A “Moral Obligation” to Fund Schools

An advocacy group calls on the Tennessee General Assembly to properly fund the state’s schools.

From NewsBreak:

A group of Tennessee pastors affiliated with the Southern Christian Coalition is calling on the Tennessee General Assembly to take steps to fully fund public schools in the state.

The group notes that public education is one piece of what they call a “moral agenda” for state policy.

Rev. Jason Mikel, pastor of Jenkins Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Nolensville, issued a statement on behalf of the group. In it, he noted that public education makes Tennessee communities stronger.

“No matter where our children live, the color of their skin, their social situation, or anything else, every child deserves access to a high quality education in their local public school,” Mikel said. “Our communities are healthier and our communities are stronger when public schools are allocated the resources they need to fulfill their calling. Yet our state ranks nearly last in financial funding for students, teachers, and schools. And it is that way because of the continuing decisions of our state leaders. Governor Lee and our Supermajority Legislature fuel divisions for the purpose of removing resources from our schools. They demonize teachers and librarians. (And who goes after librarians?) Yet they vie for control of our state’s classrooms by unnecessarily burdening our educators with their political posturing. 

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State’s Negligence Puts Millions in Federal Funding for Schools At Risk

Newschannel 9 in Chattanooga has the story of how the Tennessee Department of Education’s lack of proper documentation and inappropriate spending could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for schools.

$328 million in school money could soon be lost, after a federal report says the state used the money inappropriately or didn’t provide documentation.

The money is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and is designed to support migrant education, low income community schools and special education.

What’s most shocking about this story is that the state was first advised of issues with how it tracks and spends these federal dollars back in 2018. Then, they were warned again in 2021.

Now, they are under a tight deadline to demonstrate they can accurately track and account for this federal money. If they don’t, the cash will stop flowing – leaving school districts with less money on which to operate.

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NAEP Notes

A Teacher Shortage Warning

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That’s a Lot

Tennessee continues to experience record revenue surpluses while also continuing a trend of badly underfunding public schools. Based on projections, it seems the state invested around one fourth of this year’s surplus toward public education as part of the TISA school funding overhaul.

That’s nice, sure. But TISA is deeply flawed AND the state is underfunding schools by around $2 billion a year. Gov. Lee’s plan barely makes up half of that shortfall.

The Sycamore Institute has an update today on the current state of Tennessee’s revenue picture. In an email, they note:

With two months left to count, Tennessee collected about $3.7 billion (28%) more tax revenue than lawmakers initially budgeted for this point in the fiscal year.

That’s remarkable. Perhaps even more remarkable is the lack of commitment to use these funds to dramatically improve school funding in a state that ranks among the lowest in the nation in school funding. In fact, even after TISA, projections suggest Tennessee will still be in the bottom 10 nationally when it comes to K-12 school funding.

Of course, this lack of commitment to school funding is nothing new:

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TISA: What’s it All About?

The Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Lee’s school funding reform plan this past legislative session. The new scheme, TISA, will take effect in the 2023-24 school year.

What does TISA mean for local school districts? How will it impact the schools in your district?

A group known as “Tennessee for All” is holding a virtual forum on June 16th to explore these questions.

Here’s what they have to say about TISA:

Whether we’re from Nashville or Kingsport, we all want our kids to have a great education. And yet, while our state government hands out millions of dollars to corporations and sits on billions in reserves, this new education plan locks in underfunding for nearly every school. It picks winners and losers, forcing some counties to pay higher property taxes to close the funding gap.

In short, they’re not fans. However, the forum will be a great opportunity to learn more about just how TISA impacts funding.

Here’s more background on the reality of TISA:

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Sumner County Proposes Big Raises for Teachers, Staff

At a budget workshop last night, the Sumner County School Board heard a proposal from Director of Schools Dr. Del Phillips that would result in significant pay raises for the system’s teachers and support staff.

The move comes as Sumner County is attempting to be competitive in the Middle Tennessee market. It marks the second time in the past four years that the district’s teachers have seen a raise of at least $4000 to their base pay.

This year’s proposed raises, to be voted on by the School Board next week (May 17th) and the County Commission in June, include:

Step raises for all teachers plus a $4000 increase to the base for each step. Step raises range from 1-2% of pay.

Step raises (2%) plus $1 an hour for all hourly employees.

An average increase of $7/hour for bus drivers and an increase in bus driver starting pay from $12.12 an hour to $18/hour.

