Snail’s Pace

The Tennessee State Board of Education has set the state’s minimum teacher salary at $38,000 for the upcoming school year. That’s $49 more than the current average minimum salary, according to a story in Chalkbeat.

While the overall boost in minimum teacher pay is certainly welcome news, what’s interesting is to examine the pace of change in teacher pay over time.

As the Chalkbeat piece notes, the average teacher pay in Tennessee overall is $51,349.

Here’s why that’s so fascinating. Back in 2014, the state’s BEP Review Committee issued a report calling on the state to fund teacher salaries by way of the BEP at a level equivalent to the actual state average salary. That average? $50,116. So, the average now is just a bit over $1200 more than the average in 2014. In other words, teacher pay in Tennessee is creeping up at a snail’s pace. And, of course, teacher pay in our state is still below the Southeastern average (about $2000 below).

As Chalkbeat notes:

The improvement comes as Tennessee lags Southern and national averages for both starting pay and overall salaries. The state is also bracing for a wave of retirements and struggling to secure teachers for hard-to-staff areas such as special education and classes for students learning to speak English.

recent analysis by the Southern Regional Education Board shows Tennessee’s average educator salary in 2018-19 trailed half of the region’s states, including in border states like Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia.

What’s unfortunate about this situation is this: Tennessee can actually afford to make a huge investment in teachers and schools. We have a $2 billion surplus this year alone!

We could afford to push starting teacher pay above $40,000 for all teachers in the state. We could afford to give every single teacher a significant (10%) or more raise this year. We could dramatically increase the per pupil expenditures.

But, we’re doing none of those things. Gov. Lee’s budget reflects a lack of imagination and a refusal to dream of what is possible. Instead, he’s content to continue the status quo of underfunded schools and underpaid teachers.

As Chalkbeat further notes, it’s not clear how much of this raise will reach teachers:

The $2,000 bump in base pay doesn’t mean all teachers will see a noticeable pop in their paychecks, though.

Districts have flexibility over how to use state funds toward teacher compensation, so it’s uncertain how much of Tennessee’s 4% increase will trickle down to teachers who are paid more than the state minimum.

Because of disagreements on the adequacy of state funding, districts have hired about 10,000 teachers beyond what the state’s formula provides. Any increase could get spread across those salaries too. Districts also could opt to use next year’s increase to hire more staff or improve benefits.

Lee has claimed to support teachers and teacher pay, as Chalkbeat notes:

Early in his administration, Lee vowed to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher, but pandemic-related budget uncertainties and cuts delayed increases planned for the 2020-21 school year.

The reality, though, is that Lee has not invested seriously in schools in spite of a significant state surplus:

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

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

Lee’s commitment to putting just about everything ahead of funding schools and paying teachers may remind some of the previous governor, another guy named Bill who just couldn’t see fit to invest deeply in schools despite making a lot of promises.

Gov. Bill Haslam tweeted on October 3, 2013: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

Instead, in 2014:

Haslam is balancing the state budget by denying promised raises to teachers and state employees and ditching his proposed increases to higher education.

Tennessee leaders do a lot of talking when it comes to investing in schools. “Fastest-improving” “Best place to be a teacher.” The reality is that teacher pay and overall investment in schools is moving at a snail’s pace. In fact, a recently released analysis shows that Tennessee invests less in public education relative to taxable resources than any other state in the nation.

I will note once again that this year would be the easiest in decades to invest in public schools – a $2 billion surplus is instead being used for tax cuts and to boost the state’s already overflowing savings account.

I would also note that every time the budget situation seems even a little tough, funding for schools is the first on the chopping block. Good times, bad times, more money, less money – it doesn’t matter. The last decade has made abundantly clear that Tennessee’s policymakers are not at all interested in paying for schools or investing in the teachers who make them work.

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The Lowest in the Nation

Tennessee has one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the United States. While that may be a positive in some ways, it can mean less overall revenue available for public investments. However, just because our tax burden is relatively low doesn’t mean we can’t make smart choices. Policymakers could dedicate significant portions of that revenue to high return public goods – like our schools.

Instead, they just don’t.

According to a newly-released report from Education Week, Tennessee spends just 2.9% of all taxable resources on public education. That’s the lowest rate of any state in the nation.

In fact, the report notes that Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of investment in public schools. The Quality Counts report produced by Education Week also gives an overall grade on school funding based on inputs such as equity, percent of resources spent, total funding, and percent of students who receive funding at or above the national median average. Tennessee’s grade? A D+. While we receive an A for funding equity, we get an F just about everywhere else.

And, don’t get too excited about that A in equity. We are merely equitably distributing a terribly small piece of pie.

Here’s the deal: Tennessee’s public schools are underfunded by $1.7 billion. We have policymakers, including our governor, who simply are not interested in investing in schools.

Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.

To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.

Tennessee has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. We have a budget surplus that is of historic proportions. We could fully fund our public schools and still have hundreds of billions of dollars leftover. This, then, is not a decision about “keeping taxes low” or about fiscal responsibility. It is, instead, a decision about denying the best possible education to our state’s children.

A budget is, at its core, a policy document. Our public policy in Tennessee is clear: Public schools are not a public good worth funding. This has been true for years and Gov. Lee is merely continuing this sad tradition.

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Memphis Teachers to See Pay Raise

Thanks in large part to federal stimulus money, teachers in Shelby County will see a raise and the district plans to build new schools and renovate additional buildings if the County Commission signs off on the proposed budget unanimously adopted by the School Board.

Chalkbeat has more:

Shelby County Schools board members unanimously approved a proposed budget of $2.19 billion Tuesday night, an increase of nearly 60 percent over last year.

Highlights of this year’s budget include five additional prekindergarten classes throughout the district, more money for custodial services, new literacy programs, money for proposed new schools and renovations, and raises for certified and noncertified employees.

The starting salary for teachers will increase about 7% from $43,000 to $45,965, and the maximum salary will rise about 16% from $73,000 to $84,445. The new max salary will raise the salary cap on teachers who have graduate degrees and seniority.

The move in Memphis follows the announcement of a budget in Nashville that will mean teachers there will see an average pay raise of around $7000.

Both cities are using federal stimulus dollars to meet budgeting needs.

Of course, all of this is happening while the state is both sitting on a surplus expected to exceed $2 billion and also seeking to rapidly expand charter schools.

While the State of Tennessee has a record surplus, Gov. Lee and lawmakers have refused to make significant new state investments in public education.

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April Showers

Erik Schelzig in the Tennessee Journal’s On the Hill blog notes that Tennessee’s April revenues were $600 million more than the budgeted estimate.

Go ahead, read that again. In one month, the state collected $600 million more than planned.

Here’s more from Schelzig:

Tennessee’s general fund revenue collections were nearly $600 million above estimates in April, bringing the state’s surplus to $1.9 billion through the first nine months of the budget year.

So, with three months left in the fiscal year, the state is nearly $2 billion ahead of where it planned to be. Even if the surpluses drop off, the state is well on its way to a surplus significantly in excess of $2 billion.

To put this in perspective, the state is $1.7 billion behind where it should be in terms of funding public schools according to a bipartisan legislative commission.

For further perspective, the April surplus alone is three times what Gov. Bill Lee allocated in new education funding for the entire 2021-22 fiscal year.

Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.

To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.

When all is said and done for the year, it is likely the entire $1.7 billion education funding deficit could be made up and the state would have half a billion dollars or more for savings and other expenses or projects.

For further clarity, not a single Tennessee taxpayer would see any tax increase if schools were funded from this surplus. In fact, it is very likely that a state investment in schools that would make up for the current funding shortfall would actually help local governments keep property taxes low.

This year, groups that typically stay out of the school funding fight like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters got involved and urged Lee and lawmakers to make use of this historic surplus to make significant new investments in public education. Those calls, of course, were ignored.

We often hear Tennessee policymakers say they want our state’s schools to be the best in the nation. No doubt, your own lawmaker has probably told you school funding is among their top priorities. However, when there was a giant surplus and the ability to make a huge investment in our schools without raising taxes one cent, these same lawmakers simply walked away. They walked away from our public schools, our students, and our teachers.

In times of tight budgets or when funding schools means raising taxes, it may be understandable that the state is cautious when it comes to investment in public education. However, when a single month’s surplus is $600 million and the overall revenue picture is historic in terms of the excess cash available, there is simply no excuse for not investing in education. The only answer at this point is that lawmakers and our Governor just don’t support our schools.

Tennessee consistently ranks near the bottom in the nation when it comes to school funding. We have an historic opportunity to change that. And, we have policy leaders who just aren’t interested.

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Rhetoric vs. Reality: Bill Lee School Funding Edition

As the Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Lee’s budget today which included maintaining the woefully inadequate status quo for school funding, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) offered the following statement expressing their disappointment:

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

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

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

Elected officials love to claim that Tennessee students, educators and public schools are top priorities, but their action on the state budget tells a different story. As the old saying goes, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is.”

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League of Women Voters Calls for Action on School Funding

In an action alert email, the League of Women Voters encouraged members and supporters to push Gov. Bill Lee and the General Assembly to make significant new investments in public education.

Here’s the text of that email:

Tennessee continues to neglect its public schools.  The state consistently ranks as one of the bottom five for public school funding. During the current legislative session, numerous bills have been introduced by members from both sides of the aisle to provide additional funds for some of our public schools’ urgent needs. Among those needs are adequately funding school counselors, social workers, school nurses, and staff to support state-mandated intervention programs.  None of these bills have passed yet.

