A $1 Billion Failure

Fox 17 in Nashville reports that the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) has been a $1 billion failed experiment.

Four Tennessee schools are now returning to local control after getting taken over by the state ten years ago. The Memphis-area schools were brought into the Achievement School District with the promise from state leaders to turn things around.

The latest data from the Department of Education shows each of the four schools report less than five percent of students performing at grade level. ASD as a whole reports just 4.5 percent of students performing at grade level.

That’s lower than Shelby County schools, with 11 percent of students testing at grade level.

Just to be clear: The state started the ASD with the idea of taking schools on the priority list – schools from the bottom 5 percent in the state in terms of student achievement – and moving them into the top 25%. Most of the schools came from Shelby County. However, after a decade, the ASD schools are still NOT out of the bottom 5 percent – and are performing at a lower rate than schools in their home district.

In 2020, New York City math teacher and popular blogger Gary Rubinstein, who tracked the ASD from its inception, reported the ASD’s “initial promise” to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools and “catapult them into the top 25 percent in five years” had “completely failed . . . . Chris Barbic resigned, Kevin Huffman resigned, Barbic’s replacement resigned.  Of the thirty schools, they nearly all stayed in the bottom 5 percent except a few that catapulted into the bottom 10 percent.”

When Barbic resigned after just a few years on the job, Chalkbeat reported, he “offered a dim prognosis” on the fate of the ASD. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Despite the repeated failings of the ASD, Gov. Bill Lee pumped another $25 million into the district this fiscal year, Fox 17 reports.

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Williamson County Schools Approves Mid-Year Pay Increase

Last night, the Williamson County School Board unanimously approved a mid-year pay raise for teachers and staff. If approved by the County Commission, teachers will receive a 3% raise and hourly staff will see a $1/hour pay increase, effective January 31st. The unusual move of raising pay for teachers and staff mid-year is happening because of severe teacher and staff shortages. The district currently has 71 teaching openings.

Williamson Strong live-tweeted the meeting and provided the key stats:

The move in Williamson County comes as districts across the state struggle with teacher retention issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

The move is also happening while Gov. Bill Lee and state policymakers examine Tennessee’s school funding formula. So far, that has not resulted in a serious discussion about dramatically raising teacher pay. In fact, this story highlights the level of priority placed on teacher pay in the state:

The current state minimum salary schedule for teachers sets the minimum salary for a Tennessee teacher at $38,000.

A Tennessee teacher with a bachelor’s degree would need to work for 10 years in order to achieve a mandated minimum salary above $44,000.

Now, however, brand new correctional officers will earn more than teachers with 10 years of experience. Yes, corrections officers deserve a raise.

It will be interesting to see what districts across the state do in 2022-23 and beyond to improve salary and working conditions for teachers and if the state’s new funding formula provides any help in this arena.

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$3 Billion

Tennessee consistently receives low grades when it comes to investment in public education. Year after year, Tennessee ranks between 44th-46th in total investment in schools and our state also typically earns among the lowest grades in the nation when it comes to funding effort.

I mean, our neighbors in Kentucky far outpace us when it comes to investment in schools – and, this investment gets results when it comes to student achievement.

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown points out the significance of this disparity in a recent email to educators. In it, she notes:

“It’s not about how the funds are divided, it’s about how many state dollars are put into education,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “To get to the Kentucky level of school funding, Tennessee needs $3 billion added to the state education budget.”

That’s just embarrassing. Here’s the thing: Tennessee can afford to do much better. In fact, we have a huge surplus. This means we can invest in schools without raising taxes. A boost of billions of dollars in state money for public schools would also have the benefit of helping to keep local property taxes low.

As the BEP reform discussion heats up, remember that any reform that fails to include significant new funding – in the billions of dollars – is not going to make a serious change in education in our state. We’re at least $1.7 billion behind where we should be according to state analysts. We’re $3 billion behind Kentucky. The overall formula is not the real problem – a huge lack of investment is the real problem.

