MNPS Funding Suit DENIED

Jason Gonzales reports:

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

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

Apparently agreeing with the state’s attorneys who said:

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

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s order says:

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

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

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

More on School Funding:

Haslam on Tennessee School Funding History

Just Kidding

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



Haslam: Haters Gonna Hate

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

From the Tennessean:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Just Kidding

The Tennessee General Assembly this year approved changes to the state’s school funding formula (the BEP) and at the same time, refused to appropriate sufficient funds to pay for the changes.

As a result of this refusal, MNPS is suing the state and demanding full funding of the formula.

The state’s response is pretty remarkable. State lawyers maintain that even though new funding ratios are now state law, the state doesn’t have to follow this law.

Grace Tatter reports:

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves about a third of the state’s ELL population, is seeking a court order demanding that the state provide the district with funds promised under its recently revised funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

State lawmakers voted this year to increase ELL funding based on a 1:20 student-teacher ratio instead of the previous 1:30 ration, but only provided Nashville with money for a 1:25 ratio. That’s about $4 million short of what was promised this school year, say Nashville school leaders.

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.

The state doesn’t have to follow through with its own spending plan? Then why even have a spending plan? The state adopted a new funding formula and put new funding ratios into Tennessee Code. But now the state is saying they don’t actually have to follow the laws they passed.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this entire situation is that Tennessee has a $925 million budget surplus this year. That’s following a $1 billion surplus last year.

Yes, we have the money to fully fund the formula. Instead, lawyers are now arguing that policymakers are not obligated to follow a formula they proposed and adopted. That’s a pretty strange defense.

The legislature could have phased-in the ratios. Or adopted different, more “affordable” ratios. But they didn’t. Now, the state doesn’t want to be held accountable for meeting the ratios Governor Haslam suggested and the General Assembly adopted. What other laws does the state view as mere suggestions?

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


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.

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

The Biggest Losers

Grace Tatter over at Chalkbeat has a breakdown of Governor Haslam’s BEP changes. While this year’s budget includes an influx of dollars, it also freezes BEP 2.0.

Tatter explains:

Though the governor’s plan nixes BEP 2.0, it permanently increases the state’s spending on English language learners (funding ELL teachers at a 1:20 student ratio and translators at a 1:200 student ratio), and special education students, technology and teacher pay, especially when it comes to teachers insurance. For years, the state only paid for teachers to have 10 months of health insurance. Last year, the General Assembly mandated that the state provide for 11 months of insurance. Haslam’s proposal this year finally gives teachers’ year-round insurance.

It’s important to note here that districts are already paying for year-round insurance for teachers, now they will receive some funding for it. The state funds teacher insurance at 45% of the projected cost for a district’s BEP-generated teaching positions. Until last year, it funded 45% of this cost for only 10 months, now it will shift to 12 months. It’s also worth noting that every single district in the state hires teachers beyond the BEP-generated number. Typically, around 12-15% more than what the BEP formula generates. Districts cover the full cost of salary and insurance for all teachers hired beyond the BEP number.

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

The BEP Review Committee has been highlighting these deficiencies for years to no avail.

Additionally, Tatter mentions:

Another carryover from BEP 2.0 is the eventual elimination of a “cost differential factor,” known as CDF, that 16 districts in five counties receive to address a higher cost of living. Reducing the CDF would cut state spending by about $34.7 million. Almost half of that money would have gone to Shelby County Schools and the municipal districts in Shelby County. Other counties that would be impacted are Davidson, Anderson, Williamson and Sullivan.

While BEP 2.0 envisioned elimination of the CDF, it also envisioned the state covering 75% of teacher salaries for BEP-generated teachers. The Haslam changes makes the current 70% permanent.

Here are the districts losing money under the CDF elimination. The CDF is cut in half for the upcoming year and then completely eliminated in 2017-18.

