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.

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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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Like Grasshoppers

A public school advocacy group in Ohio has taken notice of the rampant spread of school vouchers across the country and the role Tennessee is playing in the privatization game.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ voucher appeal. In 2019 a trial judge declared the Tennessee Voucher law unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision. Now the pro-voucher crowd has been successful in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case.


Vouchers are spreading across the nation like the Kansas Grasshopper Plague of 1874. (The insects ate all the crops, even wool off the back of sheep). Vouchers eat up the funds of public school districts.

It’s really no surprise that a guy who sent out a Christmas card lauding the success of his voucher appeal would be this persistent in pursuit of privatization.

And of course, Gov. Bill Lee has been a long-time supporter of vouchers and a long-time skeptic of public schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Lee has consistently and publicly supported voucher schemes. That’s why I’m puzzled when I hear some local elected officials express support for both Bill Lee and public schools – it would seem the two are mutually exclusive.

Bill Lee renewed his commitment to fast-tracking the privatization of public schools in a speech in Jackson where he laid out his policy goals for 2020. Lee doubled-down on support of a voucher scheme that is dividing the state Republican Party. 

Lee has also been an advocate of silencing school boards, embracing a proposal by former state Rep. Jeremy Durham that would allow County Commissions to override board decisions when it comes to advocacy.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

That’s why I remain shocked that some board members and other elected officials express surprise at Lee’s refusal to invest in public schools even when the state is swimming in cash.

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

Dear public school supporters: Bill Lee is not your friend. He has never been your friend. He will not be your friend in some magical future world.

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Over a Billion

The surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion with six more months to go, according to figures released by the Tennessee Department of Revenue. This announcement comes as the Sycamore Institute recently released an analysis demonstrating that lawmakers will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue with which to budget in the current cycle.

The figures for January indicated revenue coming in at $380 million above projections. This prompted TEA President Beth Brown to point out that the January surplus alone is three times what Gov. Lee has proposed investing in teacher pay this year.

https://twitter.com/TEA_teachers/status/1360380933648572416?s=20

Lee has shown no indication he plans to make any bold or meaningful investment in public schools, instead preferring to maintain the status quo of an underfunded school system.

The last decade has seen Tennessee’s Republican leadership consistently demonstrate that public schools are not a funding priority.

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.

This figure would come close to filling the $1.7 billion gap in the current BEP funding formula.

As Brown notes, with the surplus this year and projected revenue for the FY 2022 budget, Tennessee could easily fill that gap.

I want to point this out ONE MORE TIME: We can add at least $2 billion to our investment in schools and do so without raising anyone’s taxes. In fact, doing so would likely help keep local property taxes down for some time to come.

So, the question remains: Does Gov. Bill Lee want to invest in Tennessee’s public schools? Does the Tennessee General Assembly want to use this special opportunity to right the wrongs of the last decade of underfunding? Do our policymakers want us to remain 46th in school funding or do they want the reality to match their rhetoric? Will they show that students matter and that our communities deserve excellent schools?

This is like pushing the “easy button.” No new taxes, a big investment in schools, making Tennessee a place where public education is a top priority – all without raising taxes one cent.

If the current leadership won’t fund public schools under these conditions, they never will.

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Underwhelming

Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address tonight and surprising exactly no one, he failed to make bold new investments in public education in spite of a record surplus in excess of $3 billion.

Instead, Lee proposed continuing to “fully fund” the wholly inadequate BEP formula to the tune of an additional $71 million and add $120 million to the teacher compensation component of the BEP. That’s essentially a 4% increase in the BEP allocation NOT a 4% raise in actual teacher compensation.

To be clear, the state needs $1.7 billion to adequately fund the BEP and Lee is proposing adding $71 million. If you add the teacher compensation element to this, you get $191 million. Or, roughly 10 percent of what is actually needed.

Here’s what Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown had to say regarding Lee’s proposal:

Gov. Lee’s proposed increases for public education is not enough to meet current needs and falls far short of what was possible with record state revenue surpluses and collections. Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation on funding per pupil, only ahead of Mississippi and well behind Alabama, Arkansas, and every other southern state. Nothing the governor outlined in his budget changes this intolerable fact. 

Long before the pandemic hit our state, our public schools were already suffering under a plague of chronic underfunding. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children for Gov. Lee to continue this 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.     

TEA understands the budget as outlined may not be the same at final passage. As record surpluses continue, TEA will work to see the current budget for K-12 increased.

A significant increase in public education funding could address many challenges plaguing our schools, including not having enough fulltime nurses and counselors, unstaffed libraries with outdated resources, inequities and gaps in technology, and a diminishing talent pool of qualified educators due to low salaries and long hours.  

The Lee administration has an extra $3 billion to budget. There has never been a better time to make the necessary investment for Tennessee students, educators and schools.

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Pitiful

That’s how Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown described the state of education funding in Tennessee.

The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reports on Brown’s remarks, which come just as Gov. Bill Lee prepares to deliver his State of the State address tonight.

