Supposedly

Recently, Chalkbeat asked readers to pose questions about TNReady given the latest round of trouble for the state’s standardized test. One particular question asked about the validity of the scoring given that “scorers are hired off Craigslist.”

Here’s what the Tennessee Department of Education had to say:

“Questar does not use Craigslist. Several years ago, another assessment company supposedly posted advertisements on Craigslist, but Questar does not. We provide opportunities for our educators to be involved in developing our test, and we also encourage Tennessee teachers to apply to hand-score TNReady.

So, good news: scorers for the new vendor are not hired off of Craigslist. But, disturbing that the TDOE used the hedge “supposedly.” Back in 2015, I wrote about Measurement, Inc.’s ads on Craigslist:

Certainly, quality scorers for TNReady can be found for $10.70-$11.20 an hour via ads posted on Craigslist. I’m sure parents in the state are happy to know this may be the pool of scorers determining their child’s test score. And teachers, whose evaluations are based on growth estimates from these tests, are also sure to be encouraged by the validity of results obtained in this fashion.

My post even included a copy of the ad being used by Measurement, Inc. Then, in 2016, WSMV ran a story on scorers being hired via Craigslist ads.

Another response from the TDOE also caught my attention. This one dealt with the validity of comparisons between the old TCAP test and the new TNReady. The TDOE suggests this is like a group of runners changing from running 5Ks to running a 10K.

Runner and blogger TC Weber has a good response.

Then, when the issue of students not taking the tests seriously due to the perennial problems with returning data, the TDOE engages in more blame shifting:

“We believe that if districts and schools set the tone that performing your best on TNReady is important, then students will take the test seriously, regardless of whether TNReady factors into their grade. We should be able to expect our students will try and do their best at any academic exercise, whether or not it is graded. This is a value that is established through local communication from educators and leaders, and it will always be key to our test administration.

So, the fact that testing data has been returned late or that the quick score calculation method has changed has nothing to do with how students understand the test. If only those pesky school districts and their troublesome teachers would get on board and reinforce the right “values,” everything would be fine.

Here’s a hint, TDOE: Take some damn responsibility. TNReady has been a dumpster fire. Before that, you couldn’t get TCAP scores back in a reliable fashion. When districts told the TDOE that TNReady’s online administration wasn’t going to go well in 2016, the TDOE ignored them. Now, some students are wary of the test and whether or not it has any impact on their grades or any relevance to their learning. The TDOE simply responds by telling districts that if they just stopped asking so many questions and started drilling in the right messages, all would be well.

The disconnect is real.

As I noted in an earlier piece, accountability is a one way street when it comes to TDOE. This message is worth repeating:

How many warning signs will be ignored? How important is the test that it must be administered at all costs and the mistakes must be excused away because “accountability” demands it?

How can you hold students and teachers and schools accountable when no one is holding the Department of Education accountable? How long will legislators tolerate a testing regime that creates nightmares for our students and headaches for our teachers while yielding little in terms of educational value?

Apparently, according to Governor Haslam, everything is fine.

Still, the legislature meets again starting in January. And, there’s a Governor’s race on next year as well. Perhaps the combination of those events will lead to an environment that produces real answers.

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


 

This is Fine

Amid the latest round of TNReady troubles that included both miscalculated student scores and errors in how those scores were used in some teacher evaluations, the House of Representatives held hearings last week to search for answers.

On the same day of the committee hearings, Governor Bill Haslam let everyone know that things were going well.

Chalkbeat reports:

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Haslam called the controversy overblown because this year’s errors were discovered as part of the state’s process for vetting scores.

“I think the one thing that’s gotten lost in all this discussion is the process worked,” Haslam told reporters. “It was during the embargo period before any of the results were sent out to students and their families that this was caught.”

Here’s the deal: If this were the only problem with TNReady so far, Governor Haslam would be right. This would be no big deal. But, you know, it’s not the only problem. At all.

Let’s start from the beginning. Which was supposed to be 2016. Except it didn’t happen. And then it kept not happening. For full disclosure, I have a child who was in 4th grade at the time of what was to be the inaugural year of TNReady. The frustration of watching her prepare for a week of testing only to be told it would happen later and then later and then maybe never was infuriating. That adults at decision-making levels think it is just fine to treat students that way is telling. It also says something that when some adults try to stand up for their students, they are smacked down by our Commissioner of Education.

As for the aforementioned Commissioner of Education, some may remember the blame shifting and finger pointing engaged in by Commissioner McQueen and then-TNReady vendor Measurement, Inc. That same attitude was on display again this year when key deadlines were missed for the return of “quick scores” to school districts.

