School funding

Haslam proposes 5 percent boost for K-12 education in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his 2017 State of the State address at the state Capitol in Nashville.

Free community college for all adults, not just graduating high school seniors, took top billing Monday night in Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address to lawmakers.

But K-12 education was also a focus, with a proposal to significantly increase spending for K-12 education for a third straight year. The 5 percent boost would go mainly to teacher pay, career technical education, English language learners, and charter schools.

Haslam speaks to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

In conjunction his seventh State of the State address, Haslam released a $37 billion proposed budget for 2017-18, including almost $230 million more for schools following a historic increase last year. Haslam said it’s one of the largest education funding increases in the state’s history and amounts to fully funding schools under the state’s funding formula known as the Basic Education Program.

“Last year we had the largest funding increase for public education without a tax increase in the history of the state. This year we’re proposing one of the largest funding increases in Tennessee history while at the same time cutting $270 million in taxes. … Tennessee has shown it will not balance the budget on the backs of teachers and students,” said Haslam, noting that  education spending has increased $1.3 billion under his administration.

Still, the proposed hike doesn’t cover all of the needs identified in a 2016 state report around counselors, technology, and instructional staff. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, Tennessee was 43rd in the nation for per-pupil spending.

Haslam has said he wants Tennessee to become the nation’s fastest-improving state on teacher pay and, as with the last two years, his single biggest proposed increase is for teacher compensation. The governor is asking for an extra $100 million there — equating to a 4 percent increase — on the tails of $200 million in similar increases since 2015. But if the legislature approves the spending plan, it won’t guarantee that teachers will see that boost in their paychecks. Ultimately, school districts have flexibility on how they spend that money.

The governor proposed $22 million more for the state’s growing school population of English language learners. And in keeping with a new focus on high school education, career technical education would get a one-time boost of $15 million. He also earmarked $4.5 million more for the state’s literacy initiative known as Read to Be Ready, as requested by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

His budget singles out the state’s 100-plus charter schools with a one-time $6 million bump to help pay for facilities, now a sore point for the state’s growing charter sector. Buildings, utilities and repairs take up a significant portion of charters’ budgets. And though it’s only a small part of Haslam’s spending plan, the line item signals his administration’s commitment to charter schools as a mechanism to improve public schools through competition.

The free community college proposal, known as Tennessee Reconnect, drew enthusiastic applause from state legislators. If approved, Tennessee would become the first state in the nation to offer all citizens — both high school students and adults — the chance to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate free of tuition and fees.

“Just as we did with Tennessee Promise, we’re making a clear statement to families: wherever you might fall on life’s path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be,” Haslam said.

CORRECTION, Jan. 31, 2017: An earlier version incorrectly referred to a $183 million increase in school spending. The actual increase is $230 million. The $183 million figure refers to increases under the state’s school funding formula, the Basic Education Plan.

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.