Governor Bill Haslam was joined by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell today in hosting a Tennessee Education Summit.
The event focused on a range of education policy issues and included presentations on topics such as Standards and Curriculum, District and Teacher Accountability, and School Choice.
One topic not mentioned was the current level of financial support for public education provided by the state. While Governor Haslam has convened a BEP Task Force to study the current funding formula, he’s also said that task force won’t be talking about more investment, but about different ways to slice the current funding pie.
The closest anyone came to addressing the funding challenges faced by Tennessee school districs (Tennessee now invests less per pupil than Mississippi) was when Tennessee Teacher of the Year Wanda Lacy asked about what was being done to help teachers who received scores below a 3 on the state’s new teacher evaluation system.
The response was that the intervention for these teachers was left up to the district. That is to say, the state provides little or no funding for mentoring, coaching, or other support mechanisms that may be used at the district level to help improve teaching practice.
The issue of money was again approached when discussing the state’s transition away from TCAP and toward a new testing model better aligned to Tennessee’s current state standards. Because the tests must be completed online, many districts are being forced to upgrade their technology. Here again, the state’s support for this new technology lags behind what many districts need to catch up.
Not mentioned was Governor Haslam’s October 2013 promise to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay or any way the Governor or General Assembly might make that happen.
Tennessee has historically made big education promises only to fail to deliver when it came time to fund them. This was true of Lamar Alexander’s Career Ladder program, the original BEP, BEP 2.0, and now the new evaluation system which does not include funding for attendant support of teachers identified as below expectations.
In fact, a report released in Janaury by the Education Law Center indicates that Tennessee is among the worst states in the nation in terms of its investment in public schools. The report uses statistical methods to compare funding levels across states taking into account the different cost of living and socioeconomic factors of each state. In terms of raw funding level, Tennessee falls in the low to mid-40s among all states. Yes, Tennessee now spends less per student than Mississippi, as I mentioned above. Perhaps even more striking, Tennessee is near the bottom in terms of funding “effort,” a category that rates a state’s ability to fund public schools compared to the actual dollars invested. So, we have the capacity to invest more in our schools, but we’ve historically chosen not to do so.
Do we really need more money? An analysis of the achievement gap in Tennessee suggests we do. The NAEP data cited in that report indicate a widening achievement gap. That is, kids at the bottom of the income scale are falling further behind their better off peers. What’s essentially happening is the kids at the top of the income scale are gaining ground while kids from low income families are remaining stagnant. The takeaway: The resources available to middle- and upper-income kids make a difference. And it would be worthwhile to invest in the community supports necessary to create a more level playing field for low income kids.
Additionally, teachers aren’t all that happy about doing what Governor Haslam admits is incredible work but not being paid well for it. Time will tell if this results in teachers leaving the profession in Tennessee in significant numbers.
So, today’s big Education Summit was an interesting conversation about issues that can have an impact on our schools. But it avoided the biggest issue of all: How will we pay for the investment in schools our state needs?
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