2017 Education Issues Outlook

The 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is underway and as always, education is a hot issue on the Hill. The bill filing deadline was yesterday and some familiar issues are back again. Namely, vouchers.

While the voucher fight may be the biggest education showdown this session, issues ranging from the scope of the state’s Achievement School District to a “Teacher Bill of Rights” and of course, funding, will also be debated.

Here’s a rundown of the big issues for this session:

Vouchers

Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County is pushing a voucher plan that is essentially a pilot program that would apply to Shelby County only. Voucher advocates have failed to gain passage of a plan with statewide application over the past four legislative sessions. The idea behind this plan seems to be to limit it to Shelby County in order to mitigate opposition from lawmakers who fear a voucher scheme may negatively impact school systems in their own districts.

In addition to Kelsey’s limited plan, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville is back with the “traditional” voucher bill he’s run year after year. This plan has essentially the same requirements as Kelsey’s plan, but would be available to students across the state. It’s not clear which of these two plans has the best chance of passage. I suspect both will be set in motion, and as time wears on, one will emerge as most likely to be adopted. Voucher advocates are likely emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Of course, Tennessee already has one type of voucher. The legislature adopted an Individual Education Account voucher program designed for students with special needs back in 2015. That proposal goes into effect this year. Chalkbeat reported that only 130 families applied. That’s pretty low, considering some 20,000 students meet the eligibility requirements.

Achievement School District

Two years ago, I wrote about how the ASD’s mission creep was hampering any potential effectiveness it might have. Now, it seems that even the ASD’s leadership agrees that pulling back and refocusing is necessary. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the Achievement School District from starting new charter schools, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Tatter notes that the Tennessee Department of Education and the ASD’s leadership support the bill. This is likely welcome news for those who have raised concerns over the ASD’s performance and approach.

Teacher Bill of Rights

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville has introduced what he’s calling a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The bill outlines what Green sees as some basic protections for teachers. If adopted, his proposal would have the effect of changing the way the state evaluates teachers. Among the rights enumerated in SB 14 is the right to “be evaluated by a professional with the same subject matter expertise,” and the right to “be evaluated based only on students a teacher has taught.”

While both of these may seem like common sense, they are not current practice in Tennessee’s public schools. Many teachers are evaluated by building leaders and others who lack subject matter expertise. Further, teachers who do not generate their own student growth scores (those who don’t teach in tested subjects) are evaluated in part on school-wide scores or other metrics of student performance — meaning they receive an evaluation score based in part on students they’ve never taught.

Green’s Teacher Bill of Rights will almost certainly face opposition from the Department of Education.

Funding

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Governor Bill Haslam is proposing spending over $200 million in new money on schools. Around $60 million of that is for BEP growth. $100 million will provide districts with funds for teacher compensation. And, there’s $22 million for English Language Learners as well as $15 million for Career and Technical Education.

These are all good things and important investments for our schools. In fact, the BEP Review Committee — the state body tasked with reviewing school funding and evaluating the formula’s effectiveness, identified teacher pay and funds for English Language Learners as top priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee for this year:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Haslam’s budget proposal makes an effort to address 1 and 2. However, there’s no additional money to improve the guidance counselor ratio, no funds for the unfunded mandate of RTI and no additional money for technology.

Oh, and then there’s the persistent under-funding of schools as a result of a BEP formula that no longer works. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office says we are under-funding schools by at least $400 million. Haslam’s budget does not address the funding ratios that create this inadequacy.

Then, of course, improving the ratios does nothing on its own to achieve a long-standing BEP Review Committee goal: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

The good news is we have the money available to begin addressing the ratio deficit. The General Assembly could redirect some of our state’s surplus dollars toward improving the BEP ratios and start eating into that $400 million deficit. Doing so would return money to the taxpayers by way of investment in their local schools. It would also help County Commissions avoid raising property taxes.

Stay tuned as the bills start moving next week and beyond. It’s expected this session could last into May, and education will be a flash point throughout over these next few months.

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


 

Why Doesn’t 4=4?

For the past two years, Gov. Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has adopted education budgets that included four percent increases in state appropriations for the instructional salary component of the BEP. That means Tennessee teachers have received four percent raises in back-to-back years, right?

Wrong.

Instead, some teachers have seen no raise at all or very small salary increases while the average has hovered in the 2-2.5% range.

What’s going on?

I’ve attempted to explain this phenomenon here and here.

Those posts point to the State Board’s insistence on flexibility for local districts as a part of the equation. And, to be sure, the State Board’s refusal to adjust the state salary schedule by the same percentage as the salary appropriation does play a role.

But, there’s a bigger problem. The state is simply under-funding teaching positions through the BEP formula. I wrote about the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) study and pointed to a $400 million difference between the BEP-generated allocation of teaching positions and the actual number of teachers hired by local school systems. Since then, OREA has been informed by the Department of Education that some of those positions not funded by the state are entirely funded by federal dollars. The revised estimate, then, is that school districts in Tennessee are paying for between 12-18% of their teaching positions exclusively through local funds.

Yes, local districts are hiring between 12-18% more teachers than the state pays for through the BEP.  Imagine your school district with a teaching force reduced by an average of 15%. Could your schools function? Would students be well-served?

Since districts are responsible for 100% of the cost of any teacher hired beyond the BEP, they must make their available salary dollars stretch. So, when a district receives a 4% increase in salary funds, those funds are spread out among both the BEP-generated teachers and another 15% of teachers the district requires but which are not paid for at all by the state.

Stretching those dollars turns a 4% salary component increase into a raise of around 2% for most teachers. Some districts use 100% of their BEP salary allocation increase to hire new teachers, which means existing staff get no raise at all.

Fortunately, Governor Haslam just held budget hearings and Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen presented her proposed budget, including a recommended increase in the BEP. In fact, the issue of salary is discussed during the hearing when Finance Commissioner Larry Martin brings up BEP components. You can watch that discussion at around the 38 minute mark here. 

Unfortunately, McQueen is not proposing a solution to the BEP funding problem.

Grace Tatter reports:

Earlier in the day, Commissioner Candice McQueen asked for a 1.4 percent increase in education spending next school year, mostly to accommodate a projected 1.8 percent increase in student enrollment statewide, a driving component of the state’s school spending formula, called the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

In addition to wanting $58 million more for the BEP, McQueen asked for an extra $4.4 million for the state’s Read to Be Ready literacy initiative; $379,000 more on educator preparation programs; and $2 million to train teachers on new standards for science and the fine arts. She also is requesting $28.9 million for rural education programs.

It’s nice to see normal growth funded through the BEP, but districts will need a lot more than their share of $58 million to make up for the teacher funding shortfall under the current formula.

An increase of teaching positions of 15% through the BEP formula would cost $367 million. That’s without a salary increase. Of course, our state ended last year with a surplus of over $900 million and is starting this year with revenue coming in well over projections.

Here’s what Governor Haslam has to say about that:

Haslam said the increase would be substantial, although not as much as the state could afford with its considerable surplus. That’s because any pay hike must be sustainable in lean years, he said.

“We will continue to invest in education whenever we can, but we would like to be thoughtful,” Haslam told reporters after hearings on the budget for 2017-18.

If Haslam and the DOE were actually being thoughtful, they’d propose adjusting the BEP formula in a way that provides personnel funding that matches school system needs. Instead, teachers can likely expect that whatever raise is proposed and adopted will be cut in half as a result of the inadequacy of the BEP.

As for those “lean years,” we’re now in our third consecutive year of very significant surpluses. Investing 50% or so of last year’s surplus could beef up the BEP formula and still leave half a billion for other priorities or the rainy day fund.

The BEP is broken. A state experiencing significant budget surpluses should be able to fix it. What’s missing?

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


 

That’ll Be $400 Million

The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability is out with a new report that suggests Tennessee is underfunding its schools by at least $400 million. That’s because the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) fails to adequately fund education personnel.

Grace Tatter has more:

The state is considerably underestimating the number of educators needed to run Tennessee schools according to its own requirements, says a state comptroller’s report released Wednesday.
And local governments are paying the difference. Statewide, districts employ about 12,700 more educators than the state funds, according to the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability, or OREA.

Back in March, I wrote about this, and estimated the state was underfunding teachers by about 15%:

If districts only hired the BEP number of teachers, they could reduce local costs, but they’d also likely have some pretty unhappy parents on their hands. So, yes, the Governor’s proposed changes do direct additional funds to districts. But the changes do not address the underlying problem with the BEP. Doing so would cost another $250 to $300 million. That would be the cost of adjusting the ratios by 10-15% for teachers. That’s not to mention nurses, counselors, and other positions. And it doesn’t include capital funding.

Turns out, I underestimated the problem. The real number is around 22%, as Tatter notes:

The median percentage of additional teachers funded with local money was 22 percent. That translated to 686 more teachers in Knox County and 499 more in Rutherford County in 2014-15.

So, what does this mean? It means the state is underfunding local districts by about $394 million. That’s because the updated BEP formula funds teachers at $44,430 per unit. The state pays 70% of this cost.

