Penny’s Power Grab

Legislation that would give Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn broad authority to fire a school system’s superintendent and remove the school board is advancing in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Chalkbeat has more:

A bill outlining reasons the state may take over a local school district cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday. 

Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Maury County, said his proposal aims to strengthen Tennessee law by providing a clear process for when the state education commissioner should take control of a district, which could include firing the superintendent and replacing elected school board members.

It’s no surprise that Gov. Bill Lee, who has long expressed distrust of local school boards, is behind this measure.

Cepicky’s comments in support of the bill, however, indicate he is disconnected from the reality of how schools operate in Tennessee.

“I’m here arguing for students, folks — the students that are trapped in failing school systems,” he said. “Most of our school systems are doing the best they can … but there are districts out here that are failing these kids year after year after year, and we’ve got to address that moving forward.”

It’s interesting that Cepicky serves on the education committees of the House, even chairing the Education Instruction subcommittee and yet he has made exactly zero moves to improve the state’s failing school funding formula.

If Cepicky would like to talk about who has been failing Tennessee’s students year after year after year, he need only look around at the legislature and note that the body’s majority party has done precious little to improve the situation.

Tennessee ranks 46th in school funding and consistently receives an “F” in both funding level and funding effort in national rankings. The legislature’s own advisory commission suggests the school funding formula (BEP) is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

Still, Cepicky cheerily carries the water for a governor who has so far refused to demonstrate any sort of commitment to investing our state’s resources into schools in a meaningful way.

If only Cepicky chaired a key education subcommittee or sat on another education committee or maybe if he were a member of the majority party or a representative trusted to carry key pieces of the governor’s agenda, maybe then he could actually make a difference where it mattered.

Instead, he’ll have to be content to lament the failing schools allowed to beg for cash from a position of zero power or influence.

Oh, and since Cepicky is so concerned about failing schools, one can only assume he opposes Lee’s efforts to extend the reach and control of the Achievement School District.

I’ll be waiting for Cepicky’s statement on the matter.

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An Unattainable Burden

The current state of Tennessee’s school funding formula (the BEP) places an “unattainable burden” on local school districts, according to Katie Cour of the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF).

The Foundation released a policy brief highlighting the shortcomings of the BEP this week.

Here’s more from the Tennessean:

The Nashville Public Education Foundation is renewing the long-time argument of many school districts, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, that the state’s Basic Education Program, or the BEP funding formula, is not adequate.

“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.

Cour’s argument is supported by findings from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) which found that the state underfunds schools by $1.7 billion:

“Although the changes made in 1992 and since have resulted in substantial increases in funding to support the BEP, meeting local needs and the requirements imposed by the state and federal governments often requires more resources than the BEP funding formula alone provides. Consequently, state and local funding in fiscal year 2017-18 totaled $2.1 billion over and above what was required by the BEP formula, including a total of $1.7 billion in local revenue.”

Additionally, a study by the Education Law Center found that Tennessee schools are funded at $1 billion less than they should be based on not keeping up with inflation since 2008:

In fact, the Education Law Center has released a report noting that from 2008 to 2018, school funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in Tennessee actually decreased by $1,065 per pupil. To put it another way, had school spending kept up with inflation, our schools would see an additional $1 billion in state investment.

The push for more funds comes as the state experiences a record surplus in addition to funds coming in from the American Rescue Plan.

So far, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders have shown little interest in actually using this unique moment to make meaningful investments in the state’s schools.

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We Need a Bigger Pie

The League of Women Voters (LWV) is calling on Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to take bold action on school funding. The group notes that the state historically underfunds schools and suggests that now is the time to change that reality. In fact, the push from the LWV comes as the state is experiencing an unprecedented revenue surplus.

Here’s more from LWV from a media release:

Chronically underfunded school districts throughout the  state have been especially challenged during the pandemic. However, the inadequacies and  the gross underfunding predate this stressful year. Tennessee currently funds its public school  system at a level that consistently places it in the bottom five most poorly funded states in the  United States, per the National Education Association.

“This goes beyond how you slice the pie to provide varying amounts of funding to the diverse  counties of our state – the pie itself is simply not big enough,” said Debby Gould, president elect of LWVTN. “The League’s position on education is that the state’s coverage,  implementation, and funding of the Basic Education Program should be adequate to assure a  high standard of public education.” 

Under the current formulation, the BEP allows for a per-student budgeted amount  that is $3,655 lower than the nationwide average, and lower than most southeastern states.  Because the BEP formula underfunds our public schools, it puts a heavy burden on communities  to supply the local funds necessary to provide an acceptable standard of public education for  students. 

Each year, a BEP Review Committee analyzes the formula and its results for the preceding year,  making official recommendations to the state for improvement. The committee’s latest report  recommends increasing the BEP teacher salary component to match what districts actually  have to spend. It also recommends increasing the numbers of school nurses and counselors to  meet nationally-recognized standards and increasing the number of interventionists to fulfill  requirements of a state-mandated program designed to keep students from falling behind, or  catch them up more quickly when they do. At the very minimum, Governor Lee and the General  Assembly should incorporate all BEP Review Committee recommendations and provide  recurring funding for them. This action would be a significant step toward adequately funded  public schools for all Tennessee children.