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We’ve Got Questions

The Nashville Public Education Foundation has some questions about a recently released framework for school funding reform.

Here’s what NPEF has to say about the early draft of BEP changes:

Will the base weight in the proposed framework accurately reflect the cost of running schools where all students thrive? We need an increase in funding effort from the state level that matches an aspirational vision for what is possible in public education, and what we want our teachers, students, and families to experience. 

How will weights be defined for student populations requiring additional funds to meet their learning needs? The proposed framework describes the weights as heavy, moderate, or light. What do these terms specifically mean and how will these weights be determined?

Are we also having the right conversation about fiscal capacity? It is critical to address the fiscal responsibility of the state versus that of local districts. As we design a new framework, we need to consider where the funds for the plan will come from in a long-term, sustainable way that does not place too high a burden on local districts and municipalities.

These are some great questions. In the past, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has noted the severe shortcomings of the current funding formula. That is, the formula itself may not be flawed, but the level of funding is inadequate.

In fact, in March of last year, the Tennessean reported:

“Bottom line, the BEP consistently underestimates what it takes to run schools and places an unattainable burden on local districts to pick up the difference,” said Katie Cour, president and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation, in a statement.

“Too often people feel relieved when they hear the state has ‘fully funded the BEP,’ but this statement is essentially meaningless. Tennessee is grossly underfunding schools that serve one million students each year – more than 82,000 just in Nashville,” she said.

The claim of underfunding is substantiated by a report from TACIR that suggests the state is at least $1.7 billion behind where it needs to be in terms of adequate school funding.

The note from NPEF on funding effort as multiple reports place Tennessee near the bottom of the nation both in terms of dollars invested in school and overall funding effort.

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Time to Decide

As Tennessee policymakers grapple with reforming the state’s school funding formula (BEP), the President of the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) says it’s time to decide whether the state is truly committed to funding public education.

NewsChannel5 reports on school funding and comments made by MNEA President Michelle Sheriff:

Metropolitan Nashville Education Association reports Tennessee is 46th in the nation when it comes to funding schools.

The organization’s president Michele Sheriff said for students to be successful the funding needs to be adequate.

“The state needs to decide. You can’t underfund schools and then say schools are failing students. You have to provide the funding for what students need to see the success moving forward,” Sheriff explained.

While Sheriff and other education advocates are calling for more funding, some state leaders are making other suggestions.

While House Speaker Cameron Sexton has called for a punishment-based incentive system – taking away money from schools and systems that don’t meet certain unnamed benchmarks – state Senator John Stevens has suggested local systems may get too much money from BEP reform.

“I’m not just going to give the locals a windfall by absorbing the costs that they’re supposed to pay for without them having some skin in the game,” Stevens said. “Because all the schools want to do is hire more people.”

Of course, Stevens fails to mention that Tennessee consistently ranks between 44th-46th nationally in state investment in schools and that the state’s own analysis suggests schools are underfunded by $1.7 billion.

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TEA’s Brown Continues Call for School Funding Boost

As the General Assembly returns and prepares to consider Gov. Lee’s school funding reform proposal, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown continues a push to boost overall funding for public schools.

In a recent email to TEA members reporting on the committees reviewing the BEP, Brown said:

I am pleased to report there has been significant discussion around the need for increased funding for nurses; counselors, psychologists, and social workers; education support professionals; and assistance principals. In addition, we have discussed the real need for increases in educator salaries and benefits. All of these have been priorities for TEA for years.

But also noted:

Unfortunately, there has also been no indication that any changes to the funding formula will result in additional dollars being added to the state’s education budget. I and other stakeholders have stated repeatedly that unless there is an influx of funding into the education budget it doesn’t matter how we redistribute the funding to local school districts.

Meanwhile, state policy leaders like House Speaker Cameron Sexton have suggested that what is really needed is a proper incentive system for schools.

