Take the Money and Run

If school districts don’t do what House Majority Leader William Lamberth wants, he’s going to take their money and run. Seriously. It’s actually pretty much the text of HB7021.

As introduced, the bill says that if districts fail to provide at least 70 days of in-person instruction for students in grades K-8 in the 2020-21 academic year and 180 days in the 2021-22 academic year, the Commissioner of Education may withhold all or a part of that district’s BEP funds.

I mean, I wrote a few days ago about carrots and sticks, but this is taking it a bit far.

It’s not clear to me what Lamberth hopes to accomplish by this other than forcing districts to make a decision to return to in-person learning at a time when COVID is still surging in our state.

Here’s the deal: Districts can’t take the risk they’d lose any BEP money. In fact, the BEP is inadequate (by $1.7 billion) as it is. So, it’s not like there’s tons of extra cash sitting around and districts can just ignore this ridiculous request.

While most people agree that in-person learning is the best possible climate for students, especially in grades K-8, not dying or carrying COVID home to parents is also a worthy outcome.

The bill appears designed to force districts like Memphis and Nashville, both of which have been and are still completely virtual in all grades, to return to in-person learning. In other words, Lamberth wants to overturn the will of the district leaders and school boards in these two cities (and others that have made similar moves).

It’s interesting that this bill comes even as Gov. Lee revealed his not so special legislative session legislative package last week. That package of bills includes a number of unfunded mandates. So, Lamberth is going to take money from districts that put student safety first and Lee is going to hit those same districts with a host of unfunded mandates. Makes tons of sense!

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WTF is Learning Loss?

Nashville education blogger TC Weber calls bullshit on the latest term meant to provide full employment for the edu-elite. In a post examining legislation Gov. Bill Lee wants in the upcoming special session on education, Weber lays bare the truth behind the bogus term and further exposes the dark side of the bills being considered.

Here’s how TC explains the issue:

The term “Learning Loss” is a made-up term, created primarily to retain and obtain funding.

We have no assessment that measures this hypothetical phenomenon. It is a tool utilized to prey upon the fears of parents as their children navigate unprecedented times and to make sure that companies who provide so-called student supports don’t lose money.

Kids may be learning at a slower pace, or they may be learning things differently than what current assessments measure, but they are still acquiring important knowledge and previously acquired skills are not fleeing their brains.

First of all, there is no data, historical or current, that can accurately support the supposition of a learning loss percentage. NWEA markets the MAP test, which does a fantastic job of measuring growth and proficiency. Both are very different than “learning loss”. 

Research supports the idea that as we regularly use a skill it stays at the forefront of our brain, readily called upon. If we don’t regularly engage the skill it recedes to a storage shelf in the back in order to clear space for new skills. After a couple of months or longer, of sitting on the shelf, the ability to instantly recall fades. But the skill is not lost, and depending on the length of time between usages, can be readily recalled with some refreshers. However long it takes, is shorter than the initial learning period.

Think of it this way. Back in high school you probably read the Great Gatsby. You probably reflected on it for a bit after completion, but eventually, you put it on the shelf and made room in your brain for other books. If I gave you a test today on the book’s content, you probably would not fair very well. But if I showed you a few passages, and some reviews, before testing, you’d in all likelihood fare much better. Might even say things like, “Not sure how I remember this but…”The information wasn’t lost, it was merely shelved for future recall.

READ MORE from TC about the special session on education.

More on the special session from Nashville’s Amy Frogge>

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A Word on the Special Session

Gov. Bill Lee’s “Not So Special Session” on education starts tomorrow at the Tennessee General Assembly. Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some insight into what to expect this week.

Here are her thoughts:

The Governor has called a special legislative session this week to address three administration bills. Heads up to educators, parents and friends- we need your help to reach out to legislators who will be voting on these bills!

1. Senate Bill 7001: This testing waiver/hold harmless bill would require school districts to test 80% of students in-person (with pen and paper) in exchange for exemption from the A-F district grading system, placing districts into the Achievement School District, and placing schools on the state priority list (bottom 5%). This bill would require districts to return to in-person instruction. It is unclear how this bill will effect teacher evaluations. The question to ask here is why we are even testing at all this year, during a pandemic and so much chaos. (Hint: follow the money.)

