A Plea for Teachers

Williamson County school advocacy group Williamson Strong posted a plea for residents to take action to urge policymakers to improve teacher pay.

Here’s what they posted to Facebook relative to the teacher shortage and staffing crisis:

· URGENT: We’re hearing multiple reports of a massive teacher/staff exodus from WCS.

YOU have the power to fix this. If you can’t be loud for this, don’t complain when your kid’s teacher doesn’t show up on Jan. 5th. What did you do to advocate for them? Starbucks and Target gift cards 1-2 times a year aren’t going to cut it.

Do you know your county commissioners’ names? You should. They approve the budget that pays for your children’s school staff salaries. (PS They also get “free” health insurance for a *very* part-time job, which is rich when our teachers have had their benefits cut short.)

If you’re a WCS parent, you know all about the staffing shortages in our schools this year. Many kids don’t have a science teacher, math, foreign language, special ed, etc. – and they can’t find enough subs to cover every day. Cafeteria workers, bus drivers, SACC workers, the things we’ve all gotten numb to hearing about because we think it’s normal to not have them in place.

It is *not normal* to ask parents to work the school lunch lines serving food.

But it’s about to get worse, starting THIS month. WCS teachers & staff are opting for early retirement or moving to other districts for 3 reasons from what we’re hearing:

1. Better pay. WCS is not competitive with Metro, for starters. Yet many of our young teachers live in Nashville (sure can’t afford to live here on those salaries in this housing market!) with tough commutes (especially with our ridiculously early start times in middle/high school) because they want to teach in WCS, despite the lower pay. Our kids are awesome. Everyone says that.

2. Benefits. Our retirement health benefits are not competitive with surrounding districts, and teachers start to figure that out as they have more experience and start thinking about retirement down the road.

3. The parents can be pretty tough here. We’ll leave it at that, but the insane abuse of the last 1.5+ years directed at teachers, staff, and administrators has many at a breaking point. (Stop being mean to school staff. Seriously. Cut it out.)

WHAT CAN WE ALL DO?

The County Commissioners are beginning their budgeting process right now. And they’re the ones holding the purse strings! They all love to say we can’t afford to increase our school budget, 85%+ of which goes towards salaries – because although we may be one of the wealthiest counties in the entire COUNTRY, we can’t find the money for teachers even at the state average, much less the national one. It’s beyond shameful.

DEMAND that the Commission fix this. They have the power. Literally! They know how to solve this, don’t let them tell you otherwise. You, the voters, are their constituents. You’re their boss.

Tell them to pay our teaches what they deserve, and if not? We’re all going to elect new County Commissioners who care about teachers come August. Every single one of them is up for re-election in 2022, and they’re going to start campaigning any month now.

And School Board members? Tell them the same. They should be kicking and screaming about this issue (instead of howling over curriculum like some of them are doing, month after month.) Priorities are showing. Half of them are up for election in 2022 as well.

Email them all. Today. Every day. Tell your friends to do the same. If you can’t find time to do this, don’t complain when your child’s teacher quits and leaves….when there’s a new face there in January, or they just have rotating subs every day or week.

Don’t complain if you don’t do your part to fix this. YOU are the constituent. YOUR tax dollars pay for teacher salaries. Tell the people who set the budgets how you want those dollars spent.

It’s a crisis. What we’ve been in national headlines for lately? NOT a crisis. Stop being distracted by the noise and let’s collectively start fighting for our educators.

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NOAH to Gov. Lee: We Need a Bigger Pie

Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) will be hosting a school funding town hall on Monday, December 6th at 5:30 PM at Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church.

Here’s more from NOAH on the planned event, which will include Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn:

The Tennessee Department of Education has been holding Town Hall meetings statewide about revising the 30-year-old  BEP (Basic Education Plan) that funds education. At these town halls, parents, education leaders, and community  members have called for increased funding overall, as well as for specific programs. Until now, no town hall had been held in Nashville. On Dec. 6, Commissioner Penny Schwinn will hear from parents, teachers, and community  members about Nashville’s need for a bigger “pie” of funding. 

NOAH and the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education have both been active in organizing to improve education in  Tennessee – with NOAH advocating for increased funding from Metro government to break the “school-to-prison  pipeline” by reducing suspensions. In August, NOAH and our sister organizations, MICAH in Memphis and CALEB in  Chattanooga held a statewide “Day of Power and Prayer” to highlight the urgent needs of students and to call for  increased BEP funding. The Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education works to expand excellence and equity in  education from preschool through college, increase college access and completion particularly for historically  underserved students, engage diverse communities dedicated to education equity, and increase political and public will  to act on equity issues. Both organizations realize that in Tennessee, the major solution to education funding lies at the  state level.  