Which brings us to the perennial issue of delivering accurate score reports to districts. This year was the fourth year in a row there have been problems delivering these results to school districts. Each year, we hear excuses and promises about how it will be better next year. Then, it isn’t.

Oh, and what if you’re a parent like me and you’re so frustrated you just want to opt your child out of testing. Well, according to Commissioner McQueen and the Governor who supports her, that’s not an option. Sadly, many districts have fallen in line with this way of thinking.

Here’s the thing: McQueen’s reasoning is missing something. Yes, she lacks credibility generally. But, specifically, she’s ignoring some key evidence. As I noted previously:

All along, the state has argued a district’s federal funds could be in jeopardy due to refusal to administer the test or a district’s inability to test at least 95% of its students.

As such, the argument goes, districts should fight back against opt-outs and test refusals by adopting policies that penalize students for taking these actions.

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

So, you have a system that is far from perfect and based on this system (TNReady), you penalize teachers (through their evaluations) and schools (through an A-F school grading system). Oh yeah, and you generate “growth” scores and announce “reward” schools based on what can best be described as a problematic (so far) measuring stick with no true comparability to the previous measuring stick.

Anyway, Bill Haslam is probably right. This is fine.

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


 

Haslam to Kids: Be Ready, Even Though TN Hasn’t Been

In a letter sent home to students ahead of TNReady testing season, Governor Bill Haslam encourages them to do well and tells them, “Tennessee is behind you.”

Here’s the full text of the letter:

IMG_3182

These words of encouragement as well as a handy number 2 pencil were paid for by SCORE.

Here’s the thing: For the past few years, Tennessee hasn’t exactly been “behind” kids. Not in terms of delivering an annual test in an effective manner.

I wrote last year about the new “Rite of Spring.” Here’s what I said then:

Lately, this season has brought another ritual: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to deliver student test scores. Each of the last three years has seen TNDOE demonstrate it’s inability to get state testing right (nevermind the over-emphasis on testing to begin with).

Back in 2014, there was a delay in the release of the all-powerful “quick scores” used to help determine student grades. Ultimately, this failure led to an Assistant Commissioner losing her job.

Then, in 2015, the way “quick scores” were computed was changed, creating lots of confusion. The Department was quick to apologize, noting:

We regret this oversight, and we will continue to improve our processes such that we uphold our commitment to transparency, accuracy, and timeliness with regard to data returns, even as we experience changes in personnel.

The processes did not appear to be much improved at all as the 2016 testing cycle got into full swing, with a significant technical failure on Day One.

When it comes to actually getting test administration and subsequent details right, Tennessee hasn’t exactly been “behind” the kids taking the tests.

But this year, armed with a letter from the Governor and a new pencil, the kids are ready. Haslam wants them to do their best, even though the state has been letting them down.

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


 

The Verdict on Vouchers

As the Tennessee General Assembly considers vouchers as part of the education agenda this year, it is important to look at the evidence. That is, do vouchers work? Do voucher programs lead to improved student outcomes. Until now, most research has been mixed, with some suggesting modest gains for students, while some studies showed no significant improvement. These studies focused on older, typically smaller programs.

Now, however, there is data on some statewide voucher efforts. That data suggests, quite strongly, that vouchers don’t work. In fact, the studies indicate vouchers actually cause student achievement to decline.

Kevin Carey writes in the New York Times:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Some state policymakers (State Rep. Bill Dunn, State Senator Brian Kelsey, Governor Bill Haslam) are asking taxpayers to invest in a voucher scheme. These advocates suggest that a voucher program can provide a path to better outcomes for students. However, the results of statewide programs in three different studies indicate just the opposite: Vouchers offer a path to dismal achievement.

Tennessee lawmakers should take a look at the evidence. Vouchers just don’t work. In fact, they harm the very students voucher advocates claim to want to help. Instead of funding voucher schemes we know don’t get results, the state should focus on funding existing programs that will enhance education for all students.

MORE on vouchers:

Vouchers the wrong choice for Tennessee

What Tennessee Can Learn from Louisiana on Vouchers

Fitzhugh on Vouchers

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.


 

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


 

Knox County Takes a Stand

Last night, the Knox County School Board voted 6-3 in favor of a resolution calling on the General Assembly and State Board of Education to waive the use of TCAP/TNReady data in student grades and teacher evaluations this year.

The move comes as the state prepares to administer the tests this year with a new vendor following last year’s TNReady disaster. The lack of a complete testing cycle last year plus the addition of a new vendor means this year is the first year of the new test.

The Board passed the resolution in spite of Governor Haslam warning against taking such a step.

In his warning, Haslam said:

“The results we’ve seen are not by accident in Tennessee, and I think you have to be really careful about doing anything that could cause that to back up,” Haslam said.

He added:

Haslam attributed that progress to three things, including tying standardized tests to teacher evaluations.

“It’s about raising our standards and expectations, it’s about having year-end assessments that match those standards and then I think it’s about having assessments that are part of teachers’ evaluations,” Haslam said. “I think that you have to have all of those for a recipe for success.”

Haslam can present no evidence for his claim about the use of student assessment in teacher evaluation. In fact, it’s worth noting that prior to 2008, Tennessee students achieved at a high level according to what were then the state standards. While the standards themselves were determined to need improvement, the point is teachers were helping students hit the designated mark.

Teachers were moving students forward at this time without evaluations tied to student test results. Policymakers set a mark for student performance, teachers worked to hit that mark and succeeded. Standards were raised in 2008, and since then, Tennessee has seen detectable growth in overall results, including some exciting news when NAEP results are released.

To suggest that a year without the use of TVAAS scores in teacher evaluations will cause a setback is to insult Tennessee’s teachers. As if they’ll just relax and not teach as hard.

Another argument raised against the resolution is that it will somehow absolve teachers and students of accountability.

Joe Sullivan reports in the Knoxville Mercury:

In an email to board members, [Interim Director of Schools Buzz] Thomas asserted that, “We need a good standardized test each year to tell us how we are doing compared to others across the state and the nation. We will achieve greatness not by shying away from this accountability but by embracing it.” And he fretted that, “This resolution puts that at risk. In short, it will divide us. Once again we could find ourselves in two disputing camps. The pro-achievement folks on the one side and the pro-teacher folks on the other.”

Right now, we don’t know if we have a good standardized test. Taking a year to get it right is important, especially in light of the frustrations of last year’s TNReady experience.

Of course, there’s no need for pro-achievement and pro-teacher folks to be divided into two camps, either. Tennessee can have a good, solid test that is an accurate measure of student achievement and also treat teachers fairly in the evaluation process.

To be clear, teachers aren’t asking for a waiver from all evaluation. They are asking for a fair, transparent evaluation system. TVAAS has long been criticized as neither. Even under the best of circumstances, TVAAS provides a minimal level of useful information about teacher performance.

Now, we’re shifting to a new test. That shift alone makes it impossible to achieve a valid value-added score. In fact, researchers in the Journal of Educational Measurement have said:

We find that the variation in estimated effects resulting from the different mathematics achievement measures is large relative to variation resulting from choices about model specification, and that the variation within teachers across achievement measures is larger than the variation across teachers. These results suggest that conclusions about individual teachers’ performance based on value-added models can be sensitive to the ways in which student achievement is measured.
These findings align with similar findings by Martineau (2006) and Schmidt et al (2005)
You get different results depending on the type of question you’re measuring.

The researchers tested various VAM models (including the type used in TVAAS) and found that teacher effect estimates changed significantly based on both what was being measured AND how it was measured.

Changing to a new type of test creates value-added uncertainty. That means results attributed to teachers based on a comparison of this year’s tests and the old tests will not yield valid results.

While insisting that districts use TVAAS in teacher evaluations this year, the state is also admitting it’s not quite sure how that will work.

From Sullivan’s story:

When asked how these determinations will be made, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education acknowledges that a different methodology will have to be employed and says that, “we are still working with various statisticians and experts to determine the exact methodology we will use this year.”

Why not at take at least a year, be sure there’s a test that works, and then build a model based on that? What harm would come from giving teachers and students a year with a test that’s just a test? Moreover, the best education researchers have already warned that testing transitions create value-added bumps. Why not avoid the bumps and work to create an evaluation system that is fair and transparent?

Knox County has taken a stand. We’ll soon see if others follow suit. And if the state is listening.

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


 

 

JC Bowman on Literacy

JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET)

Government spending is often portrayed as a freight train “quickly running out of track.” And there is some truth to that statement. There is not an endless supply of money to fund every good idea that comes along, and we must acknowledge that problem. Fiscal responsibility is a must.

That is why spending on priority issues like public education is important. You can spend $9,000 a year for a child to receive a quality education, or you can spend $40,000 a year to incarcerate an adult in some communities.

That is a harsh reality. You have read the statistics enough to know that there is an undeniable connection between literacy skills and incarceration rates. Children who do not read on grade level are more likely to dropout, use drugs or end up in prison. Research shows that reading abilities in third grade act as a tell-tale barometer for later school success.

