We’ve Got Questions

The Nashville Public Education Foundation has some questions about a recently released framework for school funding reform.

Here’s what NPEF has to say about the early draft of BEP changes:

Will the base weight in the proposed framework accurately reflect the cost of running schools where all students thrive? We need an increase in funding effort from the state level that matches an aspirational vision for what is possible in public education, and what we want our teachers, students, and families to experience. 

How will weights be defined for student populations requiring additional funds to meet their learning needs? The proposed framework describes the weights as heavy, moderate, or light. What do these terms specifically mean and how will these weights be determined?

Are we also having the right conversation about fiscal capacity? It is critical to address the fiscal responsibility of the state versus that of local districts. As we design a new framework, we need to consider where the funds for the plan will come from in a long-term, sustainable way that does not place too high a burden on local districts and municipalities.

These are some great questions. In the past, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has noted the severe shortcomings of the current funding formula. That is, the formula itself may not be flawed, but the level of funding is inadequate.

In fact, in March of last year, the Tennessean reported:

“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.

The claim of underfunding is substantiated by a report from TACIR that suggests the state is at least $1.7 billion behind where it needs to be in terms of adequate school funding.

The note from NPEF on funding effort as multiple reports place Tennessee near the bottom of the nation both in terms of dollars invested in school and overall funding effort.

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TennesseeCAN Knows the Plan

How is it that pro-privatization group TennesseeCAN already knows the benefits of Gov. Bill Lee’s new school funding formula when that formula has yet to be released?

It seems an “expert” from TennesseeCAN was on hand in Franklin County to present the details of the new, as-yet-unreleased plan.

First, a bit about TennesseeCAN as reported in the Herald-Chronicle:

TennesseeCAN, a state education advocacy organization, was founded in 2011 and formerly operated as StudentsFirst Tennessee.

The organization’s website says it pushed to enact state laws for alternative certification pathways for teachers, mutual consent in district hiring practices, creating a statewide authorizer for charter applicants, expanding enrollment for autism-spectrum-disorder programs and implementing statewide school report cards to track educational progress.

StudentsFirst, readers may recall, was the group founded by Michelle Rhee – whose ex-husband Kevin Huffman was once Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education.

Anyway, here’s how TennesseeCAN describes the new funding formula:

She said a weighted funding formula:

• Recognizes that what one school needs in resources may not be what another school needs.

• Calculates funds based on the needs of students in the schools.

• Begins with student needs then provides additional funds in the form of weighted importance on programs.

• Ties funds to student need and sets a greater expectation on the return of the investment.

• Allows schools to meet the needs of the students in real-time without waiting on additional resources from the state.

Some of this sounds not terrible. However, the devil will certainly be in the details.

However, there is a line in the list of benefits that should be of great concern:

Ties funds to student need and sets a greater expectation on the return of the investment.

This gets to the argument being advanced by House Speaker Cameron Sexton that there should be some sort of “incentive” system so schools will perform better. Essentially, Sexton argues that the threat of withholding money will motivate schools to do more.

The core problem of this argument is like the old joke: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

As has been noted by ACTUAL educators, one thing Tennessee has yet to do when it comes to schools is actually invest in schools.

In fact, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown says of BEP reform:

“What we have to remember is, it doesn’t matter how you carve up the money, how you plan to spend the money, if the amount of money is insufficient,” she said. “Quite frankly, that’s what we have in the state of Tennessee. We are 46th in the nation in what we invest in students.”

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BEP Changes to be Announced in January

WPLN reports that Gov. Bill Lee’s administration will announce its proposed changes to the state’s school funding formula (BEP) in mid-January.

The Tennessee Department of Education plans to release details of its policy recommendations in mid-January.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn laid out the timetable in a meeting with legislators on Tuesday. She says the new approach will make it easier to see how much education costs for each student.

While there has been much discussion on changing the formula, there has (so far) been little mention among key education leaders about increasing the overall amount of money dedicated to schools.

This comes in spite of the state falling $1.7 billion short of adequately funding schools, according to a report by a bipartisan commission.