This is the time to invest in our schools and our children. With a current budget surplus exceeding $2 billion this year and cash reserves exceeding $7 billion, this is the moment for Tennessee to support quality education in  every county.

The League of Women Voters of Tennessee was extremely disappointed that Governor Lee did not address the state’s inadequate funding formula of public schools in his annual budget.  However, it is not too late for the legislature to make meaningful investments in our students through their actions in setting next year’s state budget.

Please write or call the governor and your legislators and urge them to support our students and our schools.

Governor Bill Lee,  bill.lee@tn.gov and copy his assistant, caroleanne.orsborn@tn.gov

Find your senator and representative at https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/Apps/fmlv3/lookup.aspx.
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Education Coalition Calls on Governor to Boost Funding for Schools

Just one day after Gov. Bill Lee introduced his budget amendment that included no new funds for K-12 education, a coalition of education advocates from across the state called on Lee and the General Assembly to improve the amendment and boost funding for public schools. The move follows a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on Tuesday that said Lee’s budget for education comes up “woefully short.”

Here’s more from the Tennessee Public Education Coalition (TPEC):

Members of TPEC are deeply disappointed in Governor Lee’s failure to meet even the minimum funding needs of Tennessee’s schools, teachers, and students. Tennessee has long failed to adequately invest in its children. Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education funding, and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reports that Tennessee’s K-12 funding formula underfunds public schools by $1.7 billion per year. 

Tennessee’s coffers are awash in excess revenue, and our schools’ needs are immense. Tennessee’s surplus for the current fiscal year, with over five months to go, is over $1.3 billion, with lawmakers expected to have at least $3.1 billion in excess revenue to budget in the current cycle. Tennessee also has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Our children need excellent schools, and our teachers need adequate pay. Public schools need more resources- social workers, school nurses, counselors, and adequate support staff. With tax revenues exceeding state expenses by more than $2 billion per year and more than $7 billion cash reserves, there is no longer any excuse for failing to invest in our children.

Here are some comments from members of TPEC on the education budget:

Jerri Green, public school parent, Memphis:

“We love our school, our teachers and the other staff, but we hate that they underpaid and overworked. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars each year on basic supplies. This would not be necessary if the state supported our schools adequately. Governor Lee, please increase funding for our public schools.”

Peg Watkins, state & local education advocate for more than 30 years, speaking on behalf of the League of Women voters of Tennessee, Memphis:

“Underfunding our schools is not new. The BEP Review Committee has been pointing to these failures for years while Tennessee runs yearly surpluses. This year we are on track to run a $2 billion surplus. We call on the legislature to properly fund our schools.”

Candace Bannister, retired teacher, Knoxville:

“Gov. Lee is right that our school children have unmet mental health needs.  Unfortunately, his budget provides none of the additional resources our schools need to hire enough school counselors, social workers, nurses and mental health professionals.  We call on Gov. Lee to increase BEP funding for in-school mental health staff to meet the needs of our children.”

Amy Frogge– Former Nashville school board representative and Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children:

“The lack of adequate school funding is especially hard on rural schools. In low-income, rural counties, students suffer from inadequate facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of opportunities that parents in more prosperous counties take for granted: art, music, and advanced classes, career and technical training, and after-school activities like sports and clubs. I saw this myself recently when I visited a Morgan County high school, which had no money for art and music classes. Students there also wanted to run track and play softball and soccer, but the school had no money for sports fields or a track. I urge Governor Lee to increase school funding so all children have opportunities for after school activities.”

Rev. Laura Becker, parent and pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga:

“And any public school parent can tell you that teachers are always begging for school supplies, such as Kleenex, paper, Clorox wipes, pencils, and more. Our church annually collects these items for our neighborhood school, because the state doesn’t provide adequate funding for them, and it is unjust to expect every family to be able to provide them. They really shouldn’t have to beg for basics in a state as prosperous as Tennessee. While adding no additional funds for public schools, Governor Lee is proposing $114 million in tax cuts. It is unconscionable to cut taxes while the needs of our school children go unmet. We call on the governor to adequately fund our public schools.”

Paula Treece– A public school parent, PTA leader and former school board member, Johnson City:

“The state has repeatedly failed to fund the numerous mandates it has placed on local school districts, forcing local taxpayers to bear a greater burden than necessary. Not only should the state fully fund all school mandates that it imposes, but it should also allow local school boards to decide how best to utilize the resources.”

The coalition joins groups like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee who have also recently called on Gov. Lee and the General Assembly to make additional investments in schools.

In his own words . . .

In a press release announcing the budget amendment, Lee listed tax cuts first and in a budget amendment that includes no new money for public schools, the release indicated:

This amendment reflects the Governor’s priorities . . .

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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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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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