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.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport


 

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


 

Haslam To Fully Fund BEP

During the State of the State address on Monday, Governor Haslam announced that he is fully funding the Basic Education Program (BEP). Here’s what chalkbeat had to say:

In conjunction his seventh State of the State address, Haslam released a $37 billion proposed budget for 2017-18, including almost $230 million more for schools following a historic increase last year. Haslam said it’s one of the largest education funding increases in the state’s history and amounts to fully funding schools under the state’s funding formula known as the Basic Education Program.

Here’s what Haslam said during his address:

We’re fully funding the Basic Education Program including $22 million in additional dollars to help schools serve high need students and $15 million for career and technical education equipment. One hundred million dollars ($100 million) is included for teacher salaries, bringing the three year total since FY 16 to more than $300 million in new dollars for teacher salaries and more than $430 million in new dollars for salaries since 2011. Tennessee has shown it will not balance the budget on the backs of teachers and students. In fact, under the legislature and this administration, Tennessee has increased total K-12 spending by more than $1.3 billion.

It’s great the Governor Haslam is finally fully funding the BEP, which will allow for more resources going into the classrooms to help our students and teachers. For years, legislators, parents, bloggers, and local education officials have asked the Governor to fully fund the BEP. He finally listened.

Thanks for finally coming through, Governor Haslam.

Where do the funds go?

  • $100 million more for teacher salaries
  • $22 million more for English Language Learners
  • $15 million more for career technical education
  • $4.5 million more for the Read to be Ready initiative
  • $6 million (one time) for charter school facilities

I know many teachers will be extremely happy when they read the news. I know I am.  Now that it is fully funded, it’s time to make sure it’s fair.

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


 

Show Us the Money

WSMV reports state revenues came in at $108 million above projections in September:

Corporate franchise and exercise taxes came in at $76 million more than expectations in the month, which reflects economic activity in August. Sales taxes collections were $24 million higher than the amount budgeted for the month and reflect a 4.5 percent growth rate compared with the same year-ago period.

The surplus from September alone would be enough for the state to add 3500 teachers using the current funding formula. That’s 25% of the total needed to properly fund our state’s schools according to a recent report from the Comptroller’s office.

The report indicated:

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.

We are now in our third consecutive year of revenue growth well above projections. It’s time for the state to step up and invest in schools. Three more months with surpluses like September would provide enough revenue ($400 million) for the state to adequately fund teaching positions through the BEP. And don’t forget, we have more than $900 million in surplus funds from the budget year that ended on June 30th.

The money is there. Will it be invested in our schools?

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


 

 

MNPS Sues The State

MNPS has now officially filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee in regards to underfunding for English language learners.

The petition, which was filed Thursday, comes after the school board voted to sue in June and a recent letter that 30 Metro Council members signed in favor of the lawsuit.

Amanda Haggard at the Nashville Scene:

The lawsuit argues that the state should follow code, which outlines that “funding shall be provided by the state at a ratio of 1:20 for teachers and 1:200 for translators.”

Currently the state is only funding ELL at an estimated ratio of 1:25 for teachers and 1:250 for translators.

Before the lawsuit was filed, the state agreed about the code and ratio, but referred Metro Legal to another section of the code, which says “the changes in components or factors of the BEP implemented by this at shall be implemented in accordance with funding as made available through the general appropriations act.”

In response to the lawsuit, Nashville Mayor Barry commended the school board.

I commend our School Board for seeking to use every tool available to them to ensure that our teachers have enough resources to provide a world-class education for our students. We have the opportunity to be a leader in the nation for providing high-quality ELL services for our students, but we need to ensure that the State of Tennessee is providing Davidson County with our fair share of tax dollars as required by law.

You can read the lawsuit here.

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


 

 

Priority Mail

The BEP Review Committee, the state body tasked with annually reviewing school funding in Tennessee and making recommendations for improvement, decided in late July to send a letter to the Governor and other key state leaders outlining priorities for future education funding.

Here’s what the committee’s minutes say about this letter:

The committee resolved with no dissenting votes to send a letter to the Governor, the Commissioner of Finance and Administration and the Commissioner of Education outlining the five priorities of the committee for funding.

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

Teacher compensation has been a big issue in the last few years. From Governor Haslam’s broken promise back in 2014 to consecutive years of salary increases included in the Governor’s budget and passed by the General Assembly.

In spite of all this, Tennessee still faces a significant teacher wage gap. That is, teachers are paid about 30% less than other similarly-educated professionals. The good news is the state now has a $925 million surplus, a portion of which could be used to help close the teacher wage gap. Doing this would also meet another long-term goal of the BEP review committee: 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.

This is the Committee’s #1 priority. They’ve told the Governor and others it matters. A lot. And Tennessee has the money to make a serious investment in teacher compensation in 2017 and beyond.

The second goal is better funding for English Language Learners in order to improve the ratio of ELL instructors to students. The cost of full implementation of the desired ratio is around $30 million. That’s also doable given the current budget situation.

Next, the BEP Review Committee wants an added commitment to guidance counselors. Fully funding this request would cost nearly $60 million.

A little further down the list is funding for dedicated RTI2 positions. It’s not clear what this could cost, but it’s pretty important because the unfunded RTI2 mandate is a significant part of the lawsuit filed by some school districts against the state charging the current funding formula is inadequate.

Finally, there’s technology. It’s pretty clear that despite recent investments, districts across the state would benefit from significant state investment in technology. That’s one thing the preparation for the failed TNReady test made abundantly clear.

It’s good to be able to prioritize our state’s education investments. Even policy idealists know we can’t do it all at once. The good news is, there’s money available to make meaningful investment and get pretty far down this list. It’s a multi-year project, to be sure. But it’s advice the Governor and others should heed.

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