Meanwhile, some key education advocacy groups are calling on Gov. Lee to not only change the formula, but also to increase the overall amount of money invested in schools:

And, it’s worth noting that the state has billions in surplus dollars to spend on education:

While it’s not exactly clear what the new formula will look like, some are speculating it could be a pathway to vouchers:

One possible hint of where Lee is headed can be found in the recent SCORE for schools conference:

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Priorities

Last week, Gov. Bill announced a 37% salary increase for new correctional officers hired by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). The move makes the starting salary for a Tennessee correctional officer $44,500.

This is a needed improvement to the salary of hard-working state employees with a difficult job.

In announcing the move, Lee said:

“As we face staffing shortages across the country, rewarding officers with competitive pay will ensure we recruit and retain the most highly qualified individuals in our workforce,” said Gov. Lee. “These Tennesseans play a crucial role in ensuring public safety and we remain committed to valuing their important work.”

What’s interesting about the move is that Tennessee is also facing a teacher shortage and yet there has been no serious discussion by Lee or other state education policy leaders on dramatically increasing teacher pay.

The current state minimum salary schedule for teachers sets the minimum salary for a Tennessee teacher at $38,000.

A Tennessee teacher with a bachelor’s degree would need to work for 10 years in order to achieve a mandated minimum salary above $44,000.

Now, however, brand new correctional officers will earn more than teachers with 10 years of experience. Yes, corrections officers deserve a raise.

But, it is a clear statement of priorities that Gov. Lee made this move – raising pay for corrections officers – before making any serious move to raise teacher pay. Even as Lee discusses a new education funding formula, he has not yet committed to any significant, dramatic increase in teacher salaries.

Tennessee has a significant budget surplus – $3 billion or more – and so can afford to raise pay for state employees and teachers without raising taxes a single penny.

Teachers, parents, and Tennessee communities are still waiting for Lee to put education first. Last week’s announcement continues to underscore where education falls on Lee’s list of priorities.

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Know the SCORE

Today, SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education) – a group formed by Bill Frist to influence education policy in Tennessee – held its annual “state of education” event. At the event, SCORE highlighted priorities for 2022.

Here they are:

Note that these priorities do not include improving school funding by way of increasing dollars allocated to the BEP.

Never fear, however, SCORE has a document on school funding.

The document contains an interesting analysis of reasons why the current school funding formula falls short. And, while the document notes that Tennessee schools don’t have enough teachers, nurses, or support staff, SCORE stops short of making an outright call for dramatically improved school funding.

Here’s how the funding issue is handled (on page 28 of the document):

Tennessee policymakers have continued to fully fund the
state’s share of the current formula in recent years, but the $1.7
billion in additional non-BEP, locally funded education spending
clearly indicates that the formula does not reflect the full cost
of educating today’s students.55 While specific technical
methods and assumptions can influence the amounts needed
to educate students, Tennessee has a clear opportunity to
improve beyond previous investments.

And, in a graph on page 24, SCORE suggests:

While there is no consensus about the amount that Tennessee should spend on K-12 education, current education funding levels show Tennessee trailing the nation by a variety of measures.

So, these are some pretty nice ways of saying Tennessee schools need more investment. But, so as not to get sideways with Gov. Lee and political types who balk at “throwing money at schools,” SCORE stops short of using its significant power and influence to make a clear, direct call for billions in new investment in Tennessee schools.

Reading these statements makes it sound like if we make a slightly larger pie and just slice it a little differently, all will be well.

But, well, it won’t.

It’s also worth noting that SCORE has been the key influencer on Tennessee education policy for the last decade. Here are some reminders of how that’s been going:

A note from the end of the 2021 legislative session:

“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. 

Tennessee consistently ranks in the 44-46 range when it comes to overall investment in public schools. National groups that study school funding consistently grade Tennessee at an “F” when it comes to funding effort. Our school systems are facing significant teacher and staffing shortages. All of this has happened while SCORE has been driving the education policy train. Now, SCORE is asking state policymakers and Tennessee citizens to follow them – to keep rolling with a train that has led to – as SCORE puts it on page 23:

The Tennessee education finance system is rated among
worst in the nation. Tennessee’s finance system has
earned a ranking that sits among the lowest in the nation.
According to Education Week’s Quality Counts analysis of
state education systems, Tennessee received a D+ (69.0) in
school finance against a national grade of C (76.1), ranking
among the bottom 10 states nationally and third lowest in
the Southeast, ahead of Florida and North Carolina.

