, debated, and voted on.

Here, I attempt to break down the education agenda according to various groups attempting to influence the debate at the General Assembly this session.

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET)

This group of teachers is the smaller of the two organizations in the state representing teachers (the other being the Tennessee Education Association).

We’ve written about PET’s 2014 agenda before.

Essentially, they are focusing on teacher licensure (and the use of TVAAS to determine continuation), protection of student and teacher data, and testing.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE)

We reported last week on the launch of this new group. They appear to stand in opposition to much of the current reform agenda in Nashville (state charter authorizer, vouchers, etc.). They also support full funding of BEP 2.0.

Tennessee Education Association (TEA)

TEA is the state’s oldest and largest association of teachers.  The TEA has historically opposed the expansion of charter schools and the use of public dollars for private schools (vouchers). They have a fairly wide-ranging legislative agenda. Additionally, they are currently undertaking a “road trip” to expose flaws in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA)

As its name implies, this group represents school boards across the state.  Though a few systems are not members, most in Tennessee are.  Here’s their complete agenda.  The organization opposes vouchers and opposes revoking a teacher’s license based solely on TVAAS data.

Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS)

The statewide organization representing school superintendents.  Their full legislative agenda can be found here. TOSS opposes vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and the revocation of a teacher’s license based on TVAAS data.

Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)

SCORE is headed-up by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  The organization is comprised of many education stakeholders and aims to provide information to policymakers as they make decisions that impact schools.  They have been supportive of the new teacher evaluation model and are the leading organization in Tennessee in support of the Common Core State Standards.  More on SCORE here.

Stand for Children

This organization has been active in Tennessee since 1999.  For the sake of full disclosure, I worked for Stand in TN from 2007-2009. The organization made its mark in Tennessee advocating for expanded access to Pre-K.  According to a recent email from new Executive Director Betty Anderson, the organization plans to focus this year’s legislative efforts on maintaining the Common Core State Standards.  They are also supportive of expanded access to Pre-K and to improvements to the BEP.

StudentsFirst

This is the Tennessee affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s nationwide StudentsFirst organization. Here’s the group’s official issue agenda.  They have been supportive of vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and teacher merit pay.

Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA)

The Tennessee PTA is comprised of parents organized at the local school level. While these groups typically support their specific school, the PTA also supports schools and students in the community and state. Their complete legislative agenda can be found here. The PTA includes in its agenda support for the inclusion of parent and student feedback in teacher evaluation and the use of “strategic compensation” for teachers.  They also support the Coordinated School Health program and changes to the BEP that would provide funding for additional nurses. The PTA opposes vouchers.

School Choice Now

This group is a joint project of the Tennessee Federation for Children and the Beacon Center of TN.  Their focus is on a statewide school voucher program, which they call “opportunity scholarships.”

Those are the major groups I’m aware of attempting to influence education policy in Tennessee. There are likely others.  But this is a starting point to understanding what’s going on at the Legislative Plaza regarding education policy and who is pushing for what policies.

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

 

Raj Chetty and Tennessee Education Policy

No, Raj Chetty, economics professor at Harvard,  is not specifically making recommendations to Tennessee about how to conduct education policy.  But he did join with other scholars to analyze Tennessee’s STAR program (1985-1989) for early education (K-3) which included students in 79 Tennessee schools and random student assignment.

The results of Chetty’s study suggest that the quality of a kindergarten class matters greatly to a child’s future.  It’s important to note that the study focused on the overall quality of the class — from the teacher to the resources provided to class size to peer group.  So, yes, quality matters.  And certainly, the teacher is a factor in that overall quality picture.

Chetty notes that a top quartile teacher (based on test scores) can make a significant difference in lifetime income for a child.  Yes, I’ve been critical about the “big” differences Chetty notes in terms of lifetime income in other studies. And, I certainly have questions about how important this particular finding is in terms of overall income impact. And then there’s the whole notion about the limitations of the knowledge we can gain about an individual teacher based on test scores alone.

That said, Chetty does note the findings are statistically significant and his study does control for many outside factors in order to isolate classroom inputs.

Moreover, the current Tennessee Department of Education policy framework is geared toward improving results on just these sorts of tests.

So, it becomes interesting, then to see what Chetty’s research says about how to improve results on such tests (which provide at least some predictive value about how a student will do later in life) and how that compares to current Tennessee education policy being pursued by the Haslam-Huffman regime.

1) Class Size Matters: According to the Chetty study, “Small-class students went on to attend college at higher rates and to do better on a variety of measures such as retirement savings, mar- riage rates, and quality of their neighborhood of residence.”  Which makes it difficult to understand why among the first proposals of Commissioner Huffman was to attempt to adopt a policy that would have raised class sizes across Tennessee.