Governor Haslam has wisely invested Tennessee dollars into literacy initiatives in 2016 because he knows poor reading skills are connected with unfavorable life outcomes. Low literacy is strongly related to crime. Low literacy is strongly related to unemployment. Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure. Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.”

We need to come together as a society and work to address the real issues facing our children. We need to have community conversations about what we expect from our local schools, but we need to recognize that the problems are much larger than what a school can address and are likely to be different in each community. A “one size fits all” approach simply does not work.

You probably know the line, which comes from Jim Collins’ bestselling business book, Good to Great: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” It is important that we start prioritizing our spending, and over the long run it will save money that we can use to create a stronger public school system. And we have to get the right people into our classrooms and retain them.

When educated and intelligent citizens make informed decisions about what they want from their government and society, the outcome is far more likely to be positive. Similarly, if a good education system is in place for the next generation of children, the likelihood of societal stability is greatly increased. So it is important we get this right. Literacy is critical. And public education is a wise investment.

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


 

BEP. BEP 2.0. BEP 1.5?

Following a lawsuit filed by rural schools in Tennessee dubbed Small Schools, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the state’s funding of public schools was unconstitutional. They ordered the General Assembly to come up with a more equitable way to distribute education funding. The result was the Basic Education Plan (BEP) which both equalized state funding to schools and injected $1 billion into the state’s schools over six years.

While Rep. Bill Dunn says that money didn’t improve schools, a generation of students in rural schools who experienced expanded educational opportunities likely disagree.

Subsequent lawsuits (Small Schools II and III) resulted in additional changes, including a salary equity fund for rural districts.

Then, in 2007, with bipartisan support, Governor Phil Bredesen secured passage of BEP 2.0 and began with an injection of more than $200 million in new dollars to schools.

2008 brought the Great Recession and prevented further investment in BEP 2.0, but the state’s BEP Review Committee has consistently recommended full funding of the newer formula, which would provide more funds to nearly all districts while leveling the playing field for those educating more “at-risk” students.

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.

Back in 2014, I wrote about the broken BEP and the need to improve it and noted:

First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.

Next, the state sets the instructional component for teacher salary at $40,447. The average salary actually paid to Tennessee teachers is $50,355.  That’s slightly below the Southeastern average and lower than six of the eight states bordering Tennessee. In short, an average salary any lower would not even approach competitiveness with our neighbors.

But, this gets to the reason why salary disparity is growing among districts. The state funds 70% of the BEP instructional component. That means the state sends districts $28,333.90 per BEP-generated teacher. But districts pay an average of $50,355 per teacher they employ. That’s a $22,000 disparity. In other words, instead of paying 70% of a district’s basic instructional costs, the state is paying 56%.

Even with the upward adjustment of state money for teacher salaries, the state won’t be anywhere close to funding 70% of the actual cost of Tennessee teachers. Don’t even think about reaching the 75% goal imagined by BEP 2.0.

Nashville School Board Member Will Pinkston, who worked for Governor Phil Bredesen during the development of BEP 2.0 had this to say of Haslam’s proposed changes:

“With this proposed ‘BEP 1.5,’ Gov. Haslam is taking a huge step backward when it comes to public education funding. In 2007, Gov. Bredesen and the General Assembly made a significant commitment to K-12 schools by proposing and approving a new formula that now is universally recognized for its equitable approach to distributing public education dollars. At the time, Gov. Bredesen cautioned that new revenue generated by a tripling in the tobacco tax would be only a ‘downpayment’ toward fully funding the new formula. Then the Great Recession happened, and then a political transition occurred in the governor’s office. Those of us who care about education funding were hopeful that Gov. Haslam would continue the Bredesen legacy of investing significant new dollars in public education as the economy turned around. Instead, he’s given only lip service to education funding and has, at best, just shifted dollars around to give the appearance of increased funding. The reality is: The legislature, by its own admission, has acknowledged that public education in Tennessee is getting short-shrifted by the state to the tune of at least $500 million. And that means the real number is likely closer to $1 billion or more. By proposing a halt in the implementation of BEP 2.0, the governor is essentially proposing a massive funding cut. If he claims to truly understand the plight of public education funding, he should abandon BEP 1.5 and recommit to fully funding BEP 2.0. To do anything less would be breaking the state’s promise.”

That’s a pretty strong critique. But it’s not difficult to see why education advocates should have concern about the long-term impacts of Haslam’s BEP 1.5 effort.

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