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Justice Delayed

It seems that justice (and funding) for Tennessee’s public schools may have to wait until after the 2022 legislative session. A school funding lawsuit that had a February court date is now being pushed back so Gov. Bill Lee can unveil his new formula and districts can decide if a voucher-focused scheme will yield any positive monetary results for public schools.

The Tennessean reports:

A lingering lawsuit challenging how Tennessee funds public schools might be put on hold until after the upcoming legislative session, according to a motion filed earlier this month.

All parties to the lawsuit — the Memphis and Nashville school districts and the state — agreed to the joint motion to halt the case’s proceedings until the end of the legislative session next year.

Gov. Bill Lee is expected to unveil a new strategy for funding education to lawmakers, which could impact the terms of the original lawsuit.

Of course, there has definitely been speculation that Lee’s ploy on funding is merely a delay tactic so the state can avoid adequate investment in schools.

A Bountiful Harvest

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is seeking to reallocate the school funding pie in a state that historically earns low marks for its investment in schools. Now, the Sycamore Institute reports Tennessee has a significant surplus – both banked dollars and recurring money – that could be used to help address a range of priorities.

Governor Bill Lee and state lawmakers just used some of Tennessee’s largest ever budget surplus to fund a historically large incentive package for Ford Motor Company. Even after that deal, policymakers may still have at least $3 billion in unallocated funds to appropriate next year. This total includes a record-setting $2 billion for recurring items – and that’s before even speculating about routine revenue growth. For comparison, Tennessee’s total budget from state revenues this year was about $21 billion before the Ford deal passed.

Turns out, Tennessee continues to collect significantly more money than it plans to spend. Sycamore notes that through the first three months of the fiscal year:

  • Actual collections for October 2021 were about 22% higher than budgeted.
  • As of October 31, 2021, Tennessee had collected about 24% of the $16.5 billion in total budgeted revenue for the current fiscal year.
  • Collections through October were about $902 million higher (or 24%) than what was budgeted for the time period.
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The point is: Tennessee is overflowing with cash. It seems that a conservative government would use this opportunity to return the money “to the people” by way of key investments. Among these should be investing in our chronically underfunded school system.

Let’s face it: The GOP has been in complete control of Tennessee state government for a little over a decade now. During that time, we have consistently ranked between 44th-46th in school funding. We’ve had multiple failures of our state testing system. And, we now face a teacher shortage crisis.

But, good news abounds! We have a HUGE surplus – including billions in RECURRING revenue. This means we can invest in schools without raising taxes a single penny.

For a little more than half of the surplus, we could completely shore-up our K-12 funding system. After all, a bipartisan state research body found that schools in Tennessee are short-changed on the order of around $1.7 billion.

Of course, the track record on using surplus state funds for schools is, well, now all that good:

Significant surplus revenue has been a recurring story in recent years. It’s almost as if those in power are deliberately keeping money away from our public schools. It could be, as some have speculated, they are saving all that public money for a massive school voucher scheme.

2022 is an election year. When your lawmaker tells you they’ve voted to invest in our schools, ask them why we are still $1.7 billion behind. Ask them how much of the $3 billion surplus they want to invest in schools. Ask them to stop talking about what they’re going to do and start actually allocating dollars to education.

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Community Groups Call for Increased School Funding

In a state that continues to earn failing grades in school funding, community groups in Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga are calling on Gov. Bill Lee and legislative leaders to both increase school funding and update the BEP with a focus on equity.

Here’s an open letter penned by the groups:

To Governor Lee, members of the General Assembly, the Funding Review Central Steering Committee, and Chairs of the Education Funding Review Subcommittees: 

In August, Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) and our sister organizations, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) and Chattanoogans in Action for Love Equality and Benevolence (CALEB) gathered for a Day of Power and Prayer to call for increased funding of education statewide. We heard from educators, students and advocates from across the state and used the collective power of our voices to highlight the urgent needs of our students in a time where they face incredible odds, but are still asked to succeed. We recognize we cannot ask more of students unless we are willing to increase our investment in them. 

