Chalkbeat explains

Memphis suburbs are receiving federal money for more poor students than they have. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal
In a 2015 photo, a student says goodbye to her friend as the pair board buses for home at the end of a school day at Bartlett Ninth Grade Academy.

Last school year, the small Lakeland district outside Memphis received about $64,000 in Title I funds to help educate poor students. Next year, it’s expecting nearly $427,000.

The Collierville district, 20 miles away, got about $635,000 last year. Next year? It’s expecting more than $3.1 million, a 490 percent jump.

And Germantown will do best of all. That district expects its Title I funds to increase nearly 850 percent to $2.2 million.

But poverty hasn’t risen precipitously in those places, which split off from Shelby County Schools in 2014 to form smaller districts and which have far fewer poor families. A quirk in the rules for allocating those federal funds will give all but Millington a big budget boost next year.

Combined, the five municipalities will receive an extra $7.1 million.

Meanwhile, in what could be described as a cruel irony, Shelby County Schools is set to receive $5 million less in Title I funds than it did last year — in part because of the secession of those six districts.

The changes have flabbergasted local educators.

“Something’s wrong with that equation,” said Deborah Atkins, who lives in Bartlett and teaches in Shelby County Schools. “I know we have (poor) students in the municipalities, but it’s not equitable.”

Those slated to benefit from the extra cash aren’t sure what it all means, either.

“I was surprised,” said Tammy Mason, superintendent of Arlington Community Schools, another one of the municipalities. Arlington is set to receive an extra $897,000. “We don’t have a plan yet.”

The funding shifts are another significant consequence of the tumultuous merger and subsequent de-merger of Memphis’s urban and suburban school districts. They also reveal how the labyrinthine method of allocating Title I money can perpetuate significant inequities.

Chalkbeat asked local, state and federal officials to explain the changes. Here’s what they told us.

Why is Shelby County Schools losing Title I money?

Last year, Shelby County Schools received $65 million in Title I funds. Next year, that number is expected to drop by 8 percent, or $5 million. There are three key reasons why, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

PHOTO: Katie Kull
The Foote Homes housing project, which is scheduled to be razed and redeveloped, has been home to thousands of Memphis families since it was built in the 1940s to serve as low-income housing for African-American families.

One: Shelby County Schools has a smaller share of the nation’s poor.

Title I funding is allocated based on each district and state’s portion of the total number of poor students in the U.S. That means that when poverty in one school district increases faster than in others, it shifts money away from those other districts even if their poverty levels haven’t changed.

And the share of those students living within the boundaries of Shelby County Schools has dropped, from 0.51 percent to 0.42 percent.

Two: The district is now smaller in the eyes of the federal government.

This year was the “first to reflect to creation of the new municipal school districts, which meant that the boundaries for Shelby used in the Census estimates were smaller than those used in the prior year,” according to the U.S. Title I program office.

Three: The new federal education law allows the state to withhold more Title I money from districts.

That money, taken from all Tennessee districts, will be redistributed by the state for school improvement efforts. Since most of the state’s lowest-performing schools are in Memphis, the district can expect to get a good chunk of that back.

Why are those five breakaway districts gaining $7 million?

This year will be the first year the U.S. Department of Education recognizes the six municipal districts in its funding calculations — nearly three years after the smaller districts formed.

That’s because the federal government only updates its list of school districts and boundaries every two years, and calculations about poverty lag another year behind that.

In the meantime, Title I funding for Shelby County Schools and the six municipalities was given to the Tennessee Department of Education as a bulk sum. The state then divided it among the seven school districts based on the percentage of poor students enrolled in food or income assistance programs and a few other criteria.

Now that the federal government recognizes the six municipal districts, a new process has kicked in to establish Title I funding levels.

In the first year of that process, each municipality inherits the student poverty level of the district it broke off from — in this case, Shelby County Schools. This is true even if poverty rates between the districts are drastically different.

State education officials called that policy “counterintuitive” and urged federal officials to reconsider. But the state ultimately accepted the extra funds when federal officials informed them that the money would go to other states if they declined.

Note: Shelby County Schools includes some unicorporated areas outside Memphis city limits
Source: Tennessee Department of Education (2015-16) and American Community Survey (2015)

Over the next three years, the Title I funds sent to the municipalities will gradually decrease to match their own poverty rates.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education

Why is one district losing a bit of Title I funding?

Not all of the municipalities are gaining money out of this policy. Millington’s student poverty rate is significantly closer to Shelby County Schools’ rate, so inheriting the larger district’s numbers didn’t change much.

In fact, the district is slated to lose nearly $128,000 this year. Officials say they have planned for that, and will take about $30,000 from Millington’s reserve fund to help make up the difference.

“We believe we’ll be able to carry on with the things we want to do,” superintendent David Roper said.

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”