Happy TNReady Week

Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch offers this commentary on TNReady and vouchers:

HAPPY TN READY WEEK!!! Are you excited???

Oh wow…..that’s a lot of one finger salutes….😟.

So you’re saying you aren’t a fan of the state’s mandated TN Ready testing and your satisfaction levels so far are akin to the Comcast customer service line?

Well you may want to stop reading now because the fact is that under the proposed Voucher bills currently before the Tennessee legislature, those tests are just for your kids. Those using public dollars for private for-profit schools in the form of vouchers wouldn’t be subject to the same apples-to-apples testing requirement.

According to Chalkbeat:

“Students receiving education savings accounts — a newer kind of voucher now under consideration by the Tennessee General Assembly — would have to take half as many tests as their counterparts in public schools.

The retreat in accountability for a proposed pilot program even has some of the new Republican governor’s supporters scratching their heads.

“I would think that we would want the recipients to go through the full battery of assessments that students in public schools would receive,” said freshman Rep. Charlie Baum, a Republican from Murfreesboro, of the need to “compare apples to apples” in measuring the program’s success.”

Testing Time

Here’s a link to the TN Department of Education’s page on testing times for various grade levels.

The information on the site indicates that students in 3rd grade can expect to spend 5 hours and 45 minutes testing. Of course, this all happens over a week, and means students effectively lose days of instructional time.

This year, many Tennessee students are taking tests on pencil and paper since our TNDOE can’t predict when hackers or dump trucks will attack the integrity of our state’s tests.

Next year, as we shift to a new vendor, we’ll also see students take pencil and paper tests. Then, back to online TNReady for testing in the 2020-21 academic year.

No word from our new Commissioner of Education on amending our state’s ESSA application to change testing formats or move away from annual testing altogether.

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The Case for Vouchers

In an absolutely epic Twitter thread, Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch makes a case for vouchers. Actually, he makes a case for voucher-level funding for public schools. Welch uses math to make his case. Here are some examples:

Welch notes the significant funding gap between vouchers and the dollar amount per student Williamson County receives from the state based on the BEP formula. This is an important distinction. The BEP formula generates a per student dollar amount (currently $7300) and then devises an amount owed to local districts based on each district’s ability to pay. So, in some districts, the state sends a lot of money and in others, like Williamson, not so much.

Factors involved in generating the total number are based on a school system’s average daily attendance. That number then generates a number of teachers, administrators, and other positions. The state funds each system’s BEP teacher number at 70% — that is, the state sends 70% of the average weighted salary (around $45,000 currently) to the district for each teaching position generated by the BEP.

Let’s be clear: The BEP is inadequate. Every single district hires more teachers (and other positions) than generated by the BEP. Local districts fund 100% of those costs.

Before the state was taken to court over inadequate funding, the BEP Review Committee used to list a series of recommendations on ways to improve the funding formula to adequately meet the needs of our state’s public schools.

While routinely ignored by policymakers, this list provided a guide to where Tennessee should be investing money to improve the overall public education offered in our state.

Here are some examples from the most recent version of this list:

Fund ELL Teachers 1:20  — COST: $28,709,000

Fund ELL Translators 1:200  COST: $2,866,000

Instructional Component at funded at 75% by State  COST: $153,448,000

Insurance at 50%  COST: $26,110,000

BEP 2.0 Fully Implemented  COST: $133,910,000

Some notes here –

First, BEP 2.0 was frozen by Governor Haslam as he “re-worked” funding distribution and supposedly focused on teacher pay.

Next, the state currently provides districts 45% of employee health insurance for ONLY the BEP -generated positions. Districts must fund 100% of the benefit cost for teachers hired about the BEP number.

Finally, beefing up the instructional component by 5% as recommended here would mean significant new dollars available for either hiring teachers or boosting teacher pay or both.