We applaud Governor Lee for calling for a full review of the state’s education funding formula and to explore possibilities for a more student-centered approach. We consider education equity to be one of our highest priorities and are encouraged that there will be a statewide effort to ensure that community input will be provided in the creation of a new funding framework. 

Currently, Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education spending. Sadly, we spend more to incarcerate adults than we do to educate our children. If Tennessee is serious about improving the education of our children and the future of all Tennesseeans, then we must ensure that the education framework we create now reflects education components that are inclusive of the needs of all children across the state. 

As such, NOAH, MICAH and CALEB will continue to advocate for the following items to be prioritized in the new funding formula: 

● Funding for Classroom Technology 

● Funding for Lower Student/Teacher Ratios 

● Funding for Professional Development for Teachers 

● Funding for Social Worker, School Counselor, and Nurse ratios that mirror national recommendations 

● Funding that adequately address the needs of low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities, in order to produce predictable, equitable allocations to every school district

Additionally, we ask that the committees not simply “re-slice” the funding pie. Tennessee experienced a $2 billion surplus last fiscal year. Imagine what progress we could make if we were to substantially increase the dollars available for our schools. The time is now to ensure that we increase education funding in an effective way that goes beyond simply re-allocating dollars. We must be courageous in recognizing that there are no frugal shortcuts to improving education in Tennessee. If we say we value our children, then we must do so through our actions and deeds, and that begins by investing more in our children and the future of Tennessee.

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Nashville Voters Say Schools are Underfunded, Teachers Underpaid

Amid a global pandemic that is seeing an already troubling teacher shortage exacerbated, voters in Nashville are expressing concern that schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid. These findings come as the result of a poll of registered voters conducted on behalf of the Nashville Public Education Foundation.

The poll found that voters (72%) believe teachers are underpaid – this in spite of a recent pay plan raising pay in Nashville some $7000 or more for most teachers. The pollster noted that previous results showed 80% of voters thought teachers were underpaid.

The findings on funding are not surprising in a state that had a $2 billion surplus in the past fiscal year and is underfunding schools by at least $1.7 billion.

According to the poll, 66% of Nashville voters feel public schools in the city are underfunded.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is attempting to divert attention from his party’s dismal track record on school funding by pushing a statewide “review” of the school funding formula, known as the BEP.

What Lee and legislative leaders are not (yet) talking about is a dramatic increase in state funding for schools. Of course, there’s a February court date that may result in the Tennessee Supreme Court ordering policymakers to properly invest in schools.

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Williamson County Struggles with Teacher Pay

Tori Keafer in the Williamson Herald explains the struggle Williamson County Schools faces with paying teachers enough to live in the county where they are being asked to teach.

Currently, the base salary for teachers in WCS is $40,150. In 2019, the Williamson County Board of Commissioners passed a 7-cent property tax increase to bump the base pay from $37,500 to the current rate.

Housing Struggle

“I think we all agree it’s not enough. We need to continue to make that a focus,” Superintendent Jason Golden said. “After we approved that, some of our neighbors voted for larger increases, so it is a constant battle. And I will tell you also, we’ve talked about the cost of living. Housing is an issue.”

District 9 board member Rick Wimberly pointed out the average home value in Williamson County, using data through May according to Zillow, was just over $595,000. With a $40,000 salary, a teacher would hardly have enough for home payments, he said, and living in an average apartment wouldn’t be that much better either.

“You’re still not scraping by,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that, and we’re not going to fix it tonight. … I just hope this is something, like Eric and like Jason have said, that we can take on as a high priority.”

Wimberly added:

“We are so far off — so far off — that it poses challenges now, but it’s just going to get worse and worse,” he said. “Perhaps it’s after the time I’m gone, but we’re going to have to face it as a community. This is a problem for us. And yeah, you can take my numbers and do whatever you want to with them, but I don’t think you’re going to convince me that we … pay sufficient[ly] to help people where they can have a good lifestyle in Williamson County or even commut[ing] from out of the county.”

The note on the battle over teacher pay in Williamson County comes after a similar story and fight in Maury County.

A recent story on teacher pay across the state also reveals that the state is not doing much to help the situation:

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).

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