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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Stand for Something

Education “reform” group Stand for Children is promoting Gov. Bill Lee’s BEP changes ahead of the expected January announcement of a new school funding formula.

Here’s what the Tennessee affiliate of the Portland, Oregon-based group said in a recent email:

The State of Tennessee funds schools through the Basic Education Plan (BEP), an overly complex and poorly understood funding formula that has not been meaningfully updated for 30 years. Currently, TN ranks 44th of the 50 states in terms of funding K-12 Education, and the state faces a lawsuit in February that could result in an overhaul of the current funding model. Earlier in 2021, Governor Bill Lee announced that the state would review the BEP and invited communities around TN to weigh in on updating the state education funding model through town halls and public comment. 

While Stand for Children is applauding the update process and noting the need for more funding, other groups have been more explicit about the need for significant new investments in Tennessee’s public schools.

While many are apparently excited about the planned BEP update, one group has been calling for meaningful reform for years. That group? The state’s BEP Review Committee. This committee of educators meets every year to recommend improvements to the formula. Of course, the legislature and Governor are notorious for ignoring those recommendations. But, let’s look back to 2015 and see what was recommended:

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 Requests:

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

Change funding ratio for psychologists from 1:2,500 to 1:500  $57,518,000

The point? We don’t really need ANOTHER examination of the BEP formula. We know it is broken. We know it falls short. In fact, a bipartisan group of state and local policymakers suggests we’re $1.7 billion behind where we should be in terms of K-12 education funding.

Still, education reform groups like SCORE are acting all excited this time as if there’s never been a serious discussion of improving the BEP before.

The fact is, the BEP Review Committee has consistently asked for both an updated formula and MORE investment. And, routinely, the Tennessee General Assembly has simply told this group education experts and practitioners that their voices don’t matter.

It’s time for Bill Lee and legislators to stop pretending they haven’t heard about what needs to be done for schools. The reports from the BEP Review Committee provide a clear blueprint for funding formula improvement and a priority list for new investment.

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BEP Changes to be Announced in January

WPLN reports that Gov. Bill Lee’s administration will announce its proposed changes to the state’s school funding formula (BEP) in mid-January.

The Tennessee Department of Education plans to release details of its policy recommendations in mid-January.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn laid out the timetable in a meeting with legislators on Tuesday. She says the new approach will make it easier to see how much education costs for each student.

While there has been much discussion on changing the formula, there has (so far) been little mention among key education leaders about increasing the overall amount of money dedicated to schools.

This comes in spite of the state falling $1.7 billion short of adequately funding schools, according to a report by a bipartisan commission.

Meanwhile, some key education advocacy groups are calling on Gov. Lee to not only change the formula, but also to increase the overall amount of money invested in schools:

And, it’s worth noting that the state has billions in surplus dollars to spend on education:

While it’s not exactly clear what the new formula will look like, some are speculating it could be a pathway to vouchers:

One possible hint of where Lee is headed can be found in the recent SCORE for schools conference:

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