A Voucher By Any Other Name

Is still bad for Tennessee students and a raw deal for Tennessee taxpayers.

The Tennessee Education Association has some analysis:

It is clear that privatizers are favoring Education Savings Accounts as a new means to try to change the conversation after five years of stinging defeats when peddling more traditional voucher legislation.  While ESAs are referred to by some as “vouchers light,” nothing could be further from the truth.

ESAs are vouchers on steroids, as recipients are sent money directly rather than applying it toward the cost of private school tuition.  As such, parents can then spend the funds however they like, even if that means keeping their children home and not attending school at all.

This super voucher has been used in other states with disastrous results.  Sending funds directly to parents has invited widespread fraud and abuse of voucher funds.

“The fact is, we have truant officers for a reason,” says TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye.  “The state will be providing a monetary incentive for the misuse of funds and children will suffer as a result.”

Stay tuned as the legislative session develops and vouchers in some form emerge at the General Assembly.

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


 

Fun Facts

The Tennessee Education Association is out with a fact sheet on school funding. The document makes clear Tennessee can certainly afford to invest more money in schools. In fact, TEA identifies more than $800 million in revenue from budget cycles dating back to 2015 that could be invested in schools. Additionally, there’s an estimated surplus of $200 million and new internet sales tax revenue of $200 million.

The bottom line: When Gov. Lee and the legislature say we can’t afford to do more for our schools, don’t believe them.

In fact, since 2010, Tennessee has actually failed to move the needle on school funding. Specifically:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating. Further evidence can be found in noting that in 2014, Tennessee ranked 43rd in the nation in spending per student. In 2015, that ranking dropped to 44th. 2016? Still 44th.

We’re not getting the job done. The state’s Comptroller suggests we are underfunding schools by at least $500 million a year.

The analysis of available revenue by TEA makes clear Tennessee can afford to close that gap. Unfortunately, our leaders have so far lacked the political will to make that happen. Why not invest in schools? Why not use available revenue to boost opportunity for every child in our state? Why not close the funding gap?

These are the questions Tennesseans should be asking as the 111th General Assembly begins and Bill Lee assumes office.

 

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

 

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TEA Backs Dean

The state’s oldest and largest organization of teachers is backing Karl Dean in this year’s Governor’s race. Here’s the press release:

The Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children & Public Education, the association’s political action committee, has endorsed former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Tennessee Gubernatorial race.

“Karl Dean has a record of increasing education funding as mayor of Nashville and has made improving K-12 funding a centerpiece of his campaign for governor,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Increasing the state’s per-student investment is a top priority for TEA and one of the reasons Dean has earned our endorsement.”

The decision to make an endorsement in the gubernatorial race was voted on by the TEA-FCPE board. The Fund’s board is composed of educators from across the state who have been elected to the TEA-FCPE board by TEA members.

“Dean is the only gubernatorial candidate who opposes private school vouchers – a hardline issue for TEA. Vouchers take critical funding away from public schools and have severely undermined public education in states that have implemented voucher programs,” Brown said. “TEA has commissioned numerous polls across the state, in both Republican and Democratic primaries, and found Tennesseans overwhelmingly oppose the use of taxpayer dollars for private school tuition more than two-to-one.”

Dean has also indicated increased teacher compensation, improved teacher supports and expanding early childhood education are critically important education issues in his platform. Research shows quality pre-k programs set students up for success, and access to them is important in closing achievement gaps among Tennessee students. Dean wants to ensure every student in the state has a chance to succeed in their neighborhood school.

Brown concluded, “Dean earned the support of Tennessee’s teachers because he has demonstrated a willingness to listen to educators and has made the commitment to ensure every student in the state has a chance to succeed in their neighborhood school. We believe he will make the best interests of Tennessee students a top priority, and would listen to the experts in the classroom in shaping education policy.”

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


 

Not Really Listening

Governor Bill Haslam was in Knoxville today on his “listening tour.”