Currently, Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education spending. Sadly, we spend more to incarcerate adults than we  do to educate our children. At the Dec. 6th Town Hall, NOAH will be outlining the need for MORE FUNDING for: 

• Classroom Technology, a need across the state. 

• Lower Student/Teacher Ratios, recognized nationally as improving student learning.  

• Professional Development for Teachers, so teachers can teach a wide range of students and address student  needs with the best available training.  

• Social Worker, School Counselor, and Nurse ratios that mirror national recommendations, which will support  health and safety and reduce suspensions. 

• The specific needs of low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities. We must not simply “re-slice” the funding pie. Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus – yet we are starving our school  systems! There are no frugal shortcuts to improving education in Tennessee. Our actions will show if we truly value our  children — by investing more in our children and the future of Tennessee.

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Justice Delayed

It seems that justice (and funding) for Tennessee’s public schools may have to wait until after the 2022 legislative session. A school funding lawsuit that had a February court date is now being pushed back so Gov. Bill Lee can unveil his new formula and districts can decide if a voucher-focused scheme will yield any positive monetary results for public schools.

The Tennessean reports:

A lingering lawsuit challenging how Tennessee funds public schools might be put on hold until after the upcoming legislative session, according to a motion filed earlier this month.

All parties to the lawsuit — the Memphis and Nashville school districts and the state — agreed to the joint motion to halt the case’s proceedings until the end of the legislative session next year.

Gov. Bill Lee is expected to unveil a new strategy for funding education to lawmakers, which could impact the terms of the original lawsuit.

Of course, there has definitely been speculation that Lee’s ploy on funding is merely a delay tactic so the state can avoid adequate investment in schools.

Declined

Cancel culture advocates Moms for Liberty saw a complaint they filed around curriculum in Williamson County rejected by the Tennessee Department of Education. The complaint did not follow proper procedure and was related to an issue outside the timeframe allowed in legislation that attempts to strictly regulate how issues around race are taught in schools.

The Tennessean has more:

The Tennessee Department of Education recently declined to investigate a complaint filed under a new state law prohibiting the teaching of certain topics regarding race and bias.

The complaint, the first directed to the state under the new law passed this spring, was filed by Robin Steenman, chair of the Moms for Liberty Williamson County chapter, a conservative parent group sweeping the nation.

The group detailed concerns with four specific books on subjects like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the integration of California schools by advocate Sylvia Mendez and her family, and the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, adapted for younger learners.

The TDOE did not rule on the merits of the complaint, however.

“Please note that in declining to investigate these claims, the department has not made a determination regarding the merits of these allegations. We encourage you to work with the Williamson County School District to resolve the issues and concerns related to your complaint and ensure compliance with state law,” the letter said.

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Funding Board Foul

The Tennessee State Funding Board – the group responsible for setting the revenue projections used in state budgeting – met this week and got it wrong. Again. Like they do every single year.

Why does this even matter? Well, the Funding Board estimates are used to determine the parameters for the state budget. When the question is asked “why don’t we budget more for X,” the answer can be: The Funding Board says we won’t have that money.

Except, well, the Funding Board is wrong. ALL THE TIME.

Let’s look at the most recent evidence. This year, Tennessee is sitting on the largest budget surplus ever. EVER. That’s because state revenue came in at $2 billion ABOVE projections.

While the Funding Board is estimating growth for the upcoming (2023) fiscal year to be 2%, the Sycamore Institute notes that revenue for the current fiscal year is coming in at 24% above projections (so far).

  • Actual collections for October 2021 were about 22% higher than budgeted.
  • As of October 31, 2021, Tennessee had collected about 24% of the $16.5 billion in total budgeted revenue for the current fiscal year.
  • Collections through October were about $902 million higher (or 24%) than what was budgeted for the time period.

While this MIGHT be understandable given the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is the Funding Board gets it wrong a lot – and this results in budgets that are significantly lower than revenue growth would allow. So, we now have a giant surplus while schools are significantly underfunded.

