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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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.

MORE EDUCATION NEWS

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.”

MORE>

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$867 Million

That’s how much Gov. Lee’s TISA funding plan could send from current public schools to charter schools.

Here’s more:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1513679951983267840?s=20&t=ub9m5VwmjC6IWGHlZxgNcA

MORE on TISA:

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Faith Leaders Raise Objections to TISA

From NewsBreak:

In a media event, a group of pastors and parents affiliated with the Southern Christian Coalition said Gov. Bill Lee’s school funding formula proposal, known as TISA, fails to provide adequate funding for all Tennessee schools.

Rev. Laura Becker, Pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga, opened the virtual press conference sharing that her children have been in the Hamilton Public School system since 2008. “We are here today as pastors in the state of Tennessee, calling on our legislature to adequately fund our public schools, and invest and care for the children of Tennessee, knowing that they are each made in the image of God. 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, from threats to dissolve school boards, to corporate private charter schools that make money from public schools, Tennessee’s Supermajority Republicans are doing everything to avoid dealing with the fact that Tennessee provides less in state funding per student than almost any other state in the country. 

Becker specifically addressed the TISA school funding overhaul being advanced by Lee:

“I’ve been following some of Governor Lee’s new school funding plan usually called TISA, and unfortunately, it just isn’t enough and it isn’t right. Instead of addressing the issue at the root by funding our public schools as much as every other state, this new funding plan would still require too much funding from local governments.

“This so-called ‘student centered funding approach’ shows a clear motive of Gov. Lee and the Supermajority Republicans that they have of privatizing our public schools and turning our tax dollars over to private schools and corporate funded charter schools.”

Rev. Dr. Donna Whitney also shared why public school funding is a priority to her as her daughters graduated from Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“The goal of our school funding system should be to ensure that all children, all children, no matter where they live, or the challenges they face, have the opportunity for a public education that prepares them to be responsible and productive citizens. The purpose of funding public education is to ensure that there are adequate resources to serve the educational requirements of all children. And that funding is distributed equitably, so that all children can access equal educational opportunities.

“Unfortunately, Governor Lee’s TISA funding plan is neither adequate nor equitable, while claiming to be student centered, the TISA plan now before our legislature is anything but truly student centered. TISA is actually corporate centered, using students as vehicles to escort dollars, our public tax dollars out of public schools and into corporate treasuries.”

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The TISA Threat

The Tennessee Public Education Coalition is out with a piece on why Gov. Bill Lee’s school funding plan (TISA) is a threat to strong public schools in our state.

Here are some highlights:

Perhaps this year’s greatest threat to legislator incumbency is Governor Bill Lee’s new K-12 funding bill, which he calls the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement act, or TISA. In spite of continued statements from the governor and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that the administration’s “student-based” funding formula was developed in response to dozens of stakeholder meetings and hundreds of public comments, this funding plan is model legislation developed in 2010 by ALEC, the school privatizing think tank.

In spite of how this bill is being promoted, the primary purpose of this bill is to shift even more of the cost of K-12 education to local taxpayers.

The Tennessee Public Education Coalition has advocated for increased state funding for K-12 education for years. While the Governor’s plan appears to increase the total amount of funding for Tennessee schools, the Governor’s TISA bill actually would increase funding for vouchers and privately-run charter schools.

The state has the means to invest billions of new dollars in public schools. But as Commissioner Schwinn’s recent testimony and The Tennessean’s recent reporting have revealed, local governments eventually will be on the hook for additional local funding if TISA becomes law. And city and county governments do not have billions of dollars in surplus.

TISA’s increased local match requirements will lead to property tax increases that local governments and taxpayers will blame on the new school funding formula if it becomes law.

READ MORE in the Tennessean about why key public school advocates oppose TISA.

For more on TISA:

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The Truth about TISA

Gov. Bill Lee is proposing a significant change to the way the state funds public schools. His proposal would replace the decades old BEP formula with something he calls TISA – Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement.

Except, well, the plan does nothing to invest in student achievement. Rather, it is a complicated system of weights applied to students that supposedly will lead to improved student achievement based on how districts use funds for targeted interventions.

In other words, the same old stuff in a shiny new, complicated package.

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.

If Lee actually wants to improve student achievement, he’d make a significant investment in teacher salaries. First, we have a teacher shortage that is only getting worse – more pay is not the only remedy, but it is a good tool to stem the tide.

Next, a recent study shows that boosting teacher pay has a direct, positive impact on student achievement.

Researchers have conducted a massive, unprecedented statistical analysis of public school teacher salaries and student standardized test performance in the United States, finding that when teachers are paid more, students score higher.

Why does this happen? The researchers offer this suggestion:

Prior research has shown that increased teacher salaries prompt higher quality students to seek careers in education. Additional pay also lowers teacher turnover, keeping talented, experienced teachers in their jobs and resulting in more educator continuity for students, which builds trust between teacher and pupil.

This recent study of teachers in the United States can be compared with a study by researchers at the London School of Economics which also demonstrated that higher teacher pay was causally related to higher student achievement:

“. . . we find that a 10% increase in teachers’ pay would give a 5-10% increase in pupil performance.”

But Lee’s plan doesn’t do that. Or even approach that. At best, this year’s raise will mean 3%. Going forward under TISA, every indication is that the state increase to base teacher compensation will be between 2-4% a year – or, a mere inflationary adjustment – no real boost in actual income.

Here’s what Lee’s plan does do: Raise local property taxes.

Meghan Mangrum in The Tennessean offers an analysis of how local property taxes would increase under TISA:

“Under TISA, the required local match for Davidson County is anticipated to increase by $35 million between FY23 and FY24, while the state’s investment in Nashville’s students will only increase by $12.6 (million) under the projections they have provided,” spokesperson Sean Braisted said in an email. 

And that’s just Nashville. 28 districts will have to increase local contributions (raise taxes) beyond current levels in FY 2024. Then, in FY 2027, after TISA’s hold harmless expires, it is likely many more districts will see increased costs.

TC Weber dives deeper into the funding issue – the bottom line: Your local taxes will likely go up to fund TISA.

Why is this happening? Because the new formula is NOT addressing the underlying issue: Our current formula doesn’t pay for the teachers we need. The secondary (and very important issue) is that TISA does not address the need to significantly boost teacher compensation.

Here’s the deal: Tennessee COULD address this issue.

As the Sycamore Institute tells us:

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.

We’ve got $3 billion in extra cash just lying around!

Well, and we’ve got even more. The Department of Finance and Administration reports the state is more than $2 billion OVER estimated revenue collections this year so far!

Year-to-date revenues for six months were $2.15 billion more than the budgeted estimate. The general fund recorded $2.02 billion in revenues more than estimates, and the four other funds totaled $126.7 million more than year-to-date estimates.

So, here’s what a student-achievement focused budget would look like:

$1 billion to close the gap in needed teachers – that’s $1 billion from the state allocated to local districts to fund the teachers local dollars are already providing.

$1 billion to raise teacher pay by 15% or more for ALL teachers – This assumes the state covers the cost of the increase for the newly state-funded teachers (7000-9000) plus all teachers currently covered.

Guess what? We can do that with billions of dollars left over.

Guess what else? Implementing a plan like this can be done by making adjustments to the current BEP formula.

And you know what else? This can be done without raising local taxes one cent. No state tax increase, no local tax increase, more teachers covered with state dollars, and better pay for all teachers. That’s an evidence-based, affordable solution to the problem Lee says he’s trying to address.

Which begs the question: Why does Lee’s plan rely on local property taxes and why doesn’t Lee’s plan improve the number of teachers or pay them significantly more?

The answer could be in the millions of dollars spent by pro-voucher and pro-charter (privatization) interests to influence state education policy.

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Of Vouchers and School Takeovers

Nashville education blogger TC Weber has a couple of pieces out that break down Gov. Lee’s proposed school funding reform.

The bottom line: Be afraid, be very afraid.

I mean, if you like using public money to fund private schools OR if you’re a fan of the state taking over districts, this funding scheme is for you.

Here are a couple hits from TC’s analysis:

While we are on the subject of the funding bill, let’s flip to section 66. This is the portion of the bill that lists amendments to existing legislation. It reads as follows,

SECTION 66. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-10-1405(a)(1), is amended by deleting the language “the per-pupil state and local funds generated and required through the basic education program (BEP) for the LEA in which the student resides and is zoned to attend” and substituting “the total funding allocation that the student generates under the Tennessee investment in student achievement formula (TISA)”.

Did you get that?

Read it again.

I’ll wait.

Under current legislation, a student who qualifies for an  IEA, or disability voucher receives around 6k to use for qualified expenses. It’s long been argued more students haven’t taken advantage of the education account opportunity, because the number is too low to make an adequate investment in a different educational opportunity.

If the new law passes, that student will receive exactly the amount generated through the funding formula, potentially making a voucher worth $16k. If you think that won’t increase enrollment and eventually bleed into a full-blown voucher plan, think again.

So, it turns out Mike Stein was right to warn about a BEP Voucher Plan.

READ MORE from TC on the funding formula and vouchers >

Then, TC digs into the section in the reform bill about school takeovers:

(c) An LEA that operates or authorizes a public school that receives a D or F letter grade pursuant to § 49-1-228 may be required to appear for a hearing before an ad hoc joint committee of the general assembly to report on the public school’s performance and how the LEA’s spending decisions may have affected the ability of the LEA’s public schools to achieve certain performance goals. The speakers of the senate and house of representatives shall each appoint members to serve on the joint ad hoc committee from the members of the general assembly serving on the education or finance committees of the senate and house of representatives. At the conclusion of a hearing conducted pursuant to this subsection (c), the joint ad hoc committee may direct the department to impose one (1) of the following corrective actions:

(1) Require the LEA or public charter school to develop, submit to the department for approval, and implement a corrective action plan consistent with a corrective action plan template developed by the department. The department shall report to the committee regarding the LEA’s or public charter school’s implementation of the corrective action plan; or

(2) Appoint an inspector general selected by the comptroller of the treasury to oversee the LEA’s or public charter school’s academic programming and spending. The department shall report to the committee regarding the outcomes of the inspector general’s oversight. The department shall promulgate rules to effectuate this subdivision (c)(2) in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, compiled in title 4, chapter 5.(d) The department shall apportion the costs of implementing a corrective action imposed pursuant to subdivision (c)(2) between the department and the LEA on a case-by-case basis, subject to the approval of the joint ad hoc committee.

The desire for the state to takeover MNPS and SCS has long been the worst kept secret in town. This bill will provide the vehicle to take such action.

Never mind that the General Assembly passed legislation over half a decade ago that called for the creation of the A-F grading system, it’s never been implemented. as pointed out last year on the Senate floor. Now it’s suddenly going to be implemented and its first year out of the box it’ll have potentially dire consequences for districts.

MORE on ALL the requirements for districts included in the reform plan.

Then, there’s former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge. She also warns that the funding package may not be all rainbows and unicorns. In fact, it seems highly problematic for the future of K-12 public education in our state.

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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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Is it Anything?

Last night, Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State Address and revealed at least some details related to school funding formula reform. Of note is the promise to increase state investment in public schools by $1 billion effective in the 2024 fiscal year and contingent on a new funding formula. This year, teachers will see $125 million in new money for salaries, which equates to a roughly 5% pay raise – or, at least a 5% increase in what is provided to local government for teacher compensation. Effectively, this will result in a salary increase of 2-3%.

$1 billion in new money is long overdue. It’s also about half of what the state needs to adequately fund public schools. Depending on how it is distributed in any new formula, it could amount to little in terms of significant improvement. Then again, it very well could be the start of something positive. Those who watch Tennessee education policy over time (like me) are likely skeptical. As always, the devil is in the details.

In fact, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown issued a statement on the proposal:

“Any increase in K12 spending is a step in the right direction. TEA is eager to see more details on the $1 billion in new recurring spending on public education Gov. Lee announced in his State of the State address.  It is a needed and warranted increase, but we do not yet see that reflected in the budget document released today.

Our students and educators are struggling right now because of a lack of resources. State leaders must stop stuffing cash into mattresses while students go without materials and programs they need for a quality education and underpaid educators are asked to do the job of six people while also buying their own classroom supplies.  

It does not have to be this way and we are hopeful the governor’s remarks tonight indicate a shift from the chronic underfunding that has plagued public education in our state. Tennessee can afford a significant increase in recurring investment in our students, educators and public schools immediately, without raising taxes.” 

If the $1 billion does materialize, it should be noted that not only is it significantly less than what is needed, but also that our state has the funds ($3 billion+ surplus) to fully close the funding gap. That Lee is not proposing $2 billion in more in funding when that money is absolutely available may well indicate that our state will continue its historic pattern of underfunded public schools.

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