2. Senate Bill 7002 addresses “learning loss” during the pandemic. (This, by the way, is a political- not an education- term.) It would require districts to create in-person, summer mini-camps to help children who are struggling this year. While these camps could be helpful to students, the state is creating another unfunded mandate, because only $67 million will be allotted statewide for the initiative, not nearly enough for implementation. The administration also envisions paying for the camps with stockpiled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, which is likely illegal. BUT here’s the biggest concern about the “learning loss” bill: It will require districts to hold back third graders who are not deemed “proficient” in standardized testing. (Proficiency rates can be manipulated by the state through cut scores.) If you google the term “Mississippi miracle,” you will find that Mississippi used this very same trick to create the appearance of a sudden increase on NAEP test scores. Holding back low-performing third graders creates the illusion of huge one-time testing gains, and implementation of the bill would take place just in time for the 2023 NAEP tests. This is not about best serving the children of Tennessee; it’s about gaming the system. Furthermore, the costs for holding back large numbers of third graders, as mandated by this bill, would be astronomical.

3. Senate Bill 7003 would implement a phonics-based literacy program that proponents claim helped Mississippi’s test scores. In reality, holding back low-performing students caused the increase in scores, as I’ve explained above. Aside from the ruse to game NAEP scores, this bill is problematic, just like the “science of reading” literacy bill that Commissioner Schwinn pushed last year. It opens the door to more school privatization. Schwinn, a graduate of the Broad Academy, has been pushing preferred vendors and no-bid contracts (just like our former superintendent). Reducing the complex art of teaching reading to a marketable, scripted phonics curriculum allows school districts to hire cheaper, inexperienced teachers and allows for vendors to make a lot of money by control the curriculum. District should be embracing balanced literacy instead, of which phonics is just one component.

While Tennessee continues to push the narrative that schools and teachers are “failing” in order to open the door to more and more private profit, we should be instead investing in our students, schools and teachers. The state has long failed to properly fund Tennessee’s schools. This year, there is a surplus of $369 million in our rainy day fund, and the state is about to put another $250 million into that fund. We have more than enough to pay our teachers reasonable salaries and to truly address student needs through more social workers, school nurses, guidance counselors and wrap-around services.

The Governor is also expected to announce a 2% statewide teacher raise tomorrow, but beware of the spin on this promise as well. Already, the state is shorting school districts by not paying enough through BEP funds to fully cover teacher salaries. The BEP funds approximately 66,000 teachers, but according to the state’s own report, there are approximately 77,000 teachers in Tennessee. Local districts must make up for this funding shortfall. The 2%, $43 million teacher raise will only be allotted for 66,000 teachers- not all of the teachers in Tennessee, and it will be paid for through non-recurring funds, which means that local districts will cover the difference in future years. Finally, this raise amounts to $10 per week per teacher- 10 cents on the dollar– an insult to teachers. Please reach out to your representatives to share your concerns about these bills. We should particularly focus on those legislators listed in the comments below who are serving on the education committees. Although this is a quick special session, legislators are not expected to vote on these bills right away due to the MLK holiday today. You have time!

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10 Cents on the Dollar

That’s what Gov. Bill Lee is proposing for teachers in his COVID-19 package for education. This is just the latest in what has become a pattern of showing blatant disrespect for educators in his budget proposals.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) breaks down the proposal and what it will mean for educators:

“Tennessee’s educators have worked hundreds of additional hours during the fall semester to maintain instruction and keep our students engaged during this pandemic,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “The proposed $43 million in one-time teacher salary funds is far lower than what the state can afford, and far less than what educators have earned and deserve.”

TEA estimates the average educator worked more than 13 additional hours per week this fall to maintain daily instruction—virtually, in-person, or a hybrid—with a large portion of Tennessee’s educators working 20 or more additional hours. The value of the additional instruction work was approximately $5,700 per educator. The administration proposal comes to approximately $570.