Brown notes:

“Our funding is so low the only neighboring state we beat is Mississippi,” wrote Brown, a Grundy County teacher. “To meet Kentucky’s per student investment, the state would need $2.6 billion; to match Arkansas, the increase would be $860 million; and to be on par with Alabama would require $560 million this year alone.”

Brown’s criticism of the state’s poor track record of investment is noteworthy as the state now sits on a $3.1 billion surplus due to better than expected revenue flow during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Brown says the state can do more, the Tennessee House Republican Caucus is bragging about what are rather dismal numbers over the past 10 years.

Last year, Lee proposed a 4% increase the BEP allocation for teacher pay, but then cancelled that planned raise when the pandemic hit.

Even the state’s own bipartisan group of policymakers assigned to the task of assessing government policy as it impacts state and local issues suggests we need big, new investment in schools in order to adequately fund the BEP:

Still, I’ve yet to hear anyone in the state’s legislative leadership call for bold, new investments in public schools. Yes, a bipartisan group of policymakers has suggested that our school funding formula – the BEP – needs $1.7 billion just to be adequate. Still, Gov. Bill Lee has not come out and mentioned that he’ll be proposing using these surplus dollars to fund schools.

Tune-in tonight and see whether Lee makes any attempt at meeting this challenge.

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Do We Really Have to Do This?

I mean, really? The Tennessee House Republican Caucus sent out a tweet today bragging about the amount of money the state has invested in teacher pay over the past decade.

Here it is:

I’m not even sure where to start. Well, actually, I am.

  1. $616.5 million sounds great, and it’s neat to aggregate data over a decade, but that BIG number averages out to about $62 million per year. That’s about a 2% increase in the BEP salary allocation (not actual money in paychecks) each year. Calm down a little, already.
  2. Did I mention that $616.5 million might sound great? So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.
  3. A bipartisan group of policymakers reports that we need $1.7 billion in a SINGLE year in order to adequately fund the BEP. That’s because the BEP badly underestimates the number of teachers actually needed to staff schools. Of course, the BEP also fails to take into account proper ratios for school nurses or school counselors. The BEP is pretty much broken, and has been for some time.
  4. It was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who stopped the BEP 2.0 formula that was an attempt to correct and improve the BEP allocation.
  5. Remember that time when Gov. Haslam got all excited about our NAEP scores and promised a big raise to teachers and then cancelled the raise? Remember how after he cancelled the raise, revenue numbers came in at a level that meant the raise really could have been funded? Good times.
  6. Oh, yeah. School districts fund significantly more teachers than the BEP allocates. Yes, this has been a known problem for some time. Yes, the GOP has been running most of state government for over a decade. No, they haven’t done anything to fix it.
  7. There was also that time when the Haslam Department of Education called on the State Board of Education to give local districts flexibility with BEP salary money. Essentially, this created a situation where the 4% BEP salary allocation increase became a 2% (or less) raise.
  8. Remember the time when Gov. Bill Lee gave a big increase in state funding to charter schools and a tiny raise to teachers? Wonder if teachers remember that? I bet that makes them feel really appreciated.
  9. Remember the year when Gov. Lee became the second governor in a row named Bill to promise teachers a big raise and then cancel it when things got tough? Because, yeah, that was 2020. How’d that tough budget Lee was worried about turn out? Oh, right, that’s the one with the $3.1 billion surplus.
  10. Finally, in the recently concluded special session, Gov. Lee proposed and his legislative leadership secured passage of legislation giving teachers a 10 cents on the dollar COVID raise. That’s right, in a year when there’s plenty of cash and teachers are working more and harder than ever, Gov. Lee is placing the value of teachers at 10 cents on the dollar.
  11. Oh, and yes, Tennessee consistently receives a grade of “F” in both school funding and school funding effort from national groups who analyze state level investment in schools.

So, try again TN House GOP tweeter. Maybe next time, do some math and take a look at the archives.

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Money Storm

It’s raining money in Tennessee as recently-released projections suggest state policymakers could have as much as $3.1 billion EXTRA to allocate when they return for the regular legislative session next week.

This is, of course, a very good position. However, it’s not at all clear the state will allocate those resources into meaningful investments that improve the quality of life in Tennessee.

Take the action on teacher compensation during the special session as an example. Despite early reports that revenue would be higher than anticipated, Gov. Bill Lee’s teacher pay adjustment amounted to roughly 10 cents on the dollar compared to the extra work teachers have been doing during the pandemic. There was little meaningful investment in public schools at all, really.

In case you’re curious about how we got to a place where we have $3.1 billion extra to spend, the Sycamore Institute breaks it down.

In late March 2020, consumer spending in Tennessee dropped 27% below January levels – compared to 32% nationally. Soon after, the state received billions in federal aid designed to provide economic relief to citizens, businesses, and health care providers. After federal stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits began in mid-April, Tennessee’s consumer spending rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels, while spending nationwide remained down by about 16%. (1) (2) Meanwhile, prior changes to state law took effect in July 2020 that led the state to collect sales tax on more internet purchases.