MORE on the inadequacy of the current BEP:

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

Another $200 Million

The Tennessee Department of Revenue has released February numbers and it seems our state has nearly $200 million more than was budgeted – in February alone. This continues a trend of the state’s revenue far-exceeding budgeted estimates.

Here’s more from the Department’s press release:

Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that Tennessee tax revenues exceeded budgeted estimates in February. February revenues totaled $1.13 billion, which is $112.7 million more than the state received in February 2020 and $190.9 million more than the budgeted estimate. The growth rate for February was 11.06 percent.

Despite the continued positive revenue news, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders appear committed to a status quo budget for schools.

As I noted over at The Education Report:

It’s clear the BEP is inadequate. The state’s own bipartisan commission that studies issues like school funding says the formula is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

The Education Law Center notes that our state’s school funding has yet to recover from the 2008 recession. Had we kept up with prior funding levels and inflation, we’d have an additional $1 billion invested in schools right now.

So, Tennessee has billions and billions of dollars to spend and a school funding system that ranks 46th in the country and has landed lawmakers in court. Why isn’t there some big push to make an investment in schools?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Gov. Lee and those in legislative leadership don’t actually believe in public schools.

At a minimum, lawmakers should use the significant surplus of cash to fill the $1.7 billion hole in the BEP identified by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs (TACIR). They can do this without raising anyone’s taxes and they can do it while still investing in other priorities AND contributing significantly to the state’s rainy day fund.

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Bill Lee vs. Tennessee Schools

Gov. Bill Lee apparently isn’t all that excited about the billions of dollars in money coming into Tennessee by way of the American Rescue Plan. Here’s a recent tweet from Lee expressing his dismay with the proposal that means money in the pockets of many Tennesseans and will send $2.6 billion to our state just for education.

I guess Lee feels like it is a punishment for a state like Tennessee, which ranks 46th in education funding, to receive $2.6 billion to help our schools. Will he stand at the state line and stop the money from coming into our severely underfunded schools?

Interestingly enough, pro-privatization group 50CAN published a report outlining how the funds from the American Rescue Plan will benefit public schools. They used Tennessee as an example case to demonstrate the flow of the added cash.

So, our state will see $2.6 billion. Most of that will flow directly to local districts. In this example, we see that Shelby County gets more than half a billion dollars. As the report notes, these funds are expected to be spent by 2023, but can fund programs that last up to 2028. That means there’s a fair amount of flexibility and they can both help establish new programs and make those programs sustainable, at least in the short term.

Never mind all these benefits, though. Gov. Lee has to take to Twitter to attack a plan that will directly benefit our state’s public schools.

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Tylor Talks Teaching

Nashville school board member Abigail Tylor talks about the crisis facing public education when it comes to recruiting and retaining teachers in a recent Twitter thread.

Here are her thoughts:

These are all extremely important points. When we apply them specifically to TN, here’s what we can learn (a thread):

1. When you take into account changes in benefits and cost of living increases, teachers in TN make LESS now than they made 10 years ago. 1/

2. TN ranks 36th in the nation for teacher pay & it’s not due to a lower cost of living. TN teachers make 21.4% less than non-teacher college grads in TN. In fact, there’s no state in the entire US where teacher pay is equal to non-teacher college grad pay. 2/

3. Teachers in TN have been promised substantial raises by our last two governors, only to have both walk it back. When our state budget looks tight, teachers are first on the chopping block. If TN valued teachers, they would prioritize them. 3/

4. Although Gov Lee finally followed through on a teacher raise, it amounts to .10 on the dollar. TN has $3.1 billion in our reserves. $2 billion of that could easily be used to increase teacher pay w/out raising taxes 1cent. He’s choosing not to pay our teachers living wages. 4/

5. Fewer college students are choosing to major in education. Research shows that teachers who enter the profession w/out adequate preparation are more likely to quit. When we rely on programs that skip student teaching & necessary coursework, turnover rate is 2 to 3x higher. 5/

6. In TN, 47.51% of inexperienced teachers are in high-minority schools compared to 8.05% in low minority. 11.97% of uncertified teachers are in TN’s high-minority schools compared to .57% in low-minority. Guess which schools are most negatively impacted by high turn overs? 6/6

Originally tweeted by Abigail Tylor (@AbigailTylor) on March 1, 2021.

Tylor is right, of course. Tennessee teachers suffer from a significant wage gap.

Getting to Nashville specifically, teachers in the state’s largest city are severely underpaid.

In 2017, I wrote:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary?

In Nashville, and in Tennessee as a whole, there’s simply not a consistent commitment to investing in teachers. In fact, Gov. Lee’s attempts this year – when the state has a huge surplus – have been underwhelming to put it charitably.