Here’s what TEA President Beth Brown had to say about how the event unfolded:

A message from TEA President Beth Brown:

I am a high school English teacher, so word choice is very important to me. When the governor announced his TNReady “listening tour” earlier this week, I envisioned Tennessee teachers and parents finally having a real opportunity to share their experiences and frustrations with TNReady failures. I envisioned Gov. Haslam and department officials listening to teachers and parents – the real experts on this topic – about how the state could improve assessments in the best interest of all students.

What I did not envision was a closed-door, invitation-only, inconveniently scheduled, no-parents-allowed event that only created more frustration and distrust among teachers and parents. What happened in Knoxville today tells teachers and parents this administration doesn’t really want to listen at all. Instead, this event just shut down a school library and provided another example of TNReady creating more work and inconvenience for students and educators. Meaningful change in the best interest of our students will never happen if the state sticks with this dog-and-pony show model.

The good news is the governor has five more opportunities to get this right and provide a forum to truly listen to teachers and parents. Our students need those in positions of power to swallow their pride and have the tough conversations. Our students deserve better.

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


 

TEA on TNReady Tour

Yesterday, Governor Bill Haslam announced a TNReady listening tour that will start Friday in Knoxville.

Today, Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown emailed the association’s members with a message about the tour:

There are many education accomplishments Gov. Bill Haslam can be proud of, including the consistent increases in state investment in our schools during his tenure. However, repeated failures of his administration’s high-stakes testing system are a major shortcoming in his education record.

Gov. Haslam’s announced “listening tour” is a positive step toward making state assessments something that we can all agree improves teaching and learning. If a stop is planned in your district, I encourage you to participate and share your honest experience with this testing system and your meaningful feedback for how to improve this for our students.

Assessments need to improve teaching practice and identify students who need additional assistance. We do that with mandatory benchmark testing, which allows differentiated instruction to more effectively meet students’ needs.

TNReady has not provided meaningful data to improve teaching practices or help students because of serious failures in administration, the lateness of data getting to teachers and schools, and major questions on what constitutes grade level-work. TEA supports high academic standards, but when proficiency rates of TNReady do not match other important measures like ACT scores and graduation rates, there is growing concern the test isn’t fair or measuring student achievement properly.

TEA hopes part of the dialogue includes transparency of state tests, where parents and teachers can gain access to a large portion of actual questions and answers in any given year. Publishing state tests allows teachers, parents and all Tennesseans to review how constructive responses are scored, what is being asked of students, and assurance that tests align with what schools are directed to teach.

I know how many demands you have on your time, but this is an important opportunity to ensure teachers’ voices are part of the discussion on how to improve testing in Tennessee. According to the governor’s website, the tour will begin this Friday, Aug. 24, in Knoxville, and be followed by stops planned for Hamilton County, Shelby County, Williamson County, Greene County and Gibson County. Specific locations and times are being finalized.

Thank you for your continued to commitment to Tennessee students.

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


 

TEA Backs Fitzhugh, Harwell

The Tennessee Education Association has announced endorsements in the primaries for Governor: Beth Harwell on the Republican side and Craig Fitzhugh on the Democratic side.

Here’s the press release:

The Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children and Public Education (TEA-FCPE) has endorsed Beth Harwell in the Republican Primary for Governor, and Craig Fitzhugh in the Democratic Primary for Governor. TEA-FCPE is the political action committee of TEA, the state’s largest professional association.

“We think education in Tennessee would be well served by these two dedicated public servants,” said TEA president Barbara Gray. “It is clear both have listened to teachers, students and parents about what the state can do to support public schools, and the important decisions the next governor needs to make. They have strong differences on many issues, but a respect for teachers and the hard work that goes on every day in classrooms is something they share, and something the committee felt critical for the next governor.”

TEA membership is diverse politically and geographically. TEA members participate at a much higher rate in Republican and Democratic party primaries than the average Tennessee voter, with education being the number one issue.