An increase in pay for substitute teachers from $51 to $75/day for non-degreed subs, from $75 to $100 for degreed subs, and from $100 to $125 for certified subs.

Sumner’s proposed pay increase comes a year after Metro Nashville significantly increased teacher pay and just months after Williamson County implemented a mid-year pay raise.

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But is it Adequate?

Gov. Bill Lee’s signature education funding reform initiative passed today even as concerns have been raised that the plan will do little to fundamentally alter the status quo for school districts in a state consistently ranked 45th in the nation in school funding.

In response to the legislation, advocates with the Southern Christian Coalition suggested the plan does not meet its stated goals and even noted analysis suggesting the formula will mean a smaller percentage of state funds for 91 school districts (roughly 2/3).

“I call on our Legislature to adequately fund our public schools, and to invest in and care for the children of Tennessee, knowing that they are each made in the image of God,” said Rev. Laura Becker, Pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, and mother of one current student and one graduate of Hamilton County Schools. “All Tennessee students deserve the right to high quality and fully funded education that prepares them to achieve their full potential and successfully contribute to our communities and to our state. Unfortunately, Governor Lee’s proposed education funding plan called TISA doesn’t provide the funding necessary to address our teacher shortage, ensure students with special needs get the care they need, or ensure that every school has the resources they need to provide every child a quality education, so I call for a more just and equitable funding program.”

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An in-depth analysis of the reality of TISA funding also shows the plan comes up short in key areas – most notably hiring teachers and teacher compensation. Without significant investment on both fronts, it is unlikely the plan will move the needle relative to the stated goal of improved student achievement outcomes.

Districts get a lower percentage of state funds. The teacher shortage persists. Local property taxes will likely go up. That’s the TISA reality.

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Groups Speak Out on School Library Censorship

A group of Tennessee parents and public school students gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol this morning to express opposition to legislation that would effectively ban books from public school libraries by creating an “approved book list” developed by the Tennessee Textbook Commission.

At the event, Williamson County High School student Lindsay Hornick spoke about the importance of having a wide range of books in public school libraries.

Hornick said, ” Books allow us to learn about the world through a variety of lenses and create our own opinions on controversial topics. They teach us about the past in ways that explore the truth. No matter how difficult it may be to hear, the documented past allows us to learn and grow. It allows us to prevent tragedies from repeating.”

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The South is Low – TN is Lower

The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) is out with a report on teacher compensation across the region. Not surprisingly, teacher compensation in the South is about 16% below the national average. Of course, Tennessee teacher compensation lags behind even the average in our region. We are low in a region that is low.

Not only is Tennessee behind other states when it comes to compensation, but Tennessee also has the lowest annual pension benefit for retired teachers. So, we pay teachers at a rate that is somewhat below average and in retirement, our teachers earn less than all their counterparts in our neighboring states.

The average pension in Tennessee is $29,000 while in the region it is $39,000.

SREB actually recommends an overhaul of retirement systems to support a more portable retirement plan. That said, it’s not exactly encouraging to teachers when they see both low pay and relatively low benefits.

As SREB notes:

Higher salaries alone can’t address teacher shortages
— but they can help. Many SREB states have work to do to catch
up with regional and national averages.

And as it relates to retirement:

Retirement should pay better. Most professionals don’t stay in one career anymore.
States can save money and help teachers build more retirement savings through optional portable investment plans. States should bring teachers to the table to build new options.

Of course, this news is important as our state faces a growing teacher shortage crisis.

If only our state had a huge budget surplus AND a pending redesign of the school funding formula. It would seem a perfect opportunity to hire more teachers, provide them with excellent compensation, and give them the tools for a secure retirement.

Unfortunately, Gov. Bill Lee’s TISA plan does none of those things.

Here’s how we know this plan won’t boost student achievement. First, it does nothing to shore up the shortage of teachers needed to adequately support students now. That is, according to both TACIR and the Comptroller, Tennessee districts hire MORE teachers (11,000 more, to be exact) than the current formula funds. Guess what? TISA does nothing to change that. There is no indication that the weights will mean more teachers hired and supported by state funding.

Next, TISA does nothing to boost overall teacher pay. Sure, TISA “allows” lawmakers to earmark certain funds to give raises to “existing” teachers, but that doesn’t mean they will. Nor does it mean those raises will be significant. This year’s $125 million set aside for teacher compensation will mean what is effectively a 2-3% raise for most teachers. Based on current inflation rates and rising insurance premiums, this essentially amounts to a pay cut.

