Vouchers and the BEP

The BEP — Tennessee’s funding formula for schools — is a reliable source of revenue for local school districts each year. While projections from the Comptroller’s office suggest the state underfunds the BEP by $500 million a year, the formula is relatively stable and districts can typically predict the amount of new BEP dollars they will receive each year.

That’s why Knox County was surprised this year to see a number about $6 million less than expected. The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

The state has typically added roughly $180 million new dollars into the BEP statewide in recent years. This, plus other smaller percentages of state funds, allowed the county to budget roughly $12 million extra BEP dollars each year. Last year it added an extra $14.1 million new BEP dollars after the state added $188.4 million new dollars to the fund.  

However, that number is expected to be down to $117.5 million in new money this year, meaning the county’s share of new dollars is projected to be only $6.2 million, nearly $8 million less than last year, Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said.

Here’s the historic data on BEP funding for Knox County:

  • $196.4 million, $12.9 million (2016-17);
  • $207.9 million, $11.5 million (2017-18);
  • $222 million, $14.1 million (2018-19);
  • $228.2 million estimate, $6.2 million estimate (2019-20)

As you can see, Knox County could reliably count on at least $12 million in increased BEP funding each year in recent years. That number was down more than half in this year’s projection.

What’s different in 2019-20? Well, Governor Bill Lee is proposing a statewide voucher scheme, for one. He’s also increasing funds available for charter schools. This comes after several years of former Governor Bill Haslam adding roughly $100 million a year in teacher salary increases. This year, that number is $75 million, with the other $25 million going to start Lee’s voucher plan.

If teachers in Knox County want to know what happened to their raises, the answer is vouchers. If residents want to know why building new schools is delayed, it’s because Lee is committing a lot of new money to charter schools for their facilities.

Bill Lee’s “school choice” agenda has consequences. The projected shortfall in Knox County is a clear example. Of course, Lee has done nothing to address the persistent low funding of our state’s schools and given no indication he intends to address that issue.

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Bill Lee’s BEP Lies

Is the BEP fully funded? Bill Lee wants you to think so. A recent Tennessean story calls this issue into question, however. Taking into account the reality of the BEP is more complicated, but the bottom line answer is this: No, Bill Lee’s budget does NOT fully fund the BEP and he and his staff should know better.

The Tennessean points out that despite new investments from Governor Haslam and now Governor Lee, educators are not happy with the adequacy of the state’s funding formula.

There is good reason to be concerned. For example, Tennessee is now investing less per pupil than we did in 2010:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating.

It’s also worth noting that our teacher salary increases aren’t matching national averages:


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.

While talking about teacher salaries, it’s important to note the BEP does NOT fully fund teacher pay and in fact, funds a level far below the actual average cost of hiring a teacher:


As for teacher compensation, the state pays 70% of the BEP calculated rate — which is now $46,225. The good news: That calculated rate has been increasing in recent years. The bad news: That rate is still $7000 LESS than the average teacher compensation paid by districts in the state.
What does this mean? It means districts have to make up a big difference in order to maintain their level of pay. As one example, Nashville is struggling to pay teachers on par with similar cities nationally. Based on current BEP formula allocations, funding teaching positions at the actual average rate would mean MNPS would receive an additional $21 million for teacher compensation. Those funds would certainly help close the pay gap that plagues the system.

Then, of course, there are unfunded or underfunded mandates. One example, RTI – Response to Intervention:


One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Our own Comptroller, a Republican, also indicates the state is significantly behind where it should be to adequately fund the BEP:


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.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Bill Haslam created a fake BEP task force designed to let him out of the responsibility to adequately fund schools and then effectively froze BEP 2.0. In that sense, it’s actually inaccurate to say our state is “fully funding” the BEP. In fact, we’re funding “growth only” in a frozen formula. Facts matter. History is difficult, I know. But those talking about this issue would do well to cite the recent history in their reporting.