“Teachers are Republicans and Democrats, and we vote education,” Gray said.

House Speaker Beth Harwell was recognized as the only educator in the race—her talks about testing and TNReady issues showed deep knowledge and concern about assessments and their use—and for her work to ensure state teacher salary funds get into teacher paychecks.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh was recognized as an education advocate—his effort on TNReady hold-harmless legislation showed understanding of our high-stakes testing system—and for his years of dedicated effort to increase state K-12 funding.

“TEA members know that in Tennessee the primary is often more important than the general election, and that is why educators get involved in the party of their choice,” Gray said. “We will be working hard to help pro public-school Republicans and Democrats in General Assembly primaries, and to have strong education gubernatorial nominees. Polling shows education is a top issue for Republicans and Democrats. Each party could do no better than these education candidates.”

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


 

TEA on TNReady

The Tennessee Education Association has a statement out on the TNReady debacle:

TEA and its members are extremely disappointed with the failures and delays of the state online assessment system, TNReady. TEA is calling for a full and accurate accounting of the problems and how they affect students, along with proof that the system is secure and fair to Tennessee’s parents and teachers. The association is calling on lawmakers to hold students, teachers and schools harmless in light of the failures and growing concerns of the state testing system.

TEA is pleased the House and Senate are holding an immediate hearing on the testing issue.

“Students and teachers across the state are told these are high-stakes tests. Teachers’ jobs are on the line, students’ futures are on the line,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “That is the environment put upon every parent, every child, and every educator with TNReady. Now the test has been offline for two days, damaging the integrity of Tennessee testing.”

In some districts, students were able to log in, but the system would not allow them to submit finished exams. Some students were disrupted mid-exam. The State Department of Education has indicated completed work was saved on the local device students were using, but teachers and administrators must remember and document which student used which computer. It is unclear how much student assessment work was saved or lost during the failure of the online system over the past two days.

“Student morale is a key component of how well a student does on a test. Losing work, being disrupted mid-exam, and constant delays affect students negatively. We are concerned this will impact scores to the detriment of students, teachers and schools,” Gray said. “We are approaching a point where the entire testing system is becoming questionable. Students who start and stop exams may suffer emotionally or become distrustful, which may hurt concentration.”

Parents’ concerns are also growing. While the state says there is no evidence that student data or information has been compromised when the vendor said their system was hacked, there have been no guarantees the testing program protected student information.

“Many teachers are also parents, and when we hear the online testing system has been deliberately hacked, we fear for our children’s personal information,” Gray said.

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


 

Needs Improvement

Governor Bill Haslam delivered his final State of the State address last night and outlined the basics of his budget proposal for the next year. The proposal includes $55 million for teacher compensation, which represents a roughly 2% increase. This is down from the previous two years, which saw 4% increases in teacher compensation funds sent to districts by way of the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) had asked for a 5% boost in Haslam’s final year. In response to the lower-than-expected number, TEA President Barbara Gray issued the following statement:

“There is significant increase for investment in education in the budget. But in order to support the hard-working teachers that make Tennessee one of the fastest improving states in the nation, this budget does not do as much as it can,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “We’re hopeful that as the state economy keeps revenues strong and well above estimates, the state raise for teachers will increase in the final version of the budget.”

It seems likely the TEA will ask the General Assembly to find additional funds to further boost teacher pay.

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


 

Teachers Union Membership Is Down Again. What Should TEA Do?

A new report shows that 27 state affiliates of the National Education Association lost active members in the past year, including Tennessee. Tennessee Education Association’s (TEA) membership dipped last year and has been continuously decreasing over the past five years.

In Tennessee, TEA had 28,802 active members during the 2015 – 2016 school year. That’s down 7%, or 2,240, from their 2014 – 2015 total of 31,042. TEA has lost over 37% of their active members in the past five years.

The decrease in membership is a direct result of the state’s mission to do whatever it takes to make the union as weak as possible. Teacher’s collective bargaining and payroll deductions were stripped away, and the membership has been decreasing since then.