It seems the Speaker is not all that familiar with how schools actually work. The suggestion he makes here is that teachers and schools lack the proper incentive system. That is, schools fail students because there’s no threat of losing money no matter the outcome. This reflects a fairly depressing view of humanity. Further, it suggests that Sexton believes that teachers are currently “holding back” simply because they don’t fear punishment.

If only a punishment-based incentive system were in force, Tennessee teachers in every school system would rapidly accelerate learning, Sexton seems to be saying.

While policymakers pontificate about proper incentive systems, actual educators are practically begging for cash:

Former teacher Gabe Hart has a column in Tennessee Lookout that expresses his frustration at the current situation as it relates to teacher pay in Tennessee.

Here’s a bit of what he has to say relative to teacher salaries:

In December, in an attempt to recruit more corrections officers, Lee gave new officers a 37% raise which put the starting salary for a TDOC officer at $44,500.  First year teachers in Metro Nashville Public Schools will make $46,000 during their first year, and MNPS is one of the highest paying districts in the state.  First year teachers in Madison County make $38,000. The average first year teacher makes around $40,000 — almost $5,000 less than a first year corrections officer.  

I am fully aware that there are far more teachers in the state than corrections officers, and the funding comparison is apples and oranges.  Where I can push back, though, is that Tennessee has always been ranked between 44th-46th in the country when it comes to education funding

Oh, and did I mention there’s a growing teacher shortage?

As I noted in an earlier post:

Tennessee has tried a lot of education experiments in the last couple of decades. One experiment the state hasn’t tried? Actually investing large amounts of money in schools!

In the past, pleas for more cash would be met with resistance because investing more in schools meant raising taxes. Now, however, the state has a surplus in excess of $3 billion. This means we can fund TONS of improvements in public schools and not raise taxes one cent. Oh, and doing this with state surplus dollars also will help local governments keep property taxes low.

Of course, state Senator John Stevens seems to want to raise local property taxes:

“I’m not just going to give the locals a windfall by absorbing the costs that they’re supposed to pay for without them having some skin in the game,” Stevens said. “Because all the schools want to do is hire more people.”

I would remind Stevens and others that the Tennessee Constitution Article XI, Section 12 says:

The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. 

It kind of seems like supporting and paying for public schools is the job of the General Assembly – it doesn’t mention anything about “costs” locals are “supposed to pay for.”

Maybe that’s why courts have ruled AGAINST the state of Tennessee in multiple school funding lawsuits since the 1990s.

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TennesseeCAN Knows the Plan

How is it that pro-privatization group TennesseeCAN already knows the benefits of Gov. Bill Lee’s new school funding formula when that formula has yet to be released?

It seems an “expert” from TennesseeCAN was on hand in Franklin County to present the details of the new, as-yet-unreleased plan.

First, a bit about TennesseeCAN as reported in the Herald-Chronicle:

TennesseeCAN, a state education advocacy organization, was founded in 2011 and formerly operated as StudentsFirst Tennessee.

The organization’s website says it pushed to enact state laws for alternative certification pathways for teachers, mutual consent in district hiring practices, creating a statewide authorizer for charter applicants, expanding enrollment for autism-spectrum-disorder programs and implementing statewide school report cards to track educational progress.

StudentsFirst, readers may recall, was the group founded by Michelle Rhee – whose ex-husband Kevin Huffman was once Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education.

Anyway, here’s how TennesseeCAN describes the new funding formula:

She said a weighted funding formula:

• Recognizes that what one school needs in resources may not be what another school needs.

• Calculates funds based on the needs of students in the schools.

• Begins with student needs then provides additional funds in the form of weighted importance on programs.

• Ties funds to student need and sets a greater expectation on the return of the investment.

• Allows schools to meet the needs of the students in real-time without waiting on additional resources from the state.

Some of this sounds not terrible. However, the devil will certainly be in the details.

