State's answer

Tennessee affirms its school funding formula in response to lawsuit over Memphis schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee State Capitol

In its first response to a funding lawsuit filed last year by Shelby County Schools, the state is denying that its funding model is the cause of financial struggles faced by Tennessee’s largest school district.

And while agreeing that the state is responsible for maintaining and supporting a public school system “that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students in Tennessee,” the state says its existing funding formula, known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, meets that requirement.

The 25-page response was filed last Friday afternoon in Davidson County Chancery Court, marking the next step in a legal process expected to take years.

The Shelby County lawsuit, filed last August by the district’s school board, charged that the state not only does not adequately fund school operations, but that the state does not fully fund its own formula. The formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the overwhelmingly impoverished student population in Memphis. The suit details how its funding level impacts student achievement and district operations including school closures, class sizes, student services such as guidance counselors and nurses, and even community engagement efforts.

In its response, the state affirmed its funding model at every front and cited the district’s flexibility to spend the money provided. The response does not include specific defenses of the state’s funding model, only saying it provides the money.

State officials named in the district’s funding lawsuit “deny that their actions ‘forced’ the District to eliminate any programs.”

“The District has considerable discretion in deciding how to allocate funds,” the response says. “… Education funding affects the educational opportunities that are available to students, but deny any conclusory opinions regarding the causal effect of money on educational outcomes.”

The state is now facing several school funding lawsuits. Last year, Chattanooga-based Hamilton County Schools spearheaded the first lawsuit with six surrounding rural districts. And last month, the school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to sue the state too, after learning that the district will receive less state money than expected for its growing population of English language learners.

The lawsuits are the latest legal challenges to Tennesee’s system for funding public education. In 1988, 77 small school systems successfully sued the state, claiming its funding formula — known as the Tennessee Foundation Program — was inequitable. The ruling in 1993 by the Tennessee Supreme Court forced the state to change its funding formula, and subsequent legal challenges led to more revisions over the next decade.

Earlier this year, Shelby County Schools hired the Memphis-based law firm that won the 1993 ruling.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have expressed disappointment that districts are taking legal action. They point out that the Haslam administration has worked with the legislature to provide more than $730 million in new funding for K-12 education, including $220 million in new funding next school year — a record investment.

But while generally giving the governor high marks for his efforts, district and Shelby County government leaders have argued that the state’s funding mechanism is broken and that the state’s system has gradually shifted the cost of education to local governments.

Getting through college

KIPP Memphis gets $40,000 to start fund that helps college students pay for unexpected costs

PHOTO: (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)
A KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle school 8th-grader Cameron Guy, 13, dances in front of his class in 2014.

A charter school network in Memphis is getting into the college scholarship game with the help of a national grant.

KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools was one of four charter networks nationwide selected for a $40,000 grant to launch a “college persistence fund,” which will provide small, emergency grants to help KIPP Memphis graduates pay for college.

“Sometimes, an increase in room and board or an unexpected lab fee may leave a college student unable to pay their tuition bills, and possibly lead to them dropping out,” a KIPP spokeswoman said in a statement.

The Memphis network runs seven schools, one of which is a high school. KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School saw 80 percent of its graduates last year go on to a post-secondary institution. That’s 20 percentage points higher than the district average.

KIPP Bay Area Public Schools, KIPP NYC Public Schools, and KIPP Philadelphia Public Schools were also selected by the Ludwig Family Foundation to receive grants. The DC-based foundation launched a similar college fund with KIPP DC in 2014.

The DC KIPP chapter has seen success with the small grants, the KIPP Foundation’s leader, Richard Barth, wrote on Monday in a column for Forbes. Over the last four years, KIPP DC has offered 39 persistence grants to alumni in college, and 95 percent of those grant recipients are still in college or have graduated.

“These awards, which average around $3,200, provide critical support, like helping KIPP alumni take summer courses to fill credits and accelerate towards graduation or covering living expenses that can derail a college degree,” Barth wrote.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

As Indiana’s teacher pay debate heats up, some lawmakers say schools spend too much outside the classroom

PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School.

Facing a tight budget year and widespread calls for teacher pay raises, some Indiana politicians are questioning whether school districts are spending too little of the funding that they already receive in the classroom and too much on administration.

The lawmakers point to statistics from the Office of Management and Budget showing that 57 percent of the $11.9 billion state dollars schools spent in 2016 were used in the classroom. And a report using data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows personnel hiring across the country has dramatically outpaced enrollment, with non-teacher hiring dwarfing that of full-time teachers.

“While the number of teachers and students in our public schools have essentially flatlined, administration and non-teaching staff have ballooned,” House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, told fellow lawmakers in November.

But school districts — eager to receive more money for teacher pay increases that will make them competitive with neighboring states — are pushing back on the characterization that they aren’t using funding as efficiently or responsibly as possible. Trimming administrative payroll alone won’t be enough to raise money for higher teacher salaries.