Enter Governor Bill Haslam. He appointed his own BEP Task Force independent of the statutorily mandated BEP Review Committee. At the time, I speculated this was because he didn’t like the Review Committee’s recommendations and its insistence that the state was at least $500 million behind where it should be in education funding.

Now, he’s proposing a “BEP Enhancement Act.” This so-called enhancement is sailing through the General Assembly. It is seen as the most likely vehicle to get money to rural districts and in a year when education funds are increasing, why sweat the details?

As I’ve written before, a few districts lose significantly in the move because it eliminates the Cost Differential Factor (CDF).

It also freezes BEP 2.o. Gone are the dreams of full funding of this formula. The law makes permanent the 70% state funding of BEP-generated teaching positions and funds teacher salaries at a rate well below the state average salary.

Someone should tell Bill Lee and legislative leadership about this. They keep going around repeating the lie that the BEP is “fully funded.” The truth is quite different. I suspect Lee’s staffers know the reality, and are just not telling him. Alternatively, they don’t know the facts — in which case, they don’t deserve their jobs.

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Still Waiting


In March of 2013, I wrote about a possible education agenda for Tennessee. It was a plan based on issues I felt were not receiving adequate attention at the time. Each was chosen for the potential to have a measurable impact on outcomes.

Now, with a new governor and General Assembly, it seems a good time to check-in on these proposals and see where Tennessee stands.

The items I included were: Pre-K, new teacher mentoring, BEP funding improvements, and a significant increase in teacher pay.

Specifically:

We should expand the Pre-K program to serve all at-risk four-year-olds by 2017. 

Ok, it’s 2019 and we’re still not there. This despite clear evidence (especially in Nashville) that quality early education works. Instead, the previous Lt. Governor worked hard to keep the Pre-K program from expanding.

 

Tennessee policy-makers should build and launch a new BEP formula in time for the 2015-16 academic year.

This hasn’t happened. In fact, Governor Haslam froze BEP 2.0 and created a system where per pupil spending was essentially flat during his time in office. You can’t move forward by standing in place. We need an investment of between $500 million and $1 billion to adequately fund our state’s schools.

 

Tennessee policy-makers should build a new teacher mentoring program and ensure every new teacher has a trained mentor by the 2016-17 academic year.

No, this hasn’t been done. Hasn’t been seriously talked about. Not on the horizon. Investing in early career support and development for teachers is not yet a priority of our state’s policymakers.

 

Tennessee policy-makers should raise the starting pay for all teachers to $40,000 and adjust the pay scale to improve overall compensation by the 2015-16 academic year.

It is 2019 and we are still not there. Many teachers in our state start teaching at salaries below $40,000 and many will teach a full career and never see a salary above $60,000. This is an unsustainable model and is already having an impact in districts across the state.

 

So, I still think these four items make up a solid education policy agenda for our state. What do you think? Teachers, what are your policy goals?

 

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I Will Survive


A lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the state’s school funding formula will keep moving forward despite a last-ditch effort by Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery to derail the effort.

Chalkbeat reports:

A school funding lawsuit that has hung over Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration for more than three years has survived a third attempt in six months to kill it, including a “Hail Mary” legal maneuver before Tennessee’s Court of Appeals.

In the waning days before the Republican governor leaves office on Jan. 19, the appellate court denied Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery’s request to consider an appeal for dismissal.

The third strike increases the likelihood of a 2019 trial over whether the state adequately funds its K-12 schools — a question that could have far-reaching implications for Tennessee’s system of funding public education.

Despite Haslam’s claims that he’s made valiant efforts to increase school funding, a look at relevant data indicates Tennessee still has a long way to go to adequately fund schools:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating. Further evidence can be found in noting that in 2014, Tennessee ranked 43rd in the nation in spending per student. In 2015, that ranking dropped to 44th. 2016? Still 44th

It will be interesting to see how the lawsuit proceeds and what the outcome will mean for school funding in Tennessee.