That doesn’t include the cost of insurance for the additional 12,700 teachers. Nor does it include a salary adjustment to begin making up for the teacher wage gap. That cost is about $500 million.

So, to add proper state funding for needed teachers and provide adequate salaries, we’d need $894 million.

Then, there are the additional priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee. These priorities include providing teachers and schools the resources they need to adequately educate Tennessee’s students.

If your local property taxes have gone up recently to cover the cost of schools, you can blame the state for shorting our state’s school districts by nearly $900 million.

Incidentally, our state has a $925 million surplus — we could invest every dime of that into schools, meet the current need, and not raise state taxes one cent. Oh, and doing so would both improve public education and keep your local property taxes low.

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


 

 

 

MNPS Funding Suit DENIED

Jason Gonzales reports:

A judge has denied a request from Metro Nashville Public Schools asking the courts to command Tennessee to fully provide education funding to local school districts.

The district’s petition, filed Sept. 1, contends that the state’s constitution requires the Tennessee General Assembly to fully fund education in the state under its Basic Education Program. Commonly known as the BEP, it’s the formula the state uses to calculate how much it costs to educate an individual student in Tennessee.

Apparently agreeing with the state’s attorneys who said:

In its response to Nashville’s petition, the state says Nashville should follow the other districts in asking the court to address their right to education funding, rather than for a direct order to pay more money. “(Nashville) seeks a writ of mandamus that would require the General Assembly to provide funding to ELL teachers and translators in the ratios provided in (Tennessee Code),” the response reads. “… However, (Nashville) is not entitled to that writ.”

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s order says:

While the state has been sued for proper education funding, those cases didn’t request the courts force the state to immediately appropriate funds, Lyle said in the court papers. Therefore, Lyle said there is no law to enforce.

“Such law must first be adjudicated before the writ can issue,” Lyle said.

In short, until a decision is rendered on the adequacy of the formula, the state can’t be compelled to fund the formula. Lawsuits filed by Shelby County and Hamilton County both claim the state’s funding formula is inadequate and seek a judgment based on that claim. Those cases are still moving forward.

More on School Funding:

Haslam on Tennessee School Funding History

Just Kidding

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


 

 

Haslam: Haters Gonna Hate

Governor Bill Haslam this week lamented school funding lawsuits while also admitting that Tennessee has a history of under-funding schools.

From the Tennessean:

“Now if you’re an educator saying, ‘Well, you’re not putting enough money in’ … you’re right, as a state we historically have not put enough money — but we’re changing that,” Haslam said.

When asked about pending lawsuits claiming the state is failing to live up to its responsibility in terms of school funding, Haslam said:

Asked about the validity of the school funding suits as a result, Haslam said, “obviously anyone can sue over anything they want.”

“But it’s kind of strange when we’re making historic investments in K-12 education, it feels like it sends the wrong message to do that,” he said.

Haslam doesn’t seem to understand why supporters of public education may doubt his commitment. Here are three reasons:

1) Haslam promised in 2013 to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state in teacher salaries.” By April of the next year, the promise was gone. Additionally, the BEP Review Committee noted in its 2015 report that weighted average salaries in 2015 were lower than in 2013 as a result of the Haslam-Huffman elimination of the state minimum salary schedule. At the same time, the gap in pay among the highest-paying and lowest-paying districts in the state remains at an unacceptable 40%. Meanwhile, Tennessee suffers from one of the largest teacher wage gaps — that is, the gap between salaries paid to teachers and salaries paid to professionals with similar educational preparation.

2) In response to a lawsuit from Metro Nashville Public Schools, the state’s attorneys have said the state is not bound to follow the school funding formula Governor Haslam proposed and the General Assembly adopted. Grace Tatter reported the state’s response:

Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.

3) The state has a $925 million surplus as of the close of the 2015-16 fiscal year. That’s enough money to fully close the teacher wage gap and still leave more than $400 million for funding other important state projects. A more conservative approach would at the least meet the state’s funding obligations under the revised BEP formula, as Nashville is demanding in its lawsuit. From there, the state could phase-in further investment and do so without increasing taxes one cent. The current surplus comes after a year in which the state’s surplus topped $1 billion. During that budget year, Haslam and the General Assembly failed to adopt a salary proposal that would have provided teachers and state employees raises if revenues exceeded projections. They did, of course.

So, while Haslam is saying the right things and while there has been some investment in schools in recent years, it’s not hard to guess why school districts are filing lawsuits to get the money they need. Bill Haslam is right. Tennessee has historically under-funded schools. But he’s leaving out an important point. The only thing that seems to get the attention of the state-level policymakers — and get money into schools — is a court order.

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


 

Teachers! Deep Discounts! 30% off in TN!