Here’s some analysis from 2020 on what these underestimates mean:

For five years actual revenue growth was more than double state estimates, leaving $3 billion in surplus while public schools remain under-funded. While state K-12 funding did increase by $700 million over those years, had the state doubled K-12 investment to $1.4 billion, a substantial surplus would still have remained while also moving Tennessee schools out of the bottom 10 in funding. 

That’s right, for five consecutive years starting in 2015, state revenue growth was double or more than what the Funding Board projected. The pandemic is no excuse. This is a planned, intentional underfunding of the state budget. Frankly, taxpayers should be furious. Money is being paid in so that the state may offer services. Then, the state is simply NOT offering the services. Or, they are offering services at levels well below what they should be.

K-12 funding is a great example. A bipartisan state body suggests we need an additional $1.7 billion to adequately fund schools. The money is there – in fact, nearly double that amount of money is there. And, we’re collecting around 24% more than planned so far this fiscal year. That’s a HUGE surplus. In fact, it’s nearly $1 billion in just the first three months of the fiscal year.

Still, the Funding Board seems content to set its sights low – far underestimating the potential of Tennessee. This means our schools, our infrastructure, our health care system, public safety, and more are being shortchanged.

Lawmakers would do well to question these faulty estimates. Or, better yet, just throw them away. We have years of historical data that can give us a pretty clear picture of where our revenue will be. We’re $1 billion ahead this year already.

Looking back at 2020, here’s more evidence that the Funding Board is basically just making stuff up – possibly in hopes of starving public services to serve some unknown goal:

There is already a problem with this year’s estimates. The State Funding Board, a panel of constitutional officers and the state finance director, recently approved a growth rate of between 2.7% and 3.1%, well below even the most pessimistic predictions by economists hired by the state. 
It is the lowest rate since 2014, when the board predicted little to no growth. This led then-Gov. Haslam to eliminate a promised $50 million state teacher raise. Actual revenue grew 5% in 2014-2015, leading to a $552 million surplus while teachers got nothing. 


The board also had to increase its growth estimate for 2019-2020, predicting a general fund surplus of $430 – $500 million. Even this upward revision may be far too low. First-quarter general fund growth was 8.1%, more than double the revised estimate, which could generate a surplus up to $900 million.

Getting it wrong by a point or two is expected. Being off in a single year by 2 or more points is an anomaly, but it could happen. But, when actual growth is double or more your estimate year after year for five years or more, there’s a deeper philosophical problem. Or, you just don’t know what you’re doing.

It seems more likely, though, that those behind the numbers know exactly what they are doing.

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A Bountiful Harvest

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is seeking to reallocate the school funding pie in a state that historically earns low marks for its investment in schools. Now, the Sycamore Institute reports Tennessee has a significant surplus – both banked dollars and recurring money – that could be used to help address a range of priorities.

Governor Bill Lee and state lawmakers just used some of Tennessee’s largest ever budget surplus to fund a historically large incentive package for Ford Motor Company. Even after that deal, policymakers may still have at least $3 billion in unallocated funds to appropriate next year. This total includes a record-setting $2 billion for recurring items – and that’s before even speculating about routine revenue growth. For comparison, Tennessee’s total budget from state revenues this year was about $21 billion before the Ford deal passed.

Turns out, Tennessee continues to collect significantly more money than it plans to spend. Sycamore notes that through the first three months of the fiscal year:

  • Actual collections for October 2021 were about 22% higher than budgeted.
  • As of October 31, 2021, Tennessee had collected about 24% of the $16.5 billion in total budgeted revenue for the current fiscal year.
  • Collections through October were about $902 million higher (or 24%) than what was budgeted for the time period.
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The point is: Tennessee is overflowing with cash. It seems that a conservative government would use this opportunity to return the money “to the people” by way of key investments. Among these should be investing in our chronically underfunded school system.

Let’s face it: The GOP has been in complete control of Tennessee state government for a little over a decade now. During that time, we have consistently ranked between 44th-46th in school funding. We’ve had multiple failures of our state testing system. And, we now face a teacher shortage crisis.

But, good news abounds! We have a HUGE surplus – including billions in RECURRING revenue. This means we can invest in schools without raising taxes a single penny.

For a little more than half of the surplus, we could completely shore-up our K-12 funding system. After all, a bipartisan state research body found that schools in Tennessee are short-changed on the order of around $1.7 billion.

Of course, the track record on using surplus state funds for schools is, well, now all that good:

Significant surplus revenue has been a recurring story in recent years. It’s almost as if those in power are deliberately keeping money away from our public schools. It could be, as some have speculated, they are saving all that public money for a massive school voucher scheme.