 

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


 

Got Mine, Want More


Members of the Williamson County Commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting changes in the state’s BEP formula that would direct additional state resources to the wealthiest county in the state. Williamson County is also the 7th wealthiest county in the United States.

The Williamson Herald reports:

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s education committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution of support for state legislation that would modify the Basic Education Program (BEP) to provide Williamson County and others a more reasonable allotment of state funding for education.

I suppose “reasonable allotment” is in the eye of the beholder.

The state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is designed to provide all districts a base level of funding to support public education. The formula came about in response to a successful lawsuit by small, rural districts who sued suggesting the way the state was funding schools was unequal. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted the Education Improvement Act which included the Basic Education Plan (BEP) as a new school funding formula. One of the primary goals of this formula was (and still is) equity.

What the legislation sponsored by Jack Johnson would do is direct additional state resources to the five school districts in the state with the greatest ability to pay.

While the BEP certainly has shortcomings, I would suggest finding ways to direct more state funds to a county quite capable (but unwilling) to dedicate local resources to schools is not a very responsible use of state taxpayer dollars. To be clear, improving the BEP by making formula adjustments (adding a component for RTI, for example), would necessarily mean additional funds going to Williamson County.

Here are some fun facts about the county now begging the state for more cash:

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Tennessee with a population over 100,000.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state of Tennessee and 7th wealthiest in the United States.

Williamson County Commissioners have been reluctant to raise property taxes in order to continue to provide resources to schools.

An analysis of household income compared to property tax rates in similar affluent communities reveals that Williamson County’s tax burden is incredibly low. The chart below comes from public policy professor Ken Chilton, who teaches at Tennessee State:

That red bar on the chart is Williamson County, with a property tax burden on a $500,000 home of just over $3000. That’s just over 3% of the average household income, far lower than similar communities in Tennessee and across the country. Plus, as Chilton notes, Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.

Despite these facts, Williamson County Commissioners are headed to the state with their hands out, begging for more help.

Tennessee is a state making long overdue improvements in public education. As more state dollars become available, those dollars should absolutely be invested in continuing to improve our public schools. By closing the teacher pay gap, for example.

Giving money to those districts that have the ability to generate funds on their own but won’t is not a pressing need in our state. In fact, doing so would only serve to exacerbate the inequity the BEP was intended to address. Of course, these Williamson County Commissioners aren’t concerned about inequity. They are clearly concerned about ensuring one of America’s wealthiest communities continues to pay bargain basement prices for its public schools.

Policymakers should reject this rich get richer scheme and focus on education needs that will benefit every district and lift up those least able to generate funds for schools.

 

 

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


 

Virtual Equality?


As the school year began, I wrote about how students at some MNPS high schools were forced into online classes due to a teacher shortage. This impacted students primarily at Antioch, Whites Creek, and Cane Ridge High Schools. According to my sources, it’s still going on to some degree. That is, actual teachers haven’t been found to fill many of the positions that were empty at the beginning of the year. So, the students are taking courses from Edgenuity.

Here’s what I noted about Edgenuity at the time:

Here’s a review of materials developed by Edgenuity for grades 9-12 ELA done by the Louisiana Department of Education. Here’s the short version: Edgenuity received a Tier III (the lowest) rating for the quality of the materials it provided to students for grades 9-12 ELA.

Here’s what Louisiana had to say about Edgenuity’s 6-8 math materials. Also an overall Tier III rating, but mixed reviews depending on grade level and specific learning objective.

Now, there’s a court case about whether virtual classes provide a “substantially equal” educational opportunity for students.

Education law professor Derek Black notes:

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has taken up a fascinating issue regarding students’ access to teachers.  The problem could only arise in the brave new world of computers.  In short,  a student at a Tennessee high school had fallen behind in algebra and end-of-grade assessments were looming.  The school pulled the student  out of the class and placed the student in a computer based credit recovery program.  Apparently, this occurred with several other students.  The student claims that the school did this to help increase its standardized test scores.