A new study of teacher pay relative to pay received by other, similarly-educated workers reveals a growing gap. Not surprisingly, teachers are on the losing end, earning roughly 23% less than their peers in other professions. Here in Tennessee, teachers earn 29.3% less than similarly-prepared professionals.

Tennessee’s wage gap for teachers is among the worst in the Southeast, in fact. The average of 11 southern states is a 26.5% gap, leaving Tennessee nearly three points behind.

Here are the numbers (showing what percentage teachers earn relative to their peers) for states in our region:

Louisiana                              80.5%

South Carolina                    79.2%

Kentucky                              78.8%

Mississippi                           74.8%

Arkansas                               74.8%

Florida                                   74.6%

West Virginia                       74.6%

Alabama                                71.8%

Tennessee                             70.7%

Georgia                                  69.3%

Virginia                                  66.9%

North Carolina                     65.4%

The study also addresses what it calls the “benefits-bias.” This is the fact that teachers and other public employees tend to receive more generous healthcare and retirement benefits than their private sector peers. Currently, that number stands at around 6% nationally in favor of teachers. Tennessee doesn’t have the most generous pension or benefits plan, but it’s likely similar to states in our region. Even if you assume the full 6% for Tennessee teachers, though, our teachers are still paid 23.3% less than their professional peers.

The weighted average teacher salary in Tennessee according to the BEP Review Committee is just under $44,000 a year. To fully close the gap, Tennessee teachers would need an average raise of about $10,000 a year.

While the state legislature has passed four percent BEP salary increases in the past two legislative sessions, those funds don’t always make it into teachers’ paychecks due to the Huffman pay plan and action by the State Board of Education.  

The bottom line: Teacher pay matters. It may not be the only factor impacting who chooses teaching and who stays in teaching, but it certainly is an important one. This report notes the disturbing fact that the pay gap between teaching and other professions is widening. That makes it difficult to encourage college students to consider teaching and it also makes it challenging to keep experienced teachers in the profession. A gap of 5-10% can be offset by the benefits earned by teachers. A nearly 30% gap such as exists in Tennessee is unacceptable. Closing this gap will require a sustained commitment to fund teacher pay at the state level. Alternatively, the value proposition for teachers in Tennessee will continue to lag behind that of our neighboring states, not to mention other professionals.

For now, school systems and the state can continue to hire teachers at deep discounts — nearly 30% off! While that may seem like a good deal, it’s one that will exacerbate teacher shortages and shortchange our students. We must do better.

 

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


 

 

 

 

It’s Raining Money, But Not on Schools

Tom Humphrey reports on the most recent budget projections which predict a surplus of between $300-$400 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016.

This money, combined with the $600 million surplus from the fiscal year which ended on June 30, 2015, means the state will have about $1 billion in unanticipated, uncommitted revenue.

On top of that, economists are projecting growth in the $400-$500 million range for the upcoming budget year.

As Humphrey notes, proposals are floating so spend the surplus on road projects or tax cuts or both.

What’s not being mentioned?

Schools.

Despite a pair of lawsuits contending the state’s school funding formula, the BEP, is inadequate, lawmakers and the Governor are not rushing to suggest significant new investments in Tennessee schools.

This in spite of the fact that after a one year bounce on NAEP results, our state is now holding flat. Maybe that’s because Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham is suggesting our state aspire toward “mediocrity” while holding a forum on disastrous (and expensive) school voucher schemes.

If the state invested half of the available surplus on the BEP formula, that would be a $500 million injection of funds to local schools. That would be a sure way to hold down local property tax increases while also beefing up the resources school systems have to provide an education. The revenue projections for the 2016-17 fiscal year indicate an investment of this magnitude is sustainable. And, by holding a portion of the surplus in reserve, the state could ensure against any unanticipated shortfalls.

All of that would still leave $200-$300 million available to spend on one-time costs like road projects.

Will Tennessee put its foot on the accelerator and invest in schools so our students have the resources they need to compete with the rest of the country? Will Bill Haslam use the surplus and projected new revenue to truly make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay?

The General Assembly will have answers to these questions starting in January.

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

Just Like Mississippi

This letter to the editor about the current school funding crisis in Mississippi reminded me of the funding issues faced in Tennessee as a result of a Governor and legislature so far unwilling to properly fund our public schools.

Of particular interest was this note:

Every citizen of Mississippi pays taxes; income tax, sales tax and others; and a portion of that tax is required to be used to fund public education in this state. Again, the law is known as MAEP. When the legislature fails to obey this law, two things happen: First, the legislature gets to use the money it did not spend for pubic education for other purposes, even for funding private education with public money. Second, the local school districts, because the functions of running a school district must continue, have to request more local funding from the boards of supervisors. This, in turn, causes the supervisors to have to raise local millage rates.

This is effectively double taxation to fund education.

Except for the fact that Tennessee does not have an income tax, this is exactly what is happening in our state. Citizens are paying state taxes, the state is underfunding schools, and local governments are raising property taxes in order to address the shortfall.

In fact, because of revenue issues, Clay County’s School Board recently voted to delay the re-opening of schools following Fall Break.

And, Tennessee’s school funding challenge can be met without raising taxes. Yes, we have a $600 million surplus for 2015 fiscal year. Are legislative leaders talking about using that money to invest in schools?

No.

Instead, they are talking about more tax breaks for the investor class or building roads.

When the state fails to adequately support public schools and then passes down expensive, unfunded mandates, local taxpayers end up footing the bill.

Let me say this again: Tennessee taxpayers paid more than $600 million more than was projected just last year. Revenue is up above projections again this year. And legislators are talking about using the extra money for roads and tax breaks, but not schools.

That means taxpayers will likely see local tax increases or that local schools will go without needed resources — or, in some cases, both.

The BEP — the state’s funding formula for schools, is broken. But, the legislature is not yet poised to fix it.

When it comes to support for schools, Tennessee’s General Assembly is a lot like Mississippi’s.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Why Fix the BEP?

I’ve written recently about the growing state revenue collections and the corresponding request (in the form of a lawsuit) from school districts that the BEP (state school funding formula) be adequately funded – to the tune of some $500 million in new money.

But, some might ask: Why even fix the BEP? It’s a complex formula and besides, don’t our schools already have enough money?

The short answer is no. No, Tennessee schools do not have enough money.

I have gone so far as to suggest the BEP is broken and to explain the reasons for its current inadequacy.

Now, more evidence suggesting the need to fix the BEP. Essentially, it’s this: Since 2008, Tennessee’s “effort” in terms of percentage of state revenue devoted to school funding has fallen. I’ll show you a hand graph on that from the Education Law Center:

Source: "Is School Funding Fair?" by the Education Law Center

While an number of states began making improvements after 2011, Tennessee was not among them. Recent investments may have returned Tennessee to pre-recession funding levels, but not by much.

And then, there’s a recent report from Rutgers that suggests that when it comes to school funding, Tennessee gets an “F.”

From the Commercial Appeal:

The annual report card out of Rutgers University that grades states on how they fund public education shows Tennessee at the “bottom of the barrel” in fairness. Besides being one of 16 states earning an F for percentage of state resources allocated to K-12 education, family incomes of children attending its public schools on average are half that of children in private schools or being home-schooled.

“That’s a warning signal,” says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“It becomes difficult to get the kind of forward-thinking reform in legislation if you have more affluent families not invested in this system,” he said.

The study looks at “fairness” in funding, including whether states allow more resources for districts with high numbers of students in poverty. Tennessee earned a B in the category, but Sciarra says even that is misleading.

“Because spending is so low, it really does not amount to much,” he said.

So, why fix the BEP? Because school funding in Tennessee is both inequitable and inadequate. Of course, making the needed investments would normally be a heavy lift, but with recent rosy revenue news, fixing the BEP (and improving the future for our students and entire state) requires only a little hard work and some political will.

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

500 Here, 500 There

So, the state keeps taking in more revenue — a lot more than it planned — and it’s starting to add up to real money, some $500 million and the year’s not over yet.

Andrea Zelinski has the story:

Nearing the end of state government’s fiscal year, Tennessee has collected nearly one half billion dollars more than expected, according to state officials.

Revenues totaled $974 million for May, when $50.5 million more than expected pouring into state coffers. Overall, the state has collected $495 million more than anticipated in the first 10 months of the budget year, with $452 million overcollected for the general fund, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

What’s interesting about this story is that the total amount of over-collection represents almost exactly the dollar amount needed to satisfy school systems suing the state for inadequate K-12 funding.

$500 million appears to be the magic number:

Achieving a level of adequate funding as contemplated in the lawsuit would cost an estimated $500 million. Should the motion be granted, all 141 school systems in the state would effectively become a party to the suit — an unprecedented show of strength in what has historically been small school systems suing over equity. This suit differs from the previous “small schools” suits in that it focuses on the inadequacy of the funding formula rather than on any inequities that may exist.

So, we have $500 million in revenue over anticipated collections on the one hand and school systems suing to restore adequacy to the BEP to the tune of $500 million on the other.

Seems like someone (legislators, Governor Haslam, anyone…) ought to be able to work with these numbers and find a positive solution.

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