2022 is an election year. When your lawmaker tells you they’ve voted to invest in our schools, ask them why we are still $1.7 billion behind. Ask them how much of the $3 billion surplus they want to invest in schools. Ask them to stop talking about what they’re going to do and start actually allocating dollars to education.

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Toward a More Inclusive Williamson County

Even as one local group born of Astroturf seeks to ban books and implement a “cancel culture” mentality in the school districts, parents affiliated with local, grassroots group OneWillCo in Williamson County took to the School Board meeting last night to speak in favor of diversity and inclusion.

Here’s a press release highlighting comments made by members/supporters of the group:

Alanna Truss, a clinical psychologist and parent of a Woodland Middle School and Kenrose Elementary School student, spoke in favor of moving forward ‘Fostering Healthy Solutions’. “For students who may be facing these challenges [discrimination and mental health], knowing that the board sees them as important increases the likelihood they will reach out for support. Our students also need to feel that their schools are prioritizing these issues, that school staff are a safe outlet, and that appropriate action will be taken. We need to equip our school personnel as well as our students to know what to look for and what their role is in responding. ‘See something, say something’ is a great slogan but it only works if individuals know what those ‘somethings’ are and they have confidence that something will be done.

Kate Keese, mother of a high school student in the WCS school system started by thanking the board members and Superintendent Golden for making efforts toward a safe and accountable school experience for all students and encouraged them to implement suggestions made by ‘Fostering Healthy Solutions’. “It seems to me that the work of Fostering Healthy Solutions is like preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. We want to be sure that we have considered everyone because we want everyone to feel welcome and know they have a place. I have taken several courses through my church over the last year and a half, exploring our country’s history and the legacies of that history.  It has been a challenging and illuminating journey. There was much I didn’t know, and much I have yet to learn. At times it has been uncomfortable. We have come to believe we should avoid discomfort, but discomfort is how we grow. And now that I know better, I can do better…Learning our history is a worthwhile journey as it prepares me to set a more inclusive table. Taking the steps outlined in the plan from Fostering Healthy Solutions may be uncomfortable and, we will learn; where to add another chair and how to make a new dish, to welcome another person at the table. Because there is enough. And we always better when more of us are gathered and welcome and know we have a place.”

Lisa Rooney, a WCS parent also spoke in favor of the district’s continuing equity efforts, “Research is clear that students do not reach their full potential when they have concerns about their belonging, which is fundamental to well-being and academic success. Prioritizing belonging benefits all students by leveraging the science of learning. Creating environments where students of all races and backgrounds feel that they belong requires knowledge, skill, and commitment from adults. It takes courage to acknowledge our blind spots and to implement curriculum and policies that reflect and value the lived experiences of diverse students. It takes willingness, ongoing learning opportunities and partnership. It won’t just happen because we are well-intentioned, but it will make our schools better for ALL students. I am here to ask the board to, as a starting point, adopt a universal definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion alongside a strategic plan with clear goals and measurable outcomes so that we can fulfill our mission and ensure all students thrive.”

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Unenforceable

That’s the word coming down from a federal court about Gov. Bill Lee’s legislative attempt to ban school districts from implementing/enforcing mask mandates in response to COVID-19.

Mariah Timms in the Tennessean has more:

A court order blocking the implementation of a new Tennessee law preventing schools from issuing mask orders will remain in effect, likely through at least Thanksgiving, as arguments in a lawsuit continue.

Crenshaw ordered the parties, including each of the districts where the students attend, and the Lee administration to maintain the status quo of last week — before the law was signed. 

Effectively, the court ruled the law is currently unenforceable as it stands.

Lee continues to lose in court, and the ruling is being interpreted as having broad application to the entire state, therefore allowing districts with mask mandates to circumvent the recently-passed state legislation.

Pastors from Across Tennessee Celebrate Ruling

“As I have been saying for almost two years now, Governor Lee’s ‘fend for yourself approach’ to COVID has left us fighting each other instead of fighting for each other, which is exactly what the COVID special session has done,” said Rev. Dr. Lillian Lammers, Associate Pastor of First Congregational Church of Memphis. “As residents of Tennessee, we live in community with one another. We are neighbors. It seems as if many in the Christian faith, including Governor Lee, have forgotten the metaphor in the New Testament of the community as a body. We cannot live as isolated individuals; we are connected. And in schools students are even more connected than the rest of us in the community as they spend at least seven hours a day together.”