The disputed issue in the case seems to be a narrower one: do students have the right to access a teacher?  The plaintiff says yes.  The school’s attorney says no.

And here’s Black’s analysis of the legal issue at hand:

The Supreme Court in  Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, 851 SW2d 139 (1993), held that students have a constitutional right to “substantially equal educational opportunities.”  The underlying facts in the case involved disparities in teacher salaries across the state.  Consistent with the overwhelming social science consensus, the court indicated that “teachers, obviously, are the most important component of any education plan or system.”  Because salary disparities resulted in students having unequal access to teachers, the Court ordered the state on more than one occasion to remedy is system of funding teacher salaries across the state.

So while state statutes may not create any specific property interest in access to a teacher, the state constitution creates a right to equal educational opportunities, which teachers are the most important part of.

And that’s why the situation at these schools is so interesting. The students at Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Whites Creek didn’t sign up for or choose virtual education. They were not offered the same or similar educational opportunity as students at other MNPS high schools — that is, students at most MNPS schools were assigned to an actual teacher who appeared in-person every day to provide instruction. These students were denied that opportunity and assigned to a program of questionable quality.

Why did this happen? One factor (though certainly not the only one) is teacher salaries. Teacher pay in MNPS is simply not competitive relative to the cost of living. It’s definitely not competitive relative to similar districts around the country.

The teacher salary issue is an important one, because it is the issue that drove the Small Schools court decision. In fairness, teachers at Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Whites Creek earn the same salaries as any other Nashville teachers. However, Nashville’s inability to adequately staff schools creates substantially unequal educational opportunity across the district. In fact, the district cited lack of adequate state resources as one reason it joined Shelby County in suing over BEP (Basic Education Program) funds.

It’s difficult to argue that students who signed up for and planned to attend traditional classes and then were forced into online learning were provided educational opportunities that are “substantially equal” to their peers at schools where this did not happen.

How this will be addressed remains to be seen.

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


 

How Much for Schools?


Tennessee continues to experience revenue growth beyond budgeted estimates. The latest numbers indicate the state took in $112 million more than was budgeted for June. That brings the amount collected over budgeted estimates to $789 million with one more month left to calculate for the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, in spite of recent increases in allocation to teacher compensation, school systems still aren’t seeing adequate BEP funding. Every district in the state hires more teachers than allocated by the BEP formula. The state doesn’t provide any funding for the mandate of providing Response to Intervention. The state’s BEP Review Committee indicates providing funding for RTI positions would cost about $28 million. That’s about 25% of this month’s surplus. YES, for the cost of 1/4 of one month’s surplus revenue, we can begin providing funding for RTI positions. Districts should be demanding this money. The state can afford it.

As for teacher compensation, the state pays 70% of the BEP calculated rate — which is now $46,225. The good news: That calculated rate has been increasing in recent years. The bad news: That rate is still $7000 LESS than the average teacher compensation paid by districts in the state.

What does this mean? It means districts have to make up a big difference in order to maintain their level of pay. As one example, Nashville is struggling to pay teachers on par with similar cities nationally. Based on current BEP formula allocations, funding teaching positions at the actual average rate would mean MNPS would receive an additional $21 million for teacher compensation. Those funds would certainly help close the pay gap that plagues the system.

It’s worth noting that Tennessee has one of the largest gaps between teacher salaries and salaries of similarly-educated professions. Add to that the low reimbursement rate for teaching positions, and it’s not difficult to see why our teacher pay lags behind other cities and states.

To recap: Tennessee pays 70% of a pay rate that is $7000 below the actual cost of hiring a teacher. Fixing that by funding teaching positions at the actual cost would mean spending $343 million more per year. Or, about three months worth of surpluses. For another $28 million, we could also fund RTI positions.

Tennessee is on sound financial footing. We have month after month of budget surpluses. We also have a clearly identified policy need that would consume less than 40% of those surplus dollars. That leaves plenty of money for savings, other investments, or new projects.

I write this story year after year after year.