Here’s the breakdown of the extra cash:

Compared to the current budget, the governor and state lawmakers may have about $3.1 billion in additional General Fund revenue† to allocate this session (Figure 3). Based on the upper end of the annual Funding Board ranges, this includes:

$476 million (non-recurring) from the FY 2020 surplus (8)

$1.1 billion (non-recurring) from projected FY 2021 collections above official budgeted estimates (4)

$1.5 billion (recurring) from the increased FY 2021 base plus projected FY 2022 growth (4)

It’s worth noting here that TACIR – a bipartisan group of policymakers that studies and reports on government activity in the state – reports that Tennessee needs $1.7 billion to adequately fund the BEP.

So, good news! We can afford to make a significant investment that closes this funding gap. I look forward to Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State next week where he announces that based on these new numbers, he’s making a record-setting investment in public schools and plans to do so throughout the remainder of his term.

But, who am I kidding? Gov. Lee isn’t going to do that. Heck, Lt. Gov. McNally has already talked about finding new ways to offer more tax cuts rather than making new investments.

Tennessee has tried a lot of experiments when it comes to our public schools. One thing we haven’t tried, though, is really investing in them.

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Make Believe

The land of make believe is apparently where Gov. Bill Lee and his team go to find justification for their bad public policy. WMC-TV out of Memphis has the story about how the Lee Administration is using old data from a study based on projections to justify a demand that schools return to in-person learning.

Here’s more:

Despite new data suggesting COVID-19 learning loss wasn’t as severe as predicted, state leaders continue to use old data, which some have called misleading, to pressure school districts like Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person classes.

The ACTUAL data from students suggests any “loss” of ground due to the pandemic is relatively minimal. Lending credence to claims made by Nashville blogger TC Weber and others that the entire concept of “learning loss” is pretty much ridiculous.

For example:

Shelby County Schools also released its own data in November, showing that while learning loss did occur in reading and math, it wasn’t as bad as predicted.

For instance, 28% of students placed below grade level in reading compared to 27% historically.

In math, 29% of students placed below grade level compared to 23% historically.

Despite the newer data, the governor and his administration continue to use projections from the April NWEA study to pressure school districts like SCS to reopen to in-person classes.

Calling out hypocrisy

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray noted that while calling for students to return to in-person learning, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn appeared via video to legislators:

“Watching state leaders call for in-person learning on the state legislature’s virtual video meeting today sends a mixed and hypocritical message. We invite state leaders to step away from privileged podiums and try to understand the many concerns of our students, parents, and teachers,” Ray said.

Whether it is Bill Haslam’s Commissioner of Education telling tales about TNReady or Bill Lee’s Commissioner appearing virtually using make believe data to push for in-person learning, Tennessee’s recent history indicates education policy is made independent of actual facts.

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I Don’t Even Have a Headline

So, the General Assembly has passed a bill essentially creating mandatory retention for third grade students who fail to meet certain benchmarks on TNReady tests.

Here’s the key text from HB 7004, that passed overwhelmingly in both chambers:

(1) Beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, a student in the third
grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is
determined to be proficient in English language arts (ELA) based on the student’s achieving a performance level rating of “on track” or “mastered” on the ELA portion of the student’s most recent Tennessee comprehensive assessment program (TCAP) test.

The bill outlines a series of potential ways a student may ultimately be promoted even if they fall into this category. Attending a summer “mini-camp,” for example.

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

Of course, there is the “Mississippi Miracle.”

There’s a lot to read in that article by Paul Thomas, but here are some key points regarding third grade retention:

But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)

Thomas adds:

This last concern means that significant numbers of students in states with 3rd-grade retention based on reading achievement and test scores are biologically 5th-graders being held to 4th-grade proficiency levels. Grade retention is not only correlated with many negative outcomes (dropping out, for example), but also likely associated with “false positives” on testing; as well, most states seeing bumps in 4th-grade test scores also show that those gains disappear by middle and high school.

So, we’ve adopted as the official policy of the state of Tennessee a policy that Mississippi used to create a mirage of educational improvement while changing precious little in terms of actual investment in kids.

It seems Tennessee policymakers are once again looking for some sort of “fastest improving” press release instead of looking for meaningful policy change.

Oh, and here’s another interesting note. The test being used to determine retention is the TNReady test. Yes, that one. Yes, THAT one.

While the tests were ultimately suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are currently envisioned as being delivered on pencil-and-paper, the goal is to return to online testing. However, that return is fraught with potential problems. Not least of which is the fact that our state has had some . . . uh, trouble, with administering an online test.

Here’s how one national expert described Tennessee’s experience with online testing:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Of course, those third graders also need to watch out for hackers and dump trucks, because we all know those two things can really foul up a test!

Here’s Sen. Yarbro explaining the problems with this bill:

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