The General Assembly eliminated a $117 million 4% educator raise in June, citing falling revenue due to the pandemic. Since then, the state recorded $369 million in surplus to end the last fiscal year and has collected $715 million surplus revenue in just the first five months of this fiscal year. 

“In the upcoming special session, the administration and General Assembly have an important opportunity to recognize the sacrifices made for our students and to take steps toward making educators whole for the unpaid hours we’ve worked,” Brown said. “What has been initially proposed does not do that. Appropriating $200 million — just a fifth of the surplus revenue collected since June  – would be more appropriate and still be affordable. A more significant investment will go a long way in recognizing the extraordinary effort of our state’s educators.”

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Another F

The Education Law Center recently published its annual analysis of school funding in the states. Once again, Tennessee received a grade of “F” in both funding level and funding effort. I could actually write this exact same story every single year. Tennessee doesn’t adequately fund our schools. The bipartisan group TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations – says the state is $1.7 billion behind where we need to be in funding for schools.

We also fail at funding effort – that is, we have significant untapped revenue and high dollar amounts held in reserve while our schools lack the critical resources they need to be successful.

Meanwhile, so-called education advocates like SCORE run around touting the latest new thing (this year, it’s a literacy scheme) instead of using their considerable clout and fundraising ability to push for meaningful investment in schools. Of course, the leadership over at SCORE is not hurting for cash based on their salaries.

Here’s the Education Law Center’s state-by-state breakdown on school funding:

Here’s data on funding level:

Here’s what the ELC has to say about funding level:

A state’s funding level is measured by analyzing the combined state and local revenues provided through the state school finance formula, adjusted to account for regional variations in labor market costs.

A state’s funding level grade is determined by ranking its position relative to other states; the grade does not measure whether a state meets any particular threshold of funding level based on the actual cost of education resources necessary to achieve state or national academic standards

Here’s information on funding effort:

Here’s what ELC has to say about funding effort:

Depending on a state’s overall wealth, every tenth of a percent (0.1%) of state GDP invested in PK-12 public education can have a big impact. For example, that figure is $33 million in Vermont – the nation’s smallest economy – and up to $3 billion in California – the nation’s largest. Figure 3 juxtaposes a state’s relative effort (compared to the national average) with its per capita GDP to contextualize how the effort index interacts with the state’s relative wealth to produce high or low funding levels.

So, here’s the deal: Tennessee has the resources to make meaningful investments in our schools. Our leaders are choosing not to. Year after year after year. Policymakers run for office making all sorts of promises about investing in schools, and fail to deliver. Of course, in the case of Bill Lee, he promised to privatize our schools and he’s attempting at every turn to deliver on that promise.

Tennessee isn’t adequately funding schools, and despite political rhetoric to the contrary, our leaders aren’t trying. At all. Ever.

So, when your local representative or senator comes to an event and tells you they support your schools, you can tell them the truth. Their actions suggest otherwise.

The ELC Report Card tells the real story.

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A Tale of Two Bills

House Speaker Cameron Sexton has named Laurie Cardoza-Moore as his appointment to the state Textbook Commission. In addition to being virulently anti-Muslim, Moore also encouraged participation in an insurrection.

Here’s what’s interesting. Back in 2013, Betsy Phillips wrote in the Nashville Scene about then-Gov. Bill Haslam’s weak response to Moore’s constant badgering regarding the selection of state textbooks.

Here’s a bit of what Phillips had to say:

So, surely, Governor Haslam will take a stand against this, right? He’ll look at the people like Cardoza-Moore who want more say in our textbooks and he’ll say “Thanks, but no thanks,” right? I mean, he cannot possibly limp-noodle his way out of this.

“I think some laypeople on it would be fine,” Haslam said. “The important thing is to have people who truly are committed to the idea that in Tennessee, every child can learn.”

Fast forward to 2020-21, and the new guy named Bill who is governor can’t seem to be bothered to say much of anything about Laurie Cardoza-Moore, either.