While TEA can no longer collectively bargain, they can do what is known as collaborative conferencing. Teachers at Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to start collective conferencing with the district this past school year. 

The Tennessean describes collaborative conferencing as:

Collaborative conferencing is a form of district and union negotiation where topics such as: salaries or wages; grievance procedures; insurance benefits; fringe benefits; working conditions; vacation; and payroll deductions can be discussed. Other topics outside those listed are prohibited in meetings and conversations.

Another reason to join TEA was the ability to gain liability insurance. Now, the state of Tennessee provides all public school teachers with liability coverage at no cost, though the amount of coverage is not clearly defined.

The Fund provides liability insurance coverage to covered individuals and protects against damages or claims arising out of the performance of their work and within the scope of their employment or assignment

I have spoken to many teachers who agree with the positions of TEA, but do not want to spend $670 a year to become a member of a union that no longer has power. The state of Tennessee has done everything it can to reduce the amount of power TEA has in hopes of reducing their membership. It looks like it has worked.

What should TEA do to increase membership? I would love to hear your ideas.

Finally 4=4

Over the past three years, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved significant increases in funds for teacher compensation. Unfortunately, those dollars haven’t always made it into teacher paychecks. There are a number of reasons for this. One of those is the State Board of Education’s decision in the past two years to approve smaller adjustments to the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers.

Today, the State Board of Education met and voted on the state’s minimum salary schedule for teachers for 2017-18. This year, the Board approved a 4% increase in the minimum salary and also adjusted each step on the scale by 4%. This matches the appropriation of the General Assembly, which passed a budget that included a 4% increase in BEP funds for teacher compensation.

According to the state’s analysis, this change will require 46 of the state’s 141 districts to raise teacher pay. These are mostly rural districts on the low end of the state’s teacher pay range. This will mean a number of teachers across the state should see meaningful increases in their paychecks in the coming year.

The new minimum salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $33,745. The top of the scale for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 11 years of experience (the scale includes only 4 steps for teachers with bachelor’s degrees, just three if you have an advanced degree) is $40,595. For advanced degrees, salaries must start at $37,300 and step three (11 years experience or more) requires a minimum of $45,075.

That $40,595 figure after 11 years of teaching seems disturbingly low. In fact, I’ve argued before that Tennessee should aim for a starting pay for teachers of at least $40,000.

That said, this year’s State Board of Education represents real progress that will result in significant pay increases for teachers in nearly a third of the state’s districts. Perhaps the upward pressure will also encourage other districts to push their pay up. We’ve already seen Metro Nashville move toward a 3% raise, as one example.

Here’s how the Tennessee Education Association viewed today’s salary move:

For the first time in four years, the Tennessee State Board of Education voted Wednesday to apply the full raise budgeted by the General Assembly for teachers to the State Minimum Salary Schedule. TEA has pushed the legislature and the state board for years to reinstate the practice of applying the full amount to the salary schedule as it is the best way to ensure all Tennessee teachers receive the raise promised to them by the governor and their legislators.

“When the board moved away from applying the entire raise percentage to the salary schedule, disparities in teacher pay and stagnant wages increased statewide,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “While Governor Haslam and the state legislature have done their part to increase teacher salaries, only a fraction of the budgeted raises were actually trickling down into teacher paychecks. The state board action this week should begin to remedy that problem.”

The recommendation by the Department of Education and the vote by the state board to increase the salary schedule and each step by 4 percent are in direct response to TEA’s advocacy efforts. Hundreds of TEA members have contacted legislators to let them know their teachers back home were not receiving the raises passed in the General Assembly. Members and TEA staff worked closely with the administration and legislators to find a way to correct the issue.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” Gray said. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college. The pressure applied by state elected officials was critical to reversing the State Board’s pattern of diminishing the raise passed by the General Assembly, a move which should finally make our teachers whole and help them support their families.”

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