School Finance

McQueen proposes $57 million more for K-12 education next year

PHOTO: TN.gov

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked Wednesday for an additional $57 million for initiatives including professional development for Tennessee teachers and increasing transparency in testing in the state’s new TNReady era.

She also hinted that more money might be in the works for teacher salaries, technology and efforts to boost student reading skills.

Presenting her first budget proposal as education chief, McQueen asked Gov. Bill Haslam for the additional money for 2016-17 on top of more than $4.5 billion already being spent this year to fund schools.

“The investments that have already been made in education have certainly paid off with great dividends,” McQueen told the governor, citing Tennessee’s performance on the Nation’s Report Card and ACT scores.

However, she did not address whether state funding is adequate through Tennessee’s Basic Education Program formula — a question that spawned two major lawsuits this year from eight school districts, including Memphis and Chattanooga, who feel stretched financially in implementing new state initiatives and serving vulnerable students. (Read more details about this topic in our preview of this week’s budget hearings.)

Candice McQueen
PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

McQueen’s presentation is the first step of a lengthy budget process that will include a formal spending proposal by the governor and a final vote next spring by the legislature.

McQueen and Haslam are still in talks about devoting more money for teacher salaries, an expansive literacy initiative and technology in schools — especially important as the state transitions to its new online test.

“The governor has been committed to education, he’s shown that commitment through action, and we’ll continue to be committed to that activity this year,” McQueen told reporters after her presentation

Haslam’s administration devoted $51 million extra to technology in schools in 2013, and the governor said he is exploring another significant investment.

In her presentation, McQueen proposed increases that include:

BEP funding – $48 million. McQueen cited inflation and student enrollment growth as the impetus for bolstering funding via the state’s Basic Education Program, the formula through which the state pays for the bulk of K-12 education spending. Local district leaders this year have been increasingly vocal about the adequacy of BEP funding, complaining that the state is gradually shifting the responsibility to local governments. Next year’s proposed increase is comparable to this year’s BEP bump of about $44 million.

Professional development – $3.5 million. With federal money from the Race to the Top grant drying up this year, new revenue is needed to offset the state’s ongoing investments in teacher training. Much of the state’s $500 million Race to the Top grant went to training teachers around new Common Core State Standards and a new teacher evaluation system. Now that those academic standards are being reviewed and revised by order of the governor and the legislature, more professional development will be needed to prepare for their implementation in 2017. McQueen said this round won’t require the costly, large-scale summer teacher trainings of recent years. They will be conducted at the Education Department’s eight regional offices known as CORE, or Centers for Regional Excellence, with academic coaches trained in Nashville.

Assessment – $850,000. Responding to calls from teachers for more transparency around testing, a testing task force convened by McQueen recommended this summer that questions from the state’s new standardized test be released each year. But doing so will require that questions be replenished for next year’s test. McQueen said Wednesday that the costs will be somewhat offset by eliminating two standardized tests for eighth- and 10th-grade students, which was also recommended by the task force. “If we’re going to make our test questions transparent for educators and parents and students, then we’ll need to invest in funding for that opportunity,” she said. “We believe in an environment of trust and transparency, and making the questions available will create that.”

TNReady – $3.8 million. The state’s new online assessment for grades 3-11 is being implemented this year to align with Tennessee’s latest standards and focusing on more nuanced, but harder to grade questions. McQueen said the additional money is needed to roll out the new testing system.

Individualized Education Act – $350,000. Under a new law that takes effect in 2017, families with children with specific special needs can opt out of public schools and use the state’s per-pupil funding to provide educational services at home. Under the new program, the option would be open to families of about 18,000 students with severe disabilities.

Standards Review – $240,000. In January, the state is scheduled to begin reviewing social studies standards, in part because teachers have asked for a re-do, and in part because of public and political concerns raised over Tennessee’s seventh-grade world religion standards, which include learning about Islam. The review process — which will involve two online public reviews and convening a group of social studies teachers over the summer to revise the standards — will look much like the current standards review for math and English language arts.

Charter School Authorization – $125,000. For the first time, the State Board of Education will authorize two KIPP charter schools in Nashville — making the state responsible for ensuring that the charter operators fulfill promises made in their applications.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.