However, there is a line in the list of benefits that should be of great concern:

Ties funds to student need and sets a greater expectation on the return of the investment.

This gets to the argument being advanced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton that there should be some sort of “incentive” system so schools will perform better. Essentially, Sexton argues that the threat of withholding money will motivate schools to do more.

The core problem of this argument is like the old joke: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

As has been noted by ACTUAL educators, one thing Tennessee has yet to do when it comes to schools is actually invest in schools.

In fact, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown says of BEP reform:

“What we have to remember is, it doesn’t matter how you carve up the money, how you plan to spend the money, if the amount of money is insufficient,” she said. “Quite frankly, that’s what we have in the state of Tennessee. We are 46th in the nation in what we invest in students.”

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Throw Some Damn Money at the Problem

While Tennessee lawmakers are expressing concern over investing too much money in schools, one educator is practically begging Gov. Bill Lee to just throw wads of cash at teachers.

Former teacher Gabe Hart has a column in Tennessee Lookout that expresses his frustration at the current situation as it relates to teacher pay in Tennessee.

Here’s a bit of what he has to say relative to teacher salaries:

In December, in an attempt to recruit more corrections officers, Lee gave new officers a 37% raise which put the starting salary for a TDOC officer at $44,500.  First year teachers in Metro Nashville Public Schools will make $46,000 during their first year, and MNPS is one of the highest paying districts in the state.  First year teachers in Madison County make $38,000. The average first year teacher makes around $40,000 — almost $5,000 less than a first year corrections officer.  

I am fully aware that there are far more teachers in the state than corrections officers, and the funding comparison is apples and oranges.  Where I can push back, though, is that Tennessee has always been ranked between 44th-46th in the country when it comes to education funding, and since Lee became governor in 2019, he’s pushed for Educational Savings Accounts — aka vouchers — that would pull even more money from public schools.  

Hart’s piece comes as districts across the state are experiencing a teacher shortage crisis.

So, while community groups are pushing for greater investment in schools and teachers are literally begging to have money thrown at them, lawmakers are out there expressing concern about putting too much money into schools.

First, there’s House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who recently indicated that money was not the problem facing Tennessee schools:

“So I think when you look at the school systems, at the end, it’s not usually about the money. If you’re not successful, money doesn’t solve your problem.

Never mind that Tennessee consistently ranks between 44th-46th in investment in public schools.

Then, there’s state Senator John Stevens, who serves on one of the committees exploring changes to the BEP. He’s worried that local school systems will receive a “windfall” from a new BEP formula:

The Center Square reports that Stevens is concerned about how locals will spend what he calls a “windfall” of new state money.

Stevens, like others, is concerned that local governments pay their portion along with the state, which budgeted to spend $5.6 billion in state funding on K-12 public education this fiscal year.

Stevens suggested the state should give less state sales tax money to local governments that do not properly support education with a funding match.

“I’m not just going to give the locals a windfall by absorbing the costs that they’re supposed to pay for without them having some skin in the game,” Stevens said. “Because all the schools want to do is hire more people.”

Umm, what??

So, at this point, I’m going to again note our state has a surplus in excess of $3 billion.

Tennessee has tried a lot of education experiments in the last couple of decades. One experiment the state hasn’t tried? Actually investing large amounts of money in schools!

Just throw some damn money at the problem.

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Windfall?

While the State of Tennessee has a surplus in excess of $3 billion, state Senator John Stevens seems to want to shift more of the burden of public education to local governments – possibly resulting in local property tax increases.

The Center Square reports that Stevens is concerned about how locals will spend what he calls a “windfall” of new state money.

Stevens, like others, is concerned that local governments pay their portion along with the state, which budgeted to spend $5.6 billion in state funding on K-12 public education this fiscal year.

Stevens suggested the state should give less state sales tax money to local governments that do not properly support education with a funding match.

“I’m not just going to give the locals a windfall by absorbing the costs that they’re supposed to pay for without them having some skin in the game,” Stevens said. “Because all the schools want to do is hire more people.”

