Priorities

Last week, Gov. Bill announced a 37% salary increase for new correctional officers hired by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). The move makes the starting salary for a Tennessee correctional officer $44,500.

This is a needed improvement to the salary of hard-working state employees with a difficult job.

In announcing the move, Lee said:

“As we face staffing shortages across the country, rewarding officers with competitive pay will ensure we recruit and retain the most highly qualified individuals in our workforce,” said Gov. Lee. “These Tennesseans play a crucial role in ensuring public safety and we remain committed to valuing their important work.”

What’s interesting about the move is that Tennessee is also facing a teacher shortage and yet there has been no serious discussion by Lee or other state education policy leaders on dramatically increasing teacher pay.

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.

But, it is a clear statement of priorities that Gov. Lee made this move – raising pay for corrections officers – before making any serious move to raise teacher pay. Even as Lee discusses a new education funding formula, he has not yet committed to any significant, dramatic increase in teacher salaries.

Tennessee has a significant budget surplus – $3 billion or more – and so can afford to raise pay for state employees and teachers without raising taxes a single penny.

Teachers, parents, and Tennessee communities are still waiting for Lee to put education first. Last week’s announcement continues to underscore where education falls on Lee’s list of priorities.

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Know the SCORE

Today, SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education) – a group formed by Bill Frist to influence education policy in Tennessee – held its annual “state of education” event. At the event, SCORE highlighted priorities for 2022.

Here they are:

Note that these priorities do not include improving school funding by way of increasing dollars allocated to the BEP.

Never fear, however, SCORE has a document on school funding.

The document contains an interesting analysis of reasons why the current school funding formula falls short. And, while the document notes that Tennessee schools don’t have enough teachers, nurses, or support staff, SCORE stops short of making an outright call for dramatically improved school funding.

Here’s how the funding issue is handled (on page 28 of the document):

Tennessee policymakers have continued to fully fund the
state’s share of the current formula in recent years, but the $1.7
billion in additional non-BEP, locally funded education spending
clearly indicates that the formula does not reflect the full cost
of educating today’s students.55 While specific technical
methods and assumptions can influence the amounts needed
to educate students, Tennessee has a clear opportunity to
improve beyond previous investments.

And, in a graph on page 24, SCORE suggests:

While there is no consensus about the amount that Tennessee should spend on K-12 education, current education funding levels show Tennessee trailing the nation by a variety of measures.

So, these are some pretty nice ways of saying Tennessee schools need more investment. But, so as not to get sideways with Gov. Lee and political types who balk at “throwing money at schools,” SCORE stops short of using its significant power and influence to make a clear, direct call for billions in new investment in Tennessee schools.

Reading these statements makes it sound like if we make a slightly larger pie and just slice it a little differently, all will be well.

But, well, it won’t.

It’s also worth noting that SCORE has been the key influencer on Tennessee education policy for the last decade. Here are some reminders of how that’s been going:

A note from the end of the 2021 legislative session:

“The budget passed by the General Assembly is disappointing when we have a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom five in education funding. With a record revenue surplus and hundreds of millions unappropriated, this was the time to stop underfunding our schools.

There were bills to provide for more nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need today and moving forward to meet their mental and academic challenges cause by the pandemic and the problems of chronic underfunding. Instead, we saw a trust fund set up that will cover barely a fraction of the needs years down the road.    

It’s unconscionable for state leaders to not include significant increases for K-12 funding, especially at a time when the state has racked up $1.42 billion in surplus year-to-date. The money is there to make a significant increase to K-12 funding, but Gov. Lee and the General Assembly have instead chosen to continue stuffing mattresses full of cash. 

Tennessee consistently ranks in the 44-46 range when it comes to overall investment in public schools. National groups that study school funding consistently grade Tennessee at an “F” when it comes to funding effort. Our school systems are facing significant teacher and staffing shortages. All of this has happened while SCORE has been driving the education policy train. Now, SCORE is asking state policymakers and Tennessee citizens to follow them – to keep rolling with a train that has led to – as SCORE puts it on page 23:

The Tennessee education finance system is rated among
worst in the nation. Tennessee’s finance system has
earned a ranking that sits among the lowest in the nation.
According to Education Week’s Quality Counts analysis of
state education systems, Tennessee received a D+ (69.0) in
school finance against a national grade of C (76.1), ranking
among the bottom 10 states nationally and third lowest in
the Southeast, ahead of Florida and North Carolina.

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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.

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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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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The BEP Voucher Plan

Tennessee teacher and education blogger Mike Stein offers his take on Gov. Bill Lee’s latest run at school vouchers. This time, Lee’s plan appears to be to use the state’s school funding formula (BEP) to create a voucher scheme.

Here are some highlights from Stein’s piece, written after he’d been to one of TN DOE’s BEP Town Hall events:

I had so much to say! I wanted to mention how atrocious it is that in 2021 teachers in this state are still limited on how many copies they can make for their classrooms. I wanted to go into how students’ mental health is poor. That fights during school are on the rise because they don’t know how to properly deal with their emotions and the need for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers is at a critical point. I wanted to mention my idea for attacking the substitute teacher crisis in Tennessee, which is to include substitute teacher pay as a component in the BEP. Rural systems like mine can not afford to pay them a decent wage (they can literally make more money at any fast food establishment), so if TDOE creates a baseline pay of $120 per day for non-licensed substitute teachers that is reimbursed to districts, then we will be much more likely to attract and keep quality substitute teachers. The $120 figure comes from paying them the equivalent of $15 an hour for the length of the school day. If the substitute is a certified teacher, then I believe that amount should equal $160 per day. I wanted to raise these points–and more–but the two minute time limit had me rethinking what I was going to say.