Here are some “wish list” items on teacher pay, which reflect that our state has long known we’re not paying our teachers well:

BEP Salary at $45,447  COST: $266,165,000

BEP Salary at $50,447  COST: $532,324,000

BEP Salary at Southeastern average $50,359  COST: $527,646,000

BEP Salary at State average (FY14) $50,116    COST: $514,703,000

These are FY14 numbers — so, that’s been a few years. Still, funding teacher pay at the actual average spent by districts (just over $50,000 a year) would mean significant new funding for schools that could be invested in teacher salaries. We don’t fund teacher pay at the actual average, though, we fund it at a “weighted” average that is thousands less than this actual number. Then, districts receive only 70% of that weighted number per BEP position.

Making the large scale jump necessary to truly help direct state BEP dollars into teacher paychecks and provide a much-needed boost to salaries would cost close to $500 million. Bill Lee’s budget this year provides a paltry $71 million, continuing the tradition of talking a good game while letting teacher pay in our state continue to stagnate.

Here are some other recommendations — ideas that Welch suggests districts could pursue if only they were funded at the same level Bill Lee is proposing for private schools:

Change funding ratio for psychologists from 1:2,500 to 1:500  $57,518,000

Change funding ratio for elementary counselors from 1:500 to 1:250  $39,409,000

Change funding ratio for secondary counselors from 1:350 to 1:250  $18,079,000

Change funding ratio for all counselors to 1:250  $57,497,000

Change Assistant Principal ratio to SACS standard  $11,739,000

Change 7-12 funding ratios, including CTE, by 3 students  $87,928,000

New BEP Component for Mentors (1:12 new professional positions)  $17,670,000

Professional Development (1% of instructional salaries)  $25,576,000

Change funding ratios for nurses from 1:3,000 to 1:1,500  $12,194,000

Change funding ratios for Technology Coordinators from 1:6,400 to 1:3,200  $4,150,000

Increase Funding for teacher materials and supplies by $100  $6,336,000

Instructional Technology Coordinator (1 per LEA)  $5,268,000

If you look at these numbers, you see that a state committee of professional educators (the BEP Review Committee) has been telling state policymakers that Tennessee needs to do more.

They’ve been saying it for years.

Now, we have a Governor who is suggesting that instead of spending state dollars to meet these needs, we’re going to spend them to prop up private schools with little to no accountability.

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The Curious Case of Williamson County

Williamson Strong has more on the evolving situation in Williamson County where a County Commission reluctant to raise revenue is forcing the School Board to make budget cuts.

Using information on spending relative to peer districts, Williamson Strong notes there’s no spending problem in Williamson County, and in fact, Williamson spends significantly less than other top districts and even has lower per pupil expenditures than the state average:

Of the top 10 districts in terms of academic performance (measured by ACT/TCAP), WCS has the lowest per pupil expenditure. WCS spends only $8,945 per student – $1,790 less than the average PPE of the top 10 districts.

For reference, Franklin Special School District, the K-8 district that sits in the heart of Williamson County, spends $13,386 per student – almost 50% more per child than WCS. WCS also spends below the state average – $554 per student less than Tennessee’s average $9,499. Keep in mind that Tennessee is typically in the bottom ten states for per pupil expenditures. (See former School Board member Eric Welch’s graphs for comparison to state and national figures as well as to area private school tuitions.)

Additionally, WCS’ average teacher pay of $49,934 is $3,729 below the average of the top 10 districts in the state. Williamson’s spending on salaries is not out of control, and in fact, is less than peer districts. Again, for comparison, FSSD’s average teacher salary is $55,305.

So, the School Board passed budget cuts of $6 million this week. The alternative would have been for the County Commission to raise property taxes by six cents. That would cost a taxpayer with a $400,000 home $60 a year. Or, one Starbucks drink a month.

While this may not be a huge setback this year, it’s unsustainable in a district growing as rapidly as Williamson County. At some point, the level of service provided to students will noticeably suffer. Until then, have another Caramel Macchiato.

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