State-run district’s per-pupil expenditure not included on state report card

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

When Tennessee’s department of education rolled out a sleek new “report card” last month to help parents compare school districts, it did not include how much money its own Achievement School District (ASD) spends on each child. It did include that information for every other district in the state.

The ASD is tasked with turning around the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. If and how it will turn around those schools has been a subject of debate and is being closely watched by educators and politicians around the country. Knowing the districts’ per-pupil expenditures helps observers understand the resources going into that turnaround.

Tennessