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

It’s Raining Money, But Not on Schools

Tom Humphrey reports on the most recent budget projections which predict a surplus of between $300-$400 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016.

This money, combined with the $600 million surplus from the fiscal year which ended on June 30, 2015, means the state will have about $1 billion in unanticipated, uncommitted revenue.

On top of that, economists are projecting growth in the $400-$500 million range for the upcoming budget year.

As Humphrey notes, proposals are floating so spend the surplus on road projects or tax cuts or both.

What’s not being mentioned?

Schools.

Despite a pair of lawsuits contending the state’s school funding formula, the BEP, is inadequate, lawmakers and the Governor are not rushing to suggest significant new investments in Tennessee schools.

This in spite of the fact that after a one year bounce on NAEP results, our state is now holding flat. Maybe that’s because Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham is suggesting our state aspire toward “mediocrity” while holding a forum on disastrous (and expensive) school voucher schemes.

If the state invested half of the available surplus on the BEP formula, that would be a $500 million injection of funds to local schools. That would be a sure way to hold down local property tax increases while also beefing up the resources school systems have to provide an education. The revenue projections for the 2016-17 fiscal year indicate an investment of this magnitude is sustainable. And, by holding a portion of the surplus in reserve, the state could ensure against any unanticipated shortfalls.

All of that would still leave $200-$300 million available to spend on one-time costs like road projects.

Will Tennessee put its foot on the accelerator and invest in schools so our students have the resources they need to compete with the rest of the country? Will Bill Haslam use the surplus and projected new revenue to truly make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay?

The General Assembly will have answers to these questions starting in January.

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

What’s Missing is What Matters

The 2015 incarnation of the BEP Review Committee has concluded its business and issued a report. What’s interesting is that this year’s report is missing something: Hundreds of millions of dollars of recommended improvements that the committee usually makes as a suggestion to the legislature in terms of how to improve funding for the state’s schools.

Instead, the recommendations include finishing out the work on fully-funding teacher insurance — paying for a full twelve months, some vague language about improving teacher salaries, and about $10 million for technology improvements. The total cost of these recommendations is $40 million.

Compare that to last year’s report, which recommended a number of improvements with a cost in excess of $500 million.

The report from last year noted recommendations that included:

Eliminate Cost Differential Factor (CDF)  $(71,182,000)

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

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

CBER at 100%  $(2,639,000)

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

Other Committee Requests

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

The Committee last year also recommended:

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

12 Months Insurance  $64,411,000

The 2013 Report made similar recommendations:

Component Change State Cost 12 months’ insurance $60,376,000

Increase funding ratio for psychologists from 1:2,500 to 1:500 $52,799,000

Increase funding ratio for elementary counselors from 1:500 to 1:250 $35,733,000

Increase funding ratio for all counselors to 1:250 $52,909,000

Fully implement BEP 2.0 $146,223,000

Raise Assistant Principal ratio to SACS standard $7,216,000

Reduce 7-12 ratios, including CTE, by 3 students $81,333,000

New BEP Component for Mentors (1:12 new professional positions) $14,333,000

Professional Development (1% of instructional salaries) $22,062,000

Reduce funding ratios for nurses from 1:3,000 to 1:1,500 $9,438,000

Reduce funding ratios for Technology Coordinators from 1:6,400 to 1:3,200 $1,756,000

Increase funding for teacher materials and supplies by $100 $3,655,000

Instructional Technology Coordinator (1 per LEA) $2,960,000

Capital Outlay Restored (done in FY14) – Total state cost of all recommendations $490,793,00

So, in 2013, the BEP Review Committee made recommendations costing nearly $500 million. That was there view on what would be an adequately funded BEP. Then, in 2014, the committee suggested improvements in excess of $500 million.

Now, in 2015, with the state facing lawsuits for inadequately funding its schools, the committee says everything is better and that with just $40 million in improvements, the BEP will be adequate.

It’s worth noting that the state continues to fund teacher salaries at well below actual rates. Adjusting the formula to provide local districts with teacher funding based on actual average salaries would cost more than $500 million. Even getting that number to just $45,000 per teacher would be $266 million.

The committee also has (historically) recognized that local schools need additional assistance in terms of school psychologists, nurses, professional development, counselors, and mentoring of teachers.

Suddenly, this year, the committee has decided these items are not priorities. They don’t even merit a mention in the BEP report, which at just 47 pages is among the shortest reports issued, and fully 1/3 the size of last year’s document.

Maybe if they don’t write down the needs of districts, those needs will go away. Or, maybe the attorneys for the school districts suing won’t find the earlier reports which consistently paint a clear picture of inadequately funded schools while also pointing the way to the steps necessary to improve the BEP formula.

Whatever the case, this year’s report comes up short. Legislators need only  look to the very recent past to find the evidence our state’s schools deserve more than what current funding levels provide.

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

 

Clay County and the Broken BEP

Citing budget difficulties, Clay County Schools have closed (temporarily) and may not reopen until mid-November.

The Director of Schools, Jerry Strong, notes that the budget issues have been building over the past three years and have finally reached the tipping point. The County Commission doesn’t want to raise property taxes (the county is relatively poor, so a property tax wouldn’t necessarily generate a lot of revenue) and has placed a wheel tax referendum on the March ballot.

It’s interesting to see a school system close due to insufficient funds at the same time school systems across the state are suing due to inadequate funding from the BEP formula.

Moreover, the lack of funds comes at a time when the state is passing down expensive, unfunded mandates like RTI2.

It’s also hard to imagine that a fully-funded BEP 2.0 wouldn’t help address this situation. Under that scenario, Clay County would see some $450,000 in new revenue each year from the state.

While the situation in Clay County may soon see at least a temporary resolution that will get students back to school, it points to a larger reality: The BEP is broken.

It’s time to use the surplus revenue our state has to begin investing in schools in a meaningful, sustainable way.

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

 

 

Schools Can Wait, We Need More Tax Breaks

That seems to be the message from state Senator Brian Kelsey of Memphis, who is suggesting using the state’s revenue surplus to eliminate the Hall Tax on investment income.

Kelsey’s plan would eliminate nearly $200 million a year in revenue. This at a time when school systems are suing the state due to grossly inadequate funding.

The push to provide tax breaks to the investor class comes as revenue is soaring above projections, as Rick Locker notes:

The state ended its fiscal year 2014-15 on June 30 with nearly $606 million more revenue overall than was projected and budgeted for the year, including $553 million more revenue in the government’s general fund than was projected. The general fund pays for most of state government’s non-transportation programs.

In addition to putting a call for tax breaks ahead of the need for improved investment in schools, Kelsey has also been a chief proponent of voucher schemes that would take millions of dollars from local school coffers. Not to mention there is scant evidence an expansive voucher plan like Kelsey’s would actually improve student outcomes.

Kelsey is not the only lawmaker whose priorities don’t include investing surplus dollars into public education. Earlier this year, House Speaker Beth Harwell suggested investing the surplus dollars into roads in order to avoid raising the gas tax.

What the General Assembly needs is a plan that would invest a significant portion of the surplus into schools and save the rest for future investment. Building a long-term, sustainable plan for improving the BEP (the state funding formula for schools) is critical, not just to avoid losing a lawsuit but also to support the excellent schools Tennessee families and communities deserve.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee:

Why is TN 40th?

Why Fix the BEP?

Why is he so angry?

 

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

Just Another School Funding Lawsuit

Bluff City Ed reports that Shelby County Schools will file a lawsuit today claiming the state’s school funding formula (BEP) is inadequate and inequitable.

The Shelby County suit is separate from the suit filed by Hamilton County and six other districts — that suit suggests the state funding formula is inadequate to the tune of $500 million a year.

Why are districts suing? Because the BEP Review Committee — a state group set up (by law) to review the state’s school funding formula each year and report on any deficiencies – has consistently reported that the state is under-funding schools. Interestingly, the BEP Review Committee was set up to alert the legislature of funding disparities in a timely fashion so the state could avoid the kind of lawsuit that originally resulted in the BEP.

Funny thing about that: Tennessee has been sued twice since the original lawsuit and lost both times.

Not so funny thing: The General Assembly still appears to be reluctant to seriously address lack of funding for schools. In fact, some leaders are downright hostile to the idea.

Perhaps one (or several) of these lawsuits will be successful and the General Assembly will be forced to address the serious funding shortfall facing districts across the state. There’s even a way to start investing in schools without raising any taxes.

More on the BEP:

TCAP: Proficiency or Poverty

Money for Roads, but Not for Schools?

Why Fix the BEP?

That’s a Big Class

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Does TCAP Measure Proficiency or Poverty?

Ken Chilton, a professor at Tennessee State University, has a column in yesterday’s Chattanooga Times-Free Press in which he theorizes that poverty is a much better predictor of student performance on TCAP than teacher performance or other school-based factors.

Moreover, Chilton argues that the current emphasis on testing is misplaced and that frequent changes in standards and tests prevent meaningful long-term trend analysis.

He says:

Despite the proclamations of systemic failure, we don’t have enough longitudinal data to really know what is or is not working. The standards and the tests used to measure success change frequently. Consequently, it’s difficult to compare apples to apples. So, when scores change in one year we tend to mistake one data point for a trend by touting success or placing blame. Yet, most of us don’t know what proficiency means.

And he laments the expectations game played by policymakers and state education leaders:

Educators are under immense pressure to show improvement. Resources, careers and jobs are on the line. But, is it realistic to expect big jumps in proficiency from one academic year to the next, to the next and to the next? No, it’s incredibly unrealistic. And, it sets up a series of public expectations that are crushed year after year.

These unmet expectations contribute to the false perception that public schools are broken and thus are undeserving of additional tax revenues.

As for education reforms that get much attention in our state, Chilton says:

…but the annual TCAP gnashing of the teeth suggests that our expectations are out of whack with reality. None of the education reforms implemented in Tennessee address the underlying root causes that threaten the viability of our public schools — inequality.

Chilton’s analysis and claims regarding inequality and the impact of poverty are supported by (admittedly short-term) analysis of TCAP data from the top- and bottom-performing districts in the state:

An analysis of TCAP performance over time indicates that those school systems with consistently high levels of poverty tend to have consistently low scores on TCAP. Likewise, those systems with the least amount of poverty tend to have consistently higher scores on TCAP.

Additional analysis suggests:

The top 10 districts spend an average of 3 times more than the bottom 10 in terms of investment over the BEP formula. They also have an ACT average that is 5 points higher and a TCAP average that is nearly 20 points higher than the bottom ten.

In short, as Chilton suspects, there is a glaring inequality in terms of the educational opportunities offered Tennessee students. Add to that a growing inadequacy in terms of state investment in schools, and you have a recipe for certain failure.

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

 

 

Why Fix the BEP?

I’ve written recently about the growing state revenue collections and the corresponding request (in the form of a lawsuit) from school districts that the BEP (state school funding formula) be adequately funded – to the tune of some $500 million in new money.

But, some might ask: Why even fix the BEP? It’s a complex formula and besides, don’t our schools already have enough money?

The short answer is no. No, Tennessee schools do not have enough money.

I have gone so far as to suggest the BEP is broken and to explain the reasons for its current inadequacy.

Now, more evidence suggesting the need to fix the BEP. Essentially, it’s this: Since 2008, Tennessee’s “effort” in terms of percentage of state revenue devoted to school funding has fallen. I’ll show you a hand graph on that from the Education Law Center:

Source: "Is School Funding Fair?" by the Education Law Center

While an number of states began making improvements after 2011, Tennessee was not among them. Recent investments may have returned Tennessee to pre-recession funding levels, but not by much.

And then, there’s a recent report from Rutgers that suggests that when it comes to school funding, Tennessee gets an “F.”

From the Commercial Appeal:

The annual report card out of Rutgers University that grades states on how they fund public education shows Tennessee at the “bottom of the barrel” in fairness. Besides being one of 16 states earning an F for percentage of state resources allocated to K-12 education, family incomes of children attending its public schools on average are half that of children in private schools or being home-schooled.

“That’s a warning signal,” says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“It becomes difficult to get the kind of forward-thinking reform in legislation if you have more affluent families not invested in this system,” he said.

The study looks at “fairness” in funding, including whether states allow more resources for districts with high numbers of students in poverty. Tennessee earned a B in the category, but Sciarra says even that is misleading.

“Because spending is so low, it really does not amount to much,” he said.

So, why fix the BEP? Because school funding in Tennessee is both inequitable and inadequate. Of course, making the needed investments would normally be a heavy lift, but with recent rosy revenue news, fixing the BEP (and improving the future for our students and entire state) requires only a little hard work and some political will.

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