Budget Preview

With state revenues rebounding, will Tennessee see more education spending?

Gov. Bill Haslam leads a budget hearing in 2015.

When education chief Candice McQueen makes her first budget pitch to Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday, she’ll offer a glimpse into how the state is responding to growing calls for change in the way it funds schools.

Education makes up one of the largest slices of Tennessee’s spending, getting 41 cents of every tax dollar the state takes in. But district leaders say that the formula used to fund schools underestimates the cost of educating students. This year, some of them began making their case in two high-profile lawsuits.

Those suits are likely to take years to wind through the courts. But change could happen as soon as next year, as state revenues are rebounding and Haslam says his conversations with educators about the state’s school funding formula are influencing his thinking.

“We will definitely have part of our budget proposal address how we fund education,” he said Tuesday.

The final spending plan for the 2016-17 fiscal year won’t be decided until next spring, when Haslam and legislators will hash out a final budget that reflects department proposals. Still, McQueen’s presentation will highlight the State Department of Education’s priorities moving forward and offer a starting point for discussions.

Here are some of the questions that Wednesday’s budget hearing could begin to answer:

Will McQueen ask for more money to address concerns about the BEP?

Part of McQueen’s job is to propose how much schools should receive in addition to what the state provides through its Basic Education Program formula, known as the BEP.

That formula, which is meant to ensure all Tennessee students receive a “basic” level of education no matter where they live, allots money based on many factors, such as recommended class sizes and typical administrator pay. While the state has spent more on education because of a growing student population, it hasn’t altered the formula since 2007, even as inflation, a growing charter school sector, and new mandates to improve low-performing schools have added to local costs.

McQueen can’t change the BEP formula without legislative action, but she could ask for additional spending on specific items, which the state has done in the past for teacher pay.

In some ways, McQueen is under pressure to keep costs down: Haslam has repeatedly said that he won’t consider increasing school funding beyond what the formula requires — and he wouldn’t be able to change the formula without the legislature’s help, either. He also has asked all departments to cut 3.5 percent from their budgets.

But the call for cuts is likely just an exercise, given the state’s relatively flush status at the moment. In 2015, he ultimately put forward a budget with less significant cuts than he had requested. And pressure from the lawsuits and conversations with district officials might make Haslam more willing to supplement the BEP next year — paving the way for McQueen to ask for more money for basic school needs.

Will teachers get a raise?

Teacher pay is perhaps the component of the BEP that has gotten the most attention. It varies drastically across the state, with some districts having pay far below the national average. Last year, Haslam allocated about $98 million to raise teacher salaries — an increase of about 4 percent.

The governor has said teacher pay remains a top priority. Even if more money for educators isn’t in McQueen’s proposal, Haslam might add it to the budget anyway, like he did last year.

“I’ve said all along we want to be the fastest improving state in the country in teacher salaries, and we’re hoping to address that in this year’s budget,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll have to see how that all plays out.”

What that looks like for individual educators remains to be seen. Last year’s 4 percent increase statewide did not equate to a 4 percent raise for all teachers. The amount of the salary increases depended on each district’s spending plan, and some teachers didn’t see raises at all.

Will the state commit financially to making testing more transparent?

As one of her first acts as commissioner, McQueen organized a testing task force to address mounting concerns about standardized testing, which parents and educators across the state say is excessive and unfair. One of the panel’s recommendations was to release questions from the state’s end-of-year test to increase transparency. That costs money, though, since it means those questions can’t be reused. When the report was released, officials said they had not yet determined the potential cost.

Will there be additional money for literacy?

McQueen has pledged to turnaround the state’s flagging reading scores with an expansive initiative that includes increasing the number of literacy coaches in schools and a new standardized test for younger students. When she announced the program this summer, she said the department would help schools make do with existing resources. But in a year with extra state revenue, she might ask for money that could bolster the initiative.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede