Another $200 Million

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

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

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

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

As I noted over at The Education Report:

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

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

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

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

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

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Bill Lee vs. Tennessee Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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Cancel the Tests

In response to the Biden Administration’s insistence that students will take standardized tests this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of Members of Congress are urging Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to rethink that decision and cancel the tests. Now, the Network for Public Education is urging action to support these Members of Congress in their efforts.

Here’s more from the NPE email:

In December of 2019, candidate Joe Biden promised that if elected, he would stop standardized testing. His Department of Ed, however, said that we should have testing in the middle of the pandemic.

We pushed back and today, we have good news! Some members of Congress are asking the U.S. Department of Education to change its mind about testing! Read about it here. Let’s give them our support TODAY!

We need more members of Congress to get on board. We can’t give up.

1. Call Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office at: (202) 225-4965.

Here is a suggested script.

My name is (name). I am calling to request that Speaker Pelosi ask the President and Secretary Cardona to grant waivers from annual testing. Forcing schools to administer annual tests undermines the administration’s call to support our students’ social-emotional and mental health in this time of crisis. We need to put children, not data, first. Thank you.

2. Then call your Representative and Senators. You can find their numbers here and here.

Here is a suggested script.

“My name is (name), and I am a constituent of (name). I strongly oppose the Department of Ed’s recent letter that forces schools to administer annual tests this year. All of our schools’ efforts must be used to support our students’ social-emotional and mental health in this time of crisis.  I am requesting that (name) speak with the President and Secretary Cardona and ask them to grant waivers from the annual testing mandate. Thank you.”

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Missing the Mark

Superintendents in Shelby County are raising concerns about recently-passed legislation that would make retention the default option for a significant number of third grade students. One Superintendent even noted the effort “misses the mark” of its intent and instead of being helpful, will actually have a harmful effect on students.

The Daily Memphian has more:

“I have never seen anything that will hurt students as bad as what they are proposing,” Germantown Municipal School District Superintendent Jason Manuel told the suburb’s Board of Education in a recent meeting.

The response from Manuel comes as his district sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee and local lawmakers raising concerns about this issue and the insistence on in-person TNReady testing this year.

Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that TNReady is NOT a literacy test and using it for this purpose is ill-advised.

“The legislation is attempting to address third graders who can’t read at grade level, but the TCAP test doesn’t test to see if students can read at grade level,” Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell said.

Unsurprisingly, the leadership over at SCORE suggests this idea is a really good one – even though actual educators stand in strong opposition to it. Here’s SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri tweeting about how great this really bad idea is:

It’s almost as if Mansouri gets paid to be a cheerleader for the bad ideas of GOP governors instead of actually advancing sound education policy.

Here’s more on the folly of third grade retention:

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.

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Tylor Talks Teaching

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

Here are her thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2017, I wrote:

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

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

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Voucher Vultures Continue to Lose in Court

Parent advocacy group Public Funds for Public Schools notes that the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by school privatization advocates to allow implementation of Gov. Lee’s voucher scheme while the issue of the constitutionality of the program is sorted out.

Here’s more from a press release:

On February 22, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by pro-voucher groups to lift a lower court’s permanent injunction barring implementation of Tennessee’s 2019 “education savings account” voucher law. In May 2020, the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled the voucher law is unconstitutional because it violates the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution. In August 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the Chancery Court’s decision. The case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The voucher law, which passed by only one vote in the State Legislature, illegally targeted just two Tennessee counties, Davidson and Shelby, which are home to the Nashville and Memphis public schools. Legislators from the two counties overwhelmingly opposed the voucher law, which would have drained millions of dollars from two school districts that are severely underfunded by the State.

The law was challenged in court by the two counties in Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education, and by public school parents and community members in a companion case called McEwen v. Lee. The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.

After the Chancery Court granted summary judgment in Metro Government, the State defendants and the pro-voucher groups that had intervened in the case unsuccessfully asked the Chancery Court to lift its injunction. The defendants were then rebuffed again by the Court of Appeals. Immediately thereafter, the defendants tried yet again, asking the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction over the case and to stay the injunction. The Supreme Court refused both requests.

In an unusual move last month, the intervenors sought a fourth bite at the apple, requesting a “modification” of the injunction that would allow the State to take every step necessary to prepare and implement the voucher program, short of actually delivering the voucher funds. Notably, the State did not join in the intervenors’ motion.

In a one-paragraph order, and without calling for oral argument, the Tennessee Supreme Court summarily denied the intervenors’ motion.

The Supreme Court’s order to let the injunction stand is welcome news for parents and students in the underfunded and under-resourced Shelby County and Nashville public schools. While the appeal is pending, the State continues to be barred from spending any tax dollars on the voucher program.

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Voucher Vultures Getting FBI Scrutiny

NewsChannel5’s Phil Williams reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing to investigate the possibility of bribes involved in the 2019 vote to secure passage of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher scheme.

Here’s more:

NewsChannel 5’s cameras were there last month as Casada woke up last month to an FBI raid on his Franklin condo.