2) Teacher Experience Matters: Contrary to what Commissioner Huffman told the State Board of Education about teacher experience (that a teacher’s years of experience don’t effectively predict student outcomes), the Chetty study noted, “We find that kindergarten teachers with more years of teaching experience are more effective at raising both kindergarten test scores and adult earnings. This may partly be the effect of learning on the job, but it may also reflect the fact that teachers who have taught for a long time are more devoted to the profession or were trained differently.” In spite of this Tennessee-specific data on the importance of years of experience to improved student outcomes, Commissioner Huffman proposed and the State Board of Education adopted a teacher pay plan that discounts years of experience as a factor in compensation.

3) Teacher Merit Pay is Problematic: When discussing the policy implications of the study, Chetty notes, “Merit pay policies could potentially improve teaching quality but may also
lead to teaching to the test without gains on the all- important noncognitive dimensions” (soft skills). Which, as stated above, would point to policies that move away from merit pay for individual teachers, in contrast to the Haslam-Huffman policy.

4) Teacher Support is Critical: Chetty specifically points to improved teacher training, early career mentoring, and reducing class sizes as policies that could work to improve the overall quality of early (K-3) classrooms.  Again, Tennessee has no statewide program for new teacher mentoring and is not systematically working on reducing class size, especially in the early grades.  In fact, as noted above, the initial proposal from this administration would have increased class sizes.

While I may be among the first to look skeptically at the current administration’s education policy goals, it would be nice if their policy solutions actually lined up with the stated goals.  In this case, using Tennessee data, it seems clear the proposed solutions are not matching the stated challenges.

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

Rutherford County to Consider Alternative Pay Plan

The Rutherford County School Board will begin discussions tonight on a new pay plan as required by the State Board of Education.  The State Board approved Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s recommendations for a new pay scale and a requirement that districts come up with differentiated pay schemes, including merit pay and pay based on performance on the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

TVAAS is facing continued criticism from some who don’t wish to tie teacher licensure to the scores it produces. It has also been suggested that TVAAS has done very little so far to improve Tennessee schools despite having been in existence for 20 years. And, some critics of value-added data note that it is unable to effectively differentiate among teachers.

It will be interesting to see the general outline of the pay plan discussed in Rutherford tonight as it may offer insight in to how the state is “guiding” districts to develop such plans.

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

Parents, Educators Challenge Over-Reliance on Testing

Stories out of Shelbyville and Knoxville over the weekend indicate a growing pattern of frustration on the part of parents and teachers about the amount of testing forced on Tennessee students and the use of those students (and now, student surveys) to evaluate teachers.

Jason Reynolds at the Shelbyville Times-Gazette reports that the currently used TCAP tests are coming under increasing scrutiny. Reynolds reported that Nashville parent  and education activist Jennifer Smith, suggests Tennessee students are subject to too much testing and it is having negative consequences:

“Children are being denied valuable classroom instruction, experiencing undue anxiety and stress, and receiving little — if any — recess time so they can prepare to take a test that is ‘not very strong,'” she wrote. Smith said she would like to see Tennessee follow the lead of California, which recently discontinued its version of TCAP so teachers could prepare to implement PARCC.

Reynolds also notes that J.C. Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) says Tennessee students are overloaded with tests.  Bowman has also expressed concern with the use of value-added scores to evaluate teachers.  His organization has called for a suspension of the use of TVAAS in evaluations until the PARCC test is implemented, which seems to echo Smith’s concern.

Teachers are speaking out as well.  A Knox County teacher recently addressed her School Board about the pressures teachers are facing.

And in this story out of Knoxville, parents and teachers both express concern over excessive testing.

One PTSO leader in Knox County noted: 35 days during the year at the elementary level were devoted just to math assessments, “and that’s not including the other four subjects.”

Concern from parents and teachers over testing combined with serious questions about the ability of value-added scores to actually differentiate between teachers seem to be behind the school systems of both Bradley County and Cleveland passing resolutions recently opposing the use of TVAAS data for teacher evaluation and licensure.

The same parent noted she is concerned about the use of student surveys to evaluate teachers. This is practice underway in Knox County, Shelby County, and Metro Nashville.  It’s called the TRIPOD survey and uses student answers on a battery of questions to evaluate teacher performance.  This year, the surveys count for 5% of a teacher’s overall evaluation score.  It’s not clear how the surveys are scored or what a teacher needs to do to earn the top score of 5.

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