Franklin SSD
Oak Ridge
Clinton City
Bristol City

It’s not clear whether these changes will impact the current lawsuits regarding funding adequacy. And the additional funds still don’t address the unfunded RTI mandate.

The ultimate impact of the changes will take a few years to determine. However, without significant structural changes, it is difficult to see this “new BEP” adequately meeting the needs of Tennessee’s schools.

More on the BEP:

Bill Dunn Wrong

They Noticed

Clay County and the Broken BEP

Why is TN 40th?

About BEP 2.0

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

Corra Talks Cash

Over at Rocky Top Ed Talk, Charles Corra talks about the importance of investment in schools, using the fairly extreme example of Detroit Public Schools as a cautionary tale.

Corra concludes:

DPS’s situation is certainly an extreme one, but clearly not unrealistic.  The legislature in Tennessee needs to look at DPS’s crisis as a warning  – school funding is critically important and should not be overlooked.  Yes, an entire state being underfunded by $500 million is certainly a big difference from a city school district being in debt $350 million, but the point still stands – funding matters, and its not a game.

While he notes that the DPS example is extreme, it is worth noting that the legislature is in the middle of some serious school funding games, with some lawmakers attempting to abdicate the state’s responsibility to fund schools.

Yes, school funding matters. And being $500 million behind as a state is problematic, especially during a growth period when we have a surplus of $1 billion.

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

Creative Problem Solving

What happens when, despite your best efforts, local school systems sue your state claiming a lack of adequate funding? You get nervous is what happens. Especially when three previous lawsuits claiming your state has underfunded schools have been successful.

When a body like the Tennessee General Assembly faces a dilemma such as whether or not to make funding schools a top priority, they can either make a significant new investment in schools OR wait and see if the courts order them to make a significant new investment in schools. Historically, our General Assembly has waited and then taken corrective action by way of new investment only after courts have found that school funding is not adequate and/or equitable.

Now, however, lawmakers are taking a different approach. They are advancing amendments to the state constitution that would essentially eliminate the requirement that the General Assembly provide for a “system of free public schools” in Tennessee.

That’s creative problem solving. The state’s governing legal document binds the General Assembly in a way they don’t much like. So, just change it. Thus, you are now free to continue inadequately funding the state’s schools.

Former state Senator Roy Herron decried this effort on behalf of Tennessee School Systems for Equity. Here’s his take from a letter he submitted to legislators:

I write on behalf of the Tennessee School Systems for Equity, which includes most of Tennessee’s school districts. As your former colleague, I know something of how incredibly busy you are and so I will come right to the point.

This week you will consider a constitutional amendment that would strip your schools and students of constitutional protection for adequate funding.

There are two different proposed constitutional amendments that would deny Tennessee’s children any state constitutional right to adequate public schools. We believe that if either of these provisions were in Tennessee’s Constitution instead of our decades-old Article XI, Section 12, then our children effectively would have no state constitutional protection to ensure even minimally adequate public schools.

Some may tell you that the amendments would leave your school systems and your students with some constitutional protections. But these amendments would deem whatever funding any future legislature provided — or didn’t provide — to be adequate and constitutional. No matter how little.

The amendments would leave in the Constitution language that would provide the illusion, but remove the reality, of constitutional protection for public schools. If the proposed language were in the Constitution, school children would be doomed to whatever fate any future legislature decreed. And schools in your district could receive millions less in state funding, leading either to woefully inadequate schools or soaring property taxes or both.

It’s hard to imagine anything that would adversely impact our students — or Tennessee’s future — more than stripping our children of their constitutional right to adequate public schools.

HJR 493. A distinguished House colleague of yours, however, also has a constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 493. It is before your House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee this Tuesday, March 1st at 3:00 p.m.

The able sponsor says that he only wants to remove any constitutional requirement for schools to be funded “adequately.” But without constitutional protection, a future legislature could say, for example, that each child gets to go to a free public school for a month a year. And that would be legally and literally true.

This proposed amendment would strip our children of any state constitutional protection to an adequate education. That is the respected sponsor’s stated intent and would be the legislative effect.

Let me respectfully submit for your consideration the following beliefs and concerns:

1. To destroy our state’s constitutional protection for adequate funding:

1.1 Endangers children in every county;

1.2 Endangers Tennessee’s future;

1.3 Leaves future legislatures and governors free to undo every good thing you and this legislature have done to educate our children and would allow them to do wrong by our children.

1.4 Would let future legislatures and governors decide that our children and grandchildren could go to inadequate schools.

2. It is not conservative to:

2.1 Strip citizens of constitutional protections;

2.2 Blindly trust government and future governments to do right;

2.3 Ignore decades of constitutional precedent and history;

2.4 Vote to amend our Constitution without carefully hearing from leading experts or at least the Attorney General;

2.5 Ignore Congressman Davy Crockett’s maxim, “First be sure you’re right; then go ahead.”

On behalf of more than 80 school systems all across Tennessee, I respectfully request that you not strip our children of their constitutional right to adequate schools.

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

TSBA Agenda

The Tennessee General Assembly begins its 2016 session today.

The Tennessee School Boards Association has released an agenda that includes opposition to vouchers and funding of items mentioned in prior BEP Review Committee reports.

Here it is:

TSBA firmly believes in the success of Tennessee’s public schools and the opportunities they have provided and continue to provide to children.  The association acknowledges the challenges that public schools face as well as the need for continued improvement, and its member boards of education are dedicated to reaching the goal of every child achieving his or her highest potential.  We believe we can help accomplish this goal by focusing our legislative efforts on the following areas:
Local Control of Schools   TSBA believes that local boards of education are the best equipped and informed to make decisions to address the needs and challenges of their local schools.  TSBA opposes any efforts to diminish or impede upon this local control.

Maintenance of Effort Penalties   TSBA believes that the responsibility and accountability for funding schools should be connected.  Rather than the state withholding BEP funds if a local budget is not timely adopted, TSBA supports legislative changes to shift the penalty to the funding body whereby the state would withhold local sales tax dollars.

Maintenance of Effort Requirements   TSBA supports legislative efforts to change the local responsibilities of funding bodies to ensure that they provide at least a 3% increase every three years.

Publicly Funded Vouchers   TSBA opposes any expansion of the special education voucher program as well as any new legislation that would divert money intended for public education to private schools.

Minimum Instructional Time   TSBA supports legislation to provide an option to school districts to meet instructional requirements through a minimum number of instructional days or a minimum number of instructional hours.

Fees for Inspection of Records   TSBA believes that the public’s ability to inspect records must be weighed with the burden on staff to comply with open records requests and supports legislation to allow for reasonable fees when LEAs must create numerous documents and/or expend several man hours in order to comply with a request for inspection.
BEP Recommendations and Priorities   TSBA urges Governor Haslam, the General Assembly, and the Department of Education to continue efforts to fund all of the recommendations and priorities of prior reports of the BEP Review Committee.
The Tennessee School Boards Association will actively support legislation relative to these and other issues as determined by its Resolutions and Position Statements.

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

They Noticed

Tom Humphrey reports that school boards across the state have noticed that this year’s BEP Review Committee report is missing a few items that total some $500 million or more in shortfalls in the state’s funding of schools.

From his story:

Last week the Bradley board, also part of the suit, passed a resolution denouncing the exclusion of the recommendations and calling on the TSBA to adopt its own resolution “calling upon State officials to fund the true cost of educating Tennessee students, specifically to include the cost components recognized and recommended by the BEP Review Committee in past years.”

That’s what happened Sunday night, when 217 of the 219 delegates voted for the resolution seeking full funding of past priorities.

I noted earlier that the Committee’s omissions this year amounted to, “a deliberate attempt to avoid tough issues.”

And, it’s not like the state is short on funds to actually begin properly investing in schools. In fact, there’s a surplus that’s projected to be at least $1 billion by the end of this fiscal year.

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