First, let’s address the “skin in the game” argument by noting that for many districts, the state picks up just under half the cost of public education. In fact, the inadequacy of state funding is why Tennessee is facing a lawsuit over the BEP formula.

Second, there’s this thing called “maintenance of effort.” That’s the idea that local governments are not allowed to decrease their contribution to schools just because of an influx of state dollars. In other words, current law already requires that locals keep some “skin in the game.”

Finally, the BEP formula generates a required local match – locals MUST contribute according to the formula OR they risk losing a portion of their state share. Again, the current formula already addresses the issue Stevens is raising.

Then, of course, there’s the mistaken idea that Tennessee schools already have enough money. A bipartisan group of state and local policymakers form an entity known as TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. That bipartisan group issued a report suggesting Tennessee underfunds schools by $1.7 billion.

So, yeah, local governments want to hire more people for schools. Just like TACIR says they should. Does Stevens think his fellow lawmakers on the Commission got it wrong? Should local governments be asked to raise property taxes to cover the state’s shortfall? Should a state with a surplus in excess of $3 billion hold onto the cash while local property owners see their taxes raised?

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Is Sexton Serious?

House Speaker Cameron Sexton offered some concerning commentary on school funding ahead of an expected announcement this month on Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed changes to the state’s school funding formula (BEP).

Meghan Mangrum highlighted the comments in an article published in the Citizen-Tribune out of Morristown:

It seems the Speaker is not all that familiar with how schools actually work. The suggestion he makes here is that teachers and schools lack the proper incentive system. That is, schools fail students because there’s no threat of losing money no matter the outcome. This reflects a fairly depressing view of humanity. Further, it suggests that Sexton believes that teachers are currently “holding back” simply because they don’t fear punishment.

If only a punishment-based incentive system were in force, Tennessee teachers in every school system would rapidly accelerate learning, Sexton seems to be saying.

This type of thinking is especially alarming as the state considers revamping the school funding formula. Gov. Lee has promised a “student-centered” approach but has also stopped short of calling for more overall spending.

Here’s an analogy that might help explain the flaw in Sexton’s approach. UT Football has experienced a bit of a resurgence in recent years, but most fans would admit the last decade has been pretty rough. Under Sexton’s approach, the right answer is to offer less resources to the football program and then that will motivate them to get better and thus “earn” better resources. Want 10+ wins each season? Deduct $100,000 from the coach’s pay for each win under 10. Then, when the team only wins 6 or 7 games, take some more cash away so that they’ll be fired up to get after it next season. Maybe if the defense has a really bad game, the next game they could play without helmets? Surely, the proper punishment-based incentive will yield the desired results.

Of course, some have speculated that the whole movement on the part of Lee to change the BEP is really about a backdoor path to school vouchers:

In any event, I’m sure teachers across the state are working hard and polishing off all that knowledge they’ve been holding back thanks to the threat of lost resources made by Sexton. Once the punishment-based BEP formula is in place, I’m sure only good things will happen. In fact, I bet such a system will cause a rapid influx of people into the teaching profession in Tennessee – if only policymakers in previous years had thought of such a plan, Tennessee would be at the top of the nation by now.

Here’s a piece on merit pay that addresses (to some degree) the type of incentive plan Sexton may be envisioning:

And, here’s a piece that makes the argument for an across-the-board increase in school funding:

Finally, a note on the importance of raising teacher pay – not simply as a means of addressing the teacher shortage but also as a key factor in improving student achievement:

When teachers get paid more, students do better. In one study, a 10% increase in teacher pay was estimated to produce a 5 to 10% increase in student performance. Teacher pay also has long-term benefits for students. A 10% increase in per-pupil spending for each of the 12 years of education results in students completing more education, having 7% higher wages, and having a reduced rate of adult poverty. These benefits are even greater for families who are in poverty.

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