“When people make broad brush stroke comments about funding, it’s easy to take a shot at administrators,” said Flora Reichanadter, superintendent of Pike Township schools. “There’s this misconception … that (districts) just kind of squandered their money, which is an absolutely inaccurate statement.”

But just figuring out how much of what Indiana spends on schools directly affects students is a complicated endeavor — and figuring out what share goes solely to teachers is even harder. We know that in 2015, the most recent year available, 38 percent of Indiana’s K-12 staff members were full-time teachers. But Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, said Indiana can’t isolate teacher salaries and benefits from those of other licensed educators in order to see how much schools and districts spend on them alone.

“Part of our discussion has been trying to isolate those numbers and trying to figure out exactly what that is,” Behning said. “We’ve had difficulty getting data … The fact that teacher by definition is not just a classroom instructor, but could be a librarian or any number of things.”

During last month’s ceremonial first day of the legislative session, Bosma said lawmakers and education advocates, including the state teachers unions, were working on a plan to ensure teacher raises are part of the state’s next two-year budget — mirroring efforts underway to raise teacher pay across the nation. Gov. Eric Holcomb said he also plans to address teacher compensation — in the short- and long-term — though it’s not yet clear whether that means any action in 2019.

But numerous interests are fighting for limited state budget dollars this year, so lawmakers are scrutinizing how existing state funds are being spent by school districts.

“I think we need to have an open discussion about how do we have efficiencies and drive dollars to the classroom,” Behning said. “There’s no question there are things we can do … how do we do more to streamline the operations of the system?”

As an example of cost savings, Behning said that many districts, some of them small and rural, have their own bus depots and maintenance teams — services that could be combined with other districts or cities and towns to reduce spending.

A 2017 report from EdChoice, a national pro-school choice organization based in Indianapolis, criticized school districts for increasing spending on non-teaching staff instead of using the dollars on teacher salaries. Marty Lueken, director of fiscal policy and analysis for EdChoice, questions whether that has helped students.

“Whenever I hear someone say that schools are struggling with large classes, or need more resources for schools or classrooms, or teachers should be paid more, I think about these hiring practices,” he added. “We could have had those other things, like smaller classes or higher take-home pay for teachers, if district leaders made different personnel decisions.”

But only looking at staffing and comparing spending on full-time teachers and to spending on non-teacher leaves a lot out of the picture, said Dennis Costerison, executive director for the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. On its face, that comparison underestimates what schools spend on other adults, such as counselors and principals, who work directly with students, and part-time instructors, who are often cheaper and easier to hire than full-time educators.

“Administrator,” too, is a finicky term, Costerison said. Sometimes, the term includes department heads, who might also be full-time teachers.

Money not spent on teacher salaries also funds resources necessary to ensuring clean and safe schools, such as custodians, accountants, human resources staff, and school safety officers.

Reichanadter, who previously led Franklin Township schools, said school funding has not kept pace with the cost of living, and even if it had, cutting administrative positions isn’t enough to add up to teacher raises.

“There’s only so much you can cut,” she said. “There’s only one of me. There’s 500 teachers. Divide my salary up between 500 teachers and we’re talking about maybe a cup of coffee.”

Administrators, she cautions, also do work that otherwise would fall to principals or teachers, who should be spending their time in the classroom or guiding instructions, she said, not doing payroll or buying supplies. And while some administrative work seems far removed from student learning, the tasks add up to an environment and a system where learning can be the priority, she said. Plus, she added, some non-teaching roles have naturally increased as schools have added services for vulnerable students, such as nurses, occupational therapists, and interpreters.

“It’s ludicrous for some of the legislators to conclude that we didn’t pay attention to this,” Reichanadter said. “I have to be a really good steward of my resources because if I don’t and I don’t compete with my local area, then I’m going to lose teachers and have a lot of turnaround … and that affects learning.”

Costerison added that a portion of a district’s non-teaching costs are the result of mandates made by the very legislature that is critiquing school spending, such as requirements around school safety, testing, and teacher training.

“Whenever bills are passed and laws are enacted, some of them do have repercussions from the standpoint of additional staffing and additional responsibilities for administrators and teachers,” Costerison said.

The state’s most recent 2016 report on classroom spending from the Office of Management and Budget estimates about 57 percent of state dollars go to the classroom — a figure that includes teacher and principal salaries, dollars spent on materials and textbooks, and pay for counselors and similar staff. But that percentage not spent on classrooms includes funding that state law currently says can’t be spent on instruction, Costerison said.

Those off-limits categories include money for building maintenance and debt service — money that, until changes in the state laws about district budgeting take effect next year, couldn’t go toward teacher salaries even if districts wanted.

Lawmakers will have a tough time come January deciding which funding asks to prioritize in the face of shrinking state revenue and several urgent competing issues, including the need to better fund the Department of Child Services.

“When you look at the revenue that exists, the funding, quite frankly, isn’t there at the moment,” said Sen. Jeff Raatz, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “The reality is that we have some significant hurdles we have to overcome to get where we need to go.”