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.