When it is time for evaluating organizations to release reports on school funding and teacher compensation, it’s best to start at the bottom of the list if you want to find Tennessee.

Bill Lee has done nothing to change that so far as Governor and his new funding plan continues to leave us as among the lowest of the low.

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Initially Encouraging

The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) issued a press release today on the heels of Gov. Bill Lee announcing his proposed new funding formula for schools. The gist is that NPEF is encouraged by the transparency and potential overall funding boost. There are, however, questions about accountability elements and an incentive fund.

Here’s the full press release from NPEF:

The long-awaited announcement of a new student-based funding formula in the state of Tennessee is being applauded by the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) for its focus on students’ needs and its transparent and simplified structure.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) Commissioner Penny Schwinn shared proposed legislation for the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement formula (TISA) today.

“The Governor pledged to put students first with his new proposal and we believe he has done that,” said Katie Cour, President and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation. “The new formula provides additional funding for economically disadvantaged students as well as students with unique learning needs, neither of which were adequately addressed under the former funding formula.”

Though overall, NPEF is encouraged by the Governor’s plan, a few aspects of the formula deserve greater clarity for Nashvillians in particular. Specifically, it is unclear how much additional weight English Learners will receive under the new plan. Nashville is home to the state’s largest EL population and research shows that these students need a substantially larger investment to support their success.

Under the proposal, districts with low-performing schools could face corrective actions that have not yet been detailed. While NPEF supports accountability structures that reinforce student and school success, the new plan moves some accountability decisions from the TDOE to an ad hoc legislative committee. NPEF will be monitoring the effectiveness of this accountability shift.

“The new formula is significantly more transparent than the complex and onerous BEP,” said Cour. “While we applaud this transparency, we are uncertain how the plan’s shift in accountability will play out. We will continue to monitor any potential impacts of changes to accountability on Nashville’s governance structure.” NPEF has consistently advocated for an overhaul of the state’s education funding formula and stressed the needs for 1) significantly increasing the percent of GDP that Tennessee invests in K-12 education; 2) making any increase permanent and recurring; 3) ensuring any new formula specifically addresses fiscal capacity of Tennessee municipalities; 4) designing a student-based funding formula that allocates funding based on the needs of individual students; and 5) establishing clear transparency around policy governance and decision making. NPEF proudly served as a contributing member of the Education Foundations Subcommittee for the TDOE-led funding review process.

Seeking to engage Nashvillians with essential data to make informed demands and decisions, last year NPEF released an informational Policy Brief outlining the complexities, challenges, inadequacies, and consequences of Tennessee’s current Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula for schools. Titled “Funding Our Schools: How Tennessee’s Funding Formula Fails to Meet the Needs of Nashville’s Students,” the brief encouraged Tennessee to fully adopt the recommendations of its own BEP Review Committee and called on the community to advocate for increased funding for the state’s schools.

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Exceptionally Bad

Gov. Bill Lee made clear in his State of the State that he is a proponent of an alternative history known as “American exceptionalism.”

This theory is grounded in a sort of American evangelicalism – and certainly has strong ties to far-right Christian movements. To advance his “exceptionalism agenda” Lee has announced a partnership with conservative Hillsdale College – a private, Christian school in Michigan. Yes, Tennessee is such a great example of exceptionalism that we have to turn to a private college from Michigan to “properly” teach history.

Here’s a note on that from Lee’s speech:

Two years ago, I traveled to Hillsdale College to participate in a Presidents Day celebration and spend time with champions of American exceptionalism.

For decades, Hillsdale College has been the standard bearer in quality curriculum and the responsibility of preserving American liberty.

I believe their efforts are a good fit for Tennessee, and we are formalizing a partnership with Hillsdale to expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education.

WPLN reports that public education advocates are raising concerns about the transfer of Tennessee tax dollars to a private, religious institution:

Lee has made a deal with a conservative college to open about 50 charter schools in the state.

Lee has made a deal with Hillsdale College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Michigan, to bring their civic education and K-12 curriculum to Tennessee.

Beth Brown, the [Tennessee Education] association’s president, says there is no need to bring in outsiders to implement a new curriculum or to set aside $32 million for new charter schools, a key element in the proposal.

“The concern is that we’re taking taxpayer dollars and we’re going to take those taxpayer dollars away from our public schools and give them to private entities,” said Brown.