Is the answer already decided?

. . . because in January they plan on presenting their new BEP formula to the state legislature

Stop and reflect on that last sentence. If their timeline is to present their plan in January then it can only mean one thing–it’s either already written or close to it. This means that TDOE’s public town halls and their funding review committees are either entirely or mostly a farce. They’re going through the motions of eliciting public feedback because to redo the BEP formula without attempting to do so would mean their suggestion in January would most assuredly be D.O.A.

The tea leaves are not difficult to read here. The new BEP formula will include some form of vouchers (they, of course, won’t be called that) and because the BEP funds public schools across the state, then it will not violate the “Home Rule” provision. State legislators will be put in a position to either vote in favor of the new BEP formula (which will undoubtedly include actual needed improvements that will be popular with their constituents) or reject it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them. Either support the new BEP formula that will actually privatize public schools or be accused of being against public education. 

Stein then does a great job of breaking down the members of the Fiscal Responsibility Committee – noting that many of them are decidedly pro-voucher.

Check out his post for more on Bill Lee’s continued effort to send public money to private schools.

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The Teacher Shortage Crisis is Here

For years, policy advocates and those paying attention have suggested a teacher shortage crisis was imminent. Instead of implementing strategies to attract teachers and keep them in the field, state policymakers have instead foisted more responsibility on already overwhelmed educators. Of course, these new responsibilities didn’t come with significant pay increases. In fact, teachers in Tennessee experience a significant pay gap compared to similarly educated peers in other professions.

Now, the crisis that was warned about has arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic likely exacerbated the challenge, to be sure. But, the reality is this is a situation that was entirely foreseeable. Rather than solve the problem, though, policymakers have waited until there are actual impacts to students.

Few are suggesting one key solution: Raise teacher pay substantially. Yes, adjusting responsibilities and providing a more welcoming work environment are also important. But, it is long past time to pay teachers significantly more. Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus from the recently-concluded fiscal year. We could fully close the teacher wage gap (a raise of about 20% for most teachers) and still have plenty of cash left over without raising taxes one dime.

But, no one who could make this happen is seriously suggesting that.

Instead, we see stories like this one:

Maury County school leaders are trying to find solutions to ongoing staff shortages.

The district has roughly 100 openings right now, along with a need for new substitute teachers and support staff.

Most districts in the state are struggling to find and retain teachers and staff.

Neighboring Williamson County Schools has about 80 teacher openings listed online, along with a hundred support staff positions.

Metro Nashville Public Schools has about 200 openings.

“It’s every district, every state, it’s something that’s been a hot topic for 5 years at least,” Sparks-Newland said.

Yes, this has been a hot topic for 5 years at least. And yet, no solution is on the horizon. Instead, Gov. Lee is suggesting finding a different way to slice the BEP pie. To be clear, this is a school funding formula that is $1.7 billion short of where it should be.

There are ways to improve the teaching profession and make it more attractive that don’t involve pay raises. Those should be addressed and implemented. But, any solution that does not also involve a substantial pay increase will miss the mark and serve to kick the can down the road. The ultimate victims in this delay tactic will be students. When Lee and others tell you they want to put students first, ask them why they aren’t pushing to raise the salaries of the people who teach those students.

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Nashville Voters Say Schools are Underfunded, Teachers Underpaid

Amid a global pandemic that is seeing an already troubling teacher shortage exacerbated, voters in Nashville are expressing concern that schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid. These findings come as the result of a poll of registered voters conducted on behalf of the Nashville Public Education Foundation.

The poll found that voters (72%) believe teachers are underpaid – this in spite of a recent pay plan raising pay in Nashville some $7000 or more for most teachers. The pollster noted that previous results showed 80% of voters thought teachers were underpaid.

The findings on funding are not surprising in a state that had a $2 billion surplus in the past fiscal year and is underfunding schools by at least $1.7 billion.

According to the poll, 66% of Nashville voters feel public schools in the city are underfunded.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is attempting to divert attention from his party’s dismal track record on school funding by pushing a statewide “review” of the school funding formula, known as the BEP.

What Lee and legislative leaders are not (yet) talking about is a dramatic increase in state funding for schools. Of course, there’s a February court date that may result in the Tennessee Supreme Court ordering policymakers to properly invest in schools.

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TEA Talks BEP Reform

Last week, Gov. Bill Lee made a so-called “major” announcement about plans to reform the state’s school funding formula – the BEP. I’ll have more on this development later.

For now, though, here’s the statement from Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown:

“The Tennessee Education Association supports Gov. Lee’s intent to engage educators, parents and community members in a critical evaluation of the state’s education funding formula. However, the central problem with education funding is not the BEP, but the inadequate level of state funding.

Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for what we invest per student. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.     

Any review of the BEP funding formula must include more than recommendations on how to change the formula. Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve.”

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