Policymakers can choose to address the serious funding challenges facing our schools. They can do it without raising taxes. They can do it while still saving more than $600 million.

This should be easy.

If providing excellent public schools is a top priority, the state will move to fund teaching positions at a rate that matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher.

Every candidate for governor should be asked if they support making this investment. Their answer will say a lot about the priority they place on public education.

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The Fortunate 46


I reported earlier this week that the State Board of Education increased both the minimum base salary and the salary matrix at each step by four percent. I noted then that this would require salary increases for teachers in 46 districts across the state.

Here’s the list of the districts where the salary schedule increase will mean a mandatory raise for teachers:

Cannon                         Hollow Rock

West Carroll                 Carter

Claiborne                      Clay

Cocke                            Crockett

Alamo                           Cumberland

Decatur                        Dekalb

Dickson                        Fayette

Fentress                       Humboldt

Milan                            Bradford

Grainger                       Grundy

Hancock                       Hardin

Hawkins                       Haywood

Hickman                      Humphreys

Jackson                        Johnson County

Lake                              McNairy

Monroe                        Morgan

Overton                       Perry

Pickett                         Rhea

Scott                            Oneida

Sequatchie                 Smith

Sullivan                      Unicoi

Union                         Van Buren

Wayne                        Weakley

Here’s a link to the new minimum salary schedule.

The new minimum base pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $33,745 and the new minimum for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and more than 10 years experience is $40,595.

Yes, these numbers are pretty low. So, it’s unfortunate that 46 districts are being forced to raise pay based on the schedule adjustment. But, these are largely rural districts that are heavily dependent on state funding to run their systems.

The action of the SBE this week is a welcome change from the past few years when they increased the salary schedule by only a fraction of the new money allocated for teacher compensation through the BEP. If this trend continues, Tennessee may well become the fastest-improving state in teacher compensation.

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


 

 

Did You Read the Whole Letter?


The BEP Review Committee met today as it begins the process of outlining priorities for BEP improvement for 2018. The group received an update on how Governor Haslam and the General Assembly responded to the priority list it created for this year.

Here’s the list of priorities the committee identified for 2017:

The five priorities, in order:

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

Committee members noted that Governor Haslam funded an increase in teacher compensation and improvements in ELL funding. As of today, that budget has passed the House of Representatives and awaits final approval by the Senate on Monday.

The committee also noted that no movement was made to improve the ratio of school counselors to students and no funding was provided for RTI positions. Technology funding also remained constant.

There was an opportunity to address the RTI issue. Rep. Joe Pitts of Clarksville sponsored a bill that would have added to the BEP formula funding for 3 RTI positions for each public school in the state. That bill carried a cost of $167 million. Despite a nearly $1 billion surplus this year, funding was not provided for this legislation.

Committee members — representatives of school boards and superintendents — noted that the RTI program can be successful if properly implemented. Directors of Schools in particular expressed frustration at the state of RTI, noting the program is mandated, but not funded.

The legislature referred Pitts’ bill to the BEP Review Committee for study and further recommendations.

In addition to the lack of funding for RTI positions and school counselors, MNPS Chief Financial Officer Chris Henson noted that historically, the committee has recommended an improvement in funding for school nurses. While that wasn’t in the top 5 this past year, Henson advocated for getting it back on the list. Committee staff indicated members would be surveyed over the summer, with an eye toward a new list of priorities released by August.

One other issue worth noting: Committee staff highlighted increases in BEP funds for teacher compensation over the past three years and suggested this indicates a commitment to the committee’s top priority. However, the BEP Review Committee’s own 2016 report , actual total compensation for teachers has increased by only 1% per year over the last two years.That’s less than the rate of increase from a decade ago, when total teacher compensation was increasing at a rate of about 3% per year. This in spite of repeated commitments to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay.

So, the BEP Review Committee will make a new priority list. Issues like funding RTI positions and school counselors seem likely to make a repeat appearance. The question, then, is will these items receive the attention they deserve?

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