It’s noteworthy, too, that Lee cited Ronald Reagan in his address:

I recently watched President Reagan’s farewell address, made just before he left office in January of 1989.

As many other Presidents have done, his farewell address includes a warning to the American people.

He reminds us that what we want to have in this country is “informed patriotism.”

Lee claims that he has been inspired by Reagan’s words. This inspiration is ostensibly the impetus for the focus on an American exceptionalism curriculum from Hillsdale College.

Of course, Reagan is no stranger to efforts to dismantle public education and turn schools over to those on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

In fact, a June piece in the San Francisco Chronicle by education journalists Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider point out that today’s privatization movement has roots in Reaganism:

This crusade against public higher education eerily presaged today’s school culture wars. Where Reagan made a target of ethnic studies and tried to keep Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party, from teaching philosophy at UCLA, today’s bogeyman is critical race theory or CRT — a legal theory that has become a vague catchall for grievances of the sort that Reagan weaponized so effectively. To date, laws aimed at restricting how public school teachers talk about race and racism have been proposed in 22 states and signed into law in five.

Public schools, GOP leaders have argued, are teaching children to believe that the country is inherently bad. But just as Reagan used his anti-campus campaign to undermine support for public higher education, his disciples are motivated by a similar cause. For a Republican party that has grown increasingly hostile to public education, the K-12 culture war is also an opportunity to advance the cause of school privatization.

State legislators, meanwhile, have introduced a flurry of bills aimed at cutting funds from schools with curricula that the GOP deems unacceptable. In Michigan, a proposed measure would cut 5% of funding if school districts teach “anti-American” ideas about race in America, material from the 1619 Project, or critical race theory. In Tennessee, a new law empowers the state’s education chief to withhold funds from schools found to be teaching components of critical race theory.

The constant drumbeat that public schools are indoctrinating children, however, serves as a powerful nudge to parents to flee them. If their tax dollars are paying for something they’re opposed to, then maybe privatization isn’t such a terrible idea after all. This was Reagan’s move.

This, then, gets to the heart of Lee’s education “reform” agenda. He’s overhauling the school funding formula (BEP) to make it “student-centered.” While his voucher scheme languishes in the courts, Lee is taking the first steps to create a new funding formula that builds a bridge to vouchers. Don’t like all the “indoctrination” at your local school? Take that state money and hand it over to a Hillsdale charter school that proudly evangelizes about America’s “good old days.”

Here’s how he phrases it in the speech:

I’m proposing an innovative approach that sets aside dollars for each student, based on their individual needs, and these dollars will be used in whatever public school they attend.

Guess what? Hillsdale’s charter schools would be public schools under Tennessee law – Lee is proposing handing over state money to a private, religious college to run “public” schools.

Ronald Reagan would most certainly be very proud of the division and discord Lee is sowing in the name of turning public money over to private, right-wing Christian school operators.

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More Questions About School Funding Reform

The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) has been closely following Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed reform of the state’s school funding formula. Following the State of the State, NPEF has some questions about how Lee’s proposal will impact Nashville. Here are some highlights:

Will there be bi-partisan, transparent legislation that guides leaders across our state? Or will decisions be delegated to the Tennessee Department of Education or State Board of Education? 

If a detailed law is not codified by the Tennessee General Assembly, how can we ensure that future changes to the formula are transparent and not made arbitrarily?

It’s possible Lee could ask the legislature to codify broad parameters for funding reform and leave the details to the rulemaking process. That could mean the public is not fully included in a transparent process.

Given Nashville’s considerably higher cost of living and the state’s low minimum requirement for teacher salaries, we already pay a much higher average teacher salary than the state requires. Because of this disparity, it’s unclear how Nashville teachers would benefit from any increase.
Governor Lee has given a nod to this challenge in his comments: “Historically, funds put into the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers, and when we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that. So in our updated funding formula, we will ensure that a teacher raise is a teacher raise.” (The Tennessean)Will these new teacher salary dollars simply raise an already low minimum state salary scale? If so, Nashville’s teachers will likely not see a substantial increase.

It’s worth noting here that the reason a “raise is not a raise” is because the state drastically underfunds the number of teachers needed to fully staff schools. This means state salary pool dollars must stretch to cover needed positions and less money is left for raises. Unless Lee’s new formula adds between 7000-10,000 new teachers, any increase in teacher salary money will come up short when (or if) it hits paychecks.

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