Now, Casada has told associates that the FBI had questions about how he helped pass Lee’s legislation to create school vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Two independent sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, said Casada described being questioned about allegations of bribes being offered for votes

The voucher bill itself has so far been ruled unconstitutional in Tennessee courts. Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up the issue.

Casada and number of his associates faced FBI raids last month connected to an investigation of campaign finance irregularities. Now, it seems that investigation may also include questions about bribes related to the voucher vote.

Lee’s voucher scheme passed the House by a single vote after Casada and his legislative aides and lieutenants negotiated with lawmakers while holding the vote open for more than 30 minutes.

MORE on vouchers:

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What’s the Big Deal?

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Germantown School District’s letter in response to Gov. Bill Lee’s education agenda as passed in the January special legislative session. Specifically, I noted that Germantown expressed concern about SB 7001, which heavily incentivizes districts to reach 80% participation in TNReady testing – testing that must take place in-person.

Why does this even matter? Well, as the Germantown Board points out, a number of families have chosen to have students participate in remote-only learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Requiring those students to return to school in-person may very well be a difficult, it not impossible, task.

So what?

Well, if your district doesn’t reach the magic 80% threshold, the district is subject to a range of potential penalties, including receiving a “letter grade” from the state about the quality of schools and the possibility of having schools assigned to the failed Achievement School District.

First of all, there shouldn’t be any testing at all this academic year due to the pandemic and the huge disruption it has been and continues to be for teachers and learners.

Second, in the best of circumstances, the TNReady test is of limited value. Specifically, our state has struggled to even properly administer a test.

Third, really? Testing this year? Despite what the Biden Administration says, it’s just a very bad idea.

While this legislation aligns with what House Education Committee Chair Mark White calls a “carrot and stick” approach, it seems rather counterproductive.

So, if you can’t get your district to the magic 80%, there could be all sorts of potentially negative impacts.

There’s actually some history with the Department of Education punishing districts that don’t reach arbitrary targets.

Will the General Assembly move to correct this mess soon, or will they allow the Commissioner of Education broad discretion to use suspect data to advance a school privatization agenda?

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Testing During a Pandemic is a Crime

Former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge posts on Facebook about the disappointing decision by the Biden Administration to insist on federally-mandated state standardized tests as our schools continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s what Frogge has to say:

This is a huge disappointment. Standardized testing in general is pretty useless. It does not improve outcomes for students or help drive instruction for teachers. To require testing during a pandemic is a crime. I can tell you the results right now: Children will fail- if they even show up at all.

The decision to require testing this year was rolled out by acting Assistant Secretary of Education Ian Rosenblum, Executive Director of the Education Trust- New York. The Education Trust is a corporate reform nonprofit funded (likely in the hundreds of millions at this point) by Bill Gates. Gates and The Education Trust have pushed for more standardized testing, Common Core standards and No Child Left Behind, which was an abject failure. (Bill Gates did not subject his own children to all this nonsense. He sent them to private school.)

Here in Nashville, The Education Trust is run by school board member Gini Pupo-Walker, who has also advocated for more testing and standardized testing during the pandemic.

The Education Trust purports to be focused on equity and closing the achievement gap- but don’t be fooled. There is evidence that all this testing has actually widened the achievement gap, and at the very least, it has maintained the achievement gap, which should be obvious to anyone paying attention. We should be spending more time on classroom learning and less time on endlessly assessing children.

Testing companies seeking a profit off children are swarming the Tennessee legislature. This year alone, 135 lobbyists are lobbying for privatization interests, including testing companies, at our legislature. That’s what this is really all about.

We should all hold President Biden accountable for this terrible decision. In the meantime, you can fight back by opting your children out of tests. (Stay tuned, more to come!)

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“Wholesome”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton appointed an anti-Muslim activist who promoted and participated in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to the State Textbook Commission. Now, Laurie Cardoza-Moore has taken to the Tennessean to defend her reputation and advocate for what she terms “wholesome” values in Tennessee schools.

Here’s some of what Moore has to say:

I pray for a day, when parents in the Volunteer State can send their children to school with the knowledge that they are receiving a wholesome, accurate and unbiased American education.

Surely, some of that unbiased education will include a condemnation of those who promoted and participated in an uprising against our national government on January 6th, 2021? What will an accurate, unbiased textbook say about this?

Moore also pats herself on the back for her work with a nonprofit she founded and runs called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations.

Here’s more on that:

Moore’s group – Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN) raised just over $1 million (in 2017).

What’d she do with the cash?

Well, she paid herself $130,000. Then, she paid her husband’s business $67,000. There was a business “office expense” for occupancy at just over $49,000. She runs PJTN from her home, so that means she’s paying her mortgage with the cash. That’s $200,000 in payments to Moore and her husband, and another 50,000 a year to cover their mortgage. Then, there’s another $26,000 paid to Moore as an “occupancy expense.” Oh, and there’s $41,000 on “meals and entertainment.” Finally, her two kids received a total of around $2000 from the organization for “contract labor” that year.

In her article, Moore claims:

The appointment has drawn the wrath of those who want to maintain the status quo. They are doing their utmost to distort my legacy and rewrite my past.

This statement reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Harry Truman:

It seems Ms. Moore simply can’t handle the truth.

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