Here’s more from Phillips, though:

As you may recall, Cardoza-Moore is behind the opposition to the Murfreesboro mosque. Not content to rail against imaginary dangers from Middle Tennessee Muslims, she’s now spearheading the effort to rid our textbooks of secret bias.

So, here we are in 2021 – well into being a state governed by rich Republicans with inherited fortunes who go by the name of Bill. And, apparently, it’s still politically acceptable to coddle religious bigots – even when those oppressors actively encourage insurrectionist activity. Progress, indeed, comes slowly.

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Carrots and Sticks

Even as Tennessee’s COVID-19 numbers continue to surge, some leading lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee are considering using the state’s funding formula (BEP) to create incentives for districts to return to in-person learning sooner rather than later.

The Tennessee Lookout reports on House Education Committee Chair Mark White’s remarks regarding the creation of a “carrot-and-stick” system designed to push districts to send students back to school buildings.

“I think there will be some type of carrot-and-stick incentive to get students back in the classroom as quick as you can or at least a hybrid form of that if you’re not successful,” White said.

It’s not clear how such an incentive plan would work in practice. However, it could be as simple as providing additional BEP dollars to districts who make a commitment to in-person learning and actually bring students back to classrooms.

While some lawmakers are discussing legislation that would allow districts to maintain current BEP funding levels (a sort of hold harmless in light of students lost to alternative programs during the pandemic), there has not been serious discussion of BEP funding improvements.

A bipartisan state task force recently noted that Tennessee schools suffer from a $1.7 billion funding deficit due to the inadequacy of the BEP. In fact, a state court is scheduled to take up the issue of school funding in October of this year.

Tennessee’s schools have historically been underfunded, and currently sit at 45th in the nation in overall school funding. A national group that rates states on funding effort when compared with funding ability gives Tennessee an “F” in funding effort.

White has chaired the education committee for several years now and Lee is now entering his third budget cycle as Governor. Neither has made any serious effort to improve investment in our state’s public schools. Instead, both have relentlessly focused on a privatization agenda including pushing voucher schemes.

While Lee is seeking a new voucher program thanks to funding provided by the federal CARES Act, there is zero indication he will be pushing for the long-term, systemic changes to the BEP that would correct years of underfunding.

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Voucher Vultures Face FBI Raid

Former House Speaker Glen Casada and other members of the House GOP as well as some staffers woke this morning to FBI agents searching their homes and offices. The raid appears to be targeting those involved in a plot to pass Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme during the 2019 legislative session. That scheme has since been ruled unconstitutional by Tennessee courts.

Nashville’s NewsChannel5 has more:

FBI agents raided the homes of former Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada and other Republican allies early Friday morning, as well as their legislative offices, as part of an unspecified probe into possible public corruption.

Sources tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that searches were also executed at the homes of Robin Smith and newly elected Rep. Todd Warner, R-Lewisburg.

NewsChannel 5 also spotted FBI agents outside the homes of former Casada aides Cade Cothren and Holt Whitt. Agents were seen carrying evidence out of Cothren’s downtown Nashville apartment.

The raid comes just days before Gov. Bill Lee’s planned special session on education issues.

Tennessee Republicans have been trying for years to direct public dollars to private schools through a variety of voucher schemes. They narrowly succeeded (by a single vote) in 2019 when then-Speaker Casada held the vote on the voucher bill open for more than 30 minutes while he and top aides negotiated with legislators.

The subsequent FBI investigation into the vote and today’s raid suggest those negotiations went beyond typical legislative horse trading and into potentially illegal territory.

In typical fashion, Gov. Bill Lee said today he has no knowledge of the subject of the raid and that he trusts the current House Speaker, Cameron Sexton, to handle the situation with his members. Apparently, the buck never stops with Lee.

Lee has vowed to continue pursuit of a voucher scheme and his team continues to press their case in the courts. Certainly, today’s events may give pause to some potential supporters of the ill-advised program.