“Public health crises cannot be managed by individuals or even by small groups of experts. We all have to opt in to loving our neighbors as ourselves and opt in to wearing masks for the sake of our neighbors,” said Rev. Brandon Berg, Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bristol, TN. “So I am grateful and relieved that Judge Waverly- Crenshaw’s ruling will at least temporarily block this life-threatening new law and allow vulnerable students to be protected at school.”

“I have said it before and will continue to say it again, ‘if Jesus carried a cross, surely the least we can do as Christians is carry a mask,’” said Rev. Aaron Marble, Pastor of Jefferson St. Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville. “Public health and safety policy decisions should not be made based on political talking points, but instead based on the wisdom and guidance of health professionals to protect EVERY child in school, and that is what has happened in this statewide ruling by Judge Waverly-Crenshaw. It is my hope and prayer that parents and families refuse to pivot to dishonest religious or medical exemptions that prioritize their personal discomfort and instead choose now to love their neighbor as themselves and wear a mask.”

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Thwarted

Gov. Bill Lee’s joint effort with the Tennessee General Assembly to score political points around mask mandates in schools has been thwarted once again by the courts. Of course, this will likely allow Lee to rail against “activist” judges, but the point is: The ban on mask mandates Lee supported and the legislature passed remains sound and fury signifying nothing.

Newschannel9 in Chattanooga has more:

Tennessee’s new wide-ranging law against COVID-19 prevention mandates hit a snag Sunday when a federal judge appeared to temporarily halt its implementation of strict limits on mask mandates in schools as they apply in at least three counties.

U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. ordered that the status quo be maintained for the disabled children who are plaintiffs in Williamson, Shelby and Knox counties as of last Thursday, the day before Gov. Bill Lee signed the legislation. Crenshaw previously blocked Lee’s recently terminated school mask opt-out order from applying in Williamson County. Federal judges in the other two court districts in Tennessee did the same for Shelby and Knox counties.

Like so many of Lee’s initiatives (vouchers, for example), the stated policy goal runs afoul of established law and constitutional principles.

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Community Groups Call for Increased School Funding

In a state that continues to earn failing grades in school funding, community groups in Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga are calling on Gov. Bill Lee and legislative leaders to both increase school funding and update the BEP with a focus on equity.

Here’s an open letter penned by the groups:

To Governor Lee, members of the General Assembly, the Funding Review Central Steering Committee, and Chairs of the Education Funding Review Subcommittees: 

In August, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) and our sister organizations, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) and Chattanoogans in Action for Love Equality and Benevolence (CALEB) gathered for a Day of Power and Prayer to call for increased funding of education statewide. We heard from educators, students and advocates from across the state and used the collective power of our voices to highlight the urgent needs of our students in a time where they face incredible odds, but are still asked to succeed. We recognize we cannot ask more of students unless we are willing to increase our investment in them. 

We applaud Governor Lee for calling for a full review of the state’s education funding formula and to explore possibilities for a more student-centered approach. We consider education equity to be one of our highest priorities and are encouraged that there will be a statewide effort to ensure that community input will be provided in the creation of a new funding framework. 

Currently, Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education spending. Sadly, we spend more to incarcerate adults than we do to educate our children. If Tennessee is serious about improving the education of our children and the future of all Tennesseeans, then we must ensure that the education framework we create now reflects education components that are inclusive of the needs of all children across the state. 

As such, NOAH, MICAH and CALEB will continue to advocate for the following items to be prioritized in the new funding formula: 

● Funding for Classroom Technology 

● Funding for Lower Student/Teacher Ratios 

● Funding for Professional Development for Teachers 

● Funding for Social Worker, School Counselor, and Nurse ratios that mirror national recommendations 

● Funding that adequately address the needs of low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities, in order to produce predictable, equitable allocations to every school district

Additionally, we ask that the committees not simply “re-slice” the funding pie. Tennessee experienced a $2 billion surplus last fiscal year. Imagine what progress we could make if we were to substantially increase the dollars available for our schools. The time is now to ensure that we increase education funding in an effective way that goes beyond simply re-allocating dollars. We must be courageous in recognizing that there are no frugal shortcuts to improving education in Tennessee. If we say we value our children, then we must do so through our actions and deeds, and that begins by investing more in our children and the future of Tennessee.

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