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The Takedown with Amy Frogge

Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some key facts about education funding in Tennessee in a series of tweets.

Here they are:

Here are some shocking facts about education funding in Tennessee: 1. TN has chronically underfunded public education. We rank 46th nationally (bottom 5 states) in education spending. We spend less than any of our neighbors, including KY, NC, GA, AL AR, and even MS. 1/

2. According to the states’s own estimates, the BEP (TN’s education funding formula) is underfunded by $1.7 billion per year. If you hear politicians say “the BEP is fully funded,” they’re lying. 2/

3. The BEP, which generates $7400 per student in state funding, is starvation funding. No school district can run on that amount. Local school districts must make up the difference- sometimes funding up to 60% of the costs. 3/

4. According to the TN Dept. of Revenue, TN’s surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion w/6 more months to go. The Sycamore institute just released an analysis demonstrating that TN will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue this cycle. 4/

5. For the month of January 2021 ALONE, the state generated a $380.1 million surplus! 5/

6. TN has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Underfunding education is a clear choice. 6/

Not only does the state refuse to invest in our schools and teachers, but the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates that already strapped local school districts must shoulder. 7/

Here’s what YOU can do to help: Share this information, and please reach out to your representatives! The Governor’s budget can be amended before the end of the legislative session, and we have a golden opportunity to make a difference! 8/

Originally tweeted by Amy Frogge (@AmyFrogge) on February 22, 2021.

Frogge is dead on, of course. Here are some sources supporting her claims:

To be clear, when legislative leaders tell folks back home they “fully funded the BEP,” they are simply saying they put the minimum required funding into the formula. What they aren’t saying is that this formula still has a $1.7 billion hole plus a $1 billion inflationary gap. It’s like saying you made the minimum payment on your credit card bill while ignoring the 40 plus years it will take to pay off the balance if you only pay the minimum each month.

MORE>

There’s also been a decade of deliberately misleading rhetoric around funding schools.

Anyway, Frogge is right. Tennessee has a huge surplus of cash. It is completely reasonable to demand that money be invested in our schools.

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Told Ya This Would Happen

Back in July, I wrote a post about a newly-created political action committee (PAC) that seemed to be formed by Tennesseans for Student Success. You may recall that Tennesseans for Student Success is the dark money group behind a serious of insidious attacks on any legislator who opposes school privatization.

So, anyway, now they have a cheerily named PAC. Team Kid PAC, they’re calling it. Here’s more from the email they sent announcing this new venture:

Our state has made historic gains in education – twice being named the fastest improving in the nation – but you and our network of parents, teachers, community leaders, and volunteers know we can do better. If we want a better future for our children, we have to elect better leaders. That’s why we formed Team Kid PAC. 

The political action committee of Tennesseans for Student Success, we will serve as the ONLY organization that can and will effectively challenge any elected official or candidate who fails to put Tennessee’s students first –regardless of their political party.

Sounds pretty great, right? I mean, they start out the email with a pretty awesome question:

Do you want to secure effective education for all Tennessee students?

I mean, who is saying no to that? Even Gov. Bill Lee claims to want to secure an effective education for all Tennessee students. Heck, the team over at SCORE often claims they want effective education despite any evidence their presence in our state (or policy advocacy) has improved anything except for their payroll.

Here’s the reality: Tennesseans for Student Success spends their time and money attacking lawmakers who stand up for public schools. If you are not on the pro-privatization train, Tennesseans for Student Success is coming after you. Now, they’ll be doing it under the auspices of Team Kid.

Here’s the other reality: Tennessee needs at least $1.7 billion to make our school funding formula adequate. Tennessee has a huge surplus with even more money on the way. Tennessee has a governor who has no plans to use the current surplus to invest in schools.

So, what’s Team Kid PAC/Tennesseans for Student Success saying about Lee’s policy agenda?

Here are some tweets from them (and a bonus from SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri, a teammate of the Team Kid PAC team):

When Lee proposed an underwhelming raise for teachers:

And here’s Mansouri, acting like a happy cheerleader after his team scores a touchdown even though they’re still down by 50 points:

Oh, and about all those so-called “impressive” gains:

So, just watch out for Team Kid PAC and their gang of seemingly happy marauders out to derail the legislative career of anyone who dares stand and fight for Tennessee’s public schools.

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Investment

Today, Democratic lawmakers at the General Assembly unveiled a series of bills designed to help increase investment in Tennessee’s public schools and address some long-standing deficiencies in the BEP formula.

The state’s bipartisan TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs – has said the formula comes up short by $1.7 billion.

Now, the state has a huge budget surplus and while Gov. Bill Lee has stubbornly refused to invest it in schools, Democrats are calling for those investments. Specifically, dramatic improvements relative to teacher compensation, increases in the number of school nurses and counselors, and other changes designed to make the most of this funding opportunity.

Here’s more from the Democrats on their plans:

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Meaningless

A new video from the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) explains why the phrase “fully funding the BEP” is meaningless.

More on School Funding

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