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State’s Poor Pandemic Response Takes Toll on Teachers

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) today released the results of a statewide survey of teachers regarding the experience of teaching during the pandemic. According to the report, 74% of teachers rated the state’s handling of the issues surrounding schools and COVID-19 as “poor.”

The findings should come as no surprise as Governor Bill Lee continues to pursue a privatization agenda while failing to actually do much of anything about the spiking COVID cases.

Here’s the full press release from the TEA:

As students and educators begin the Spring semester, a statewide Tennessee Education Association survey of educators reveals just how difficult and time-consuming the fall semester was on educators across the state. Public school educators are struggling under tough teaching conditions of the pandemic, working longer hours with little training or support—often with inadequately supplied classrooms—and enduring the daily threat and reality of infection.

“Tennessee public school educators have been staying strong for months, taking the challenges of teaching in a pandemic head-on,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Our educators need more support and resources as they begin what will certainly be another difficult semester. As the survey showed, most public school staff are working longer hours with daily disruptions and changing tasks, but with little guidance, support or tangible encouragement from the state. The state must do more to assist with the burdens of teaching in a pandemic.”

In December, more than 7,000 teachers, education support professionals, administrators and certified personnel participated in the confidential TEA survey on education working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. An overwhelming majority of those polled said their work is more or much more difficult than in past years.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • Eighty-four percent of teachers, 78% of administrators and 67% of certified professionals said they are working more hours than in the past.
  • The average Tennessee educator worked an additional 235 hours during the fall semester to overcome pandemic disruptions and maintain quality instruction.  
  • The concern of infection and the disruptions in teaching caused by the pandemic are taking a psychological toll on educators, with 84% reporting a negative emotional impact and half reporting being strongly impacted.
  • An overwhelming 91% of educators teaching virtually said they have been given new assignments and responsibilities that differ from their training and professional practices.

Additionally, a growing number of educators are being diagnosed with COVID-19. The rate of reported infections in the survey match TEA tracking data which shows educators having significantly higher infection rates than the general population and in the communities they serve. TEA estimates more than 16,000 public school educators have contracted the virus since July.  

“Educators are front-line personnel in this pandemic. From the stress of taking care of students and overcoming the disruptions the virus causes, to dealing with the anxiety of being infected and bringing it home to family and loved ones, these past months have been exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Brown said.   

While educators are critical of school districts’ response to the pandemic, the harshest criticism is leveled at the state government’s response, with 74% of respondents rating the state response poor.

“Our school districts have been left with insufficient guidance from the state, from how to slow infections or when to close schools to providing resources that assist with overcoming disruptions. The survey shows the high level of frustration with state leadership,” Brown said. “We’re 10 months into the pandemic, and one-third of teachers are still less than adequately supplied with personal protective equipment and cleaning materials. Most educators have once again dipped into their own pockets to purchase all the necessary supplies for their classrooms, and there is no excuse for that.”

“The survey confirms that we’ve worked more hours under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, going above and beyond for our students. The administration and legislature must acknowledge the sacrifices we’ve been making and take concrete steps to give us the support and recognition we have earned,” Brown said. 

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MicroVouchers

The pursuit of privatization never ends with Gov. Bill Lee. Remember those CARES Act funds the governor and his team were NOT spending? Well, it turns out they now have a plan for those funds – a reading initiative that includes a voucher scheme.

Here’s more from The Center Square:

The new initiative, Reading 360, will provide an array of supports to districts, teachers and families, including opt-in training and coaching in literacy instruction for teachers, regional networks focused on literacy and an online platform for video lessons for teachers and families at home.

The initiative also will fund more than 13,000 microgrants for literacy tutoring for students and families.

Who will provide this tutoring?

The likely answer: Private providers profiting from taxpayer funds intended to help schools address the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key supporters of Lee’s misguided literacy initiative that includes this voucher scheme are long-time public school antagonists Sen. Brian Kelsey and Rep. Mark White.

Not only has Lee failed our state on COVID-19, he’s also using the pandemic as an opportunity to direct dollars to privatizers.

More on Bill Lee, COVID-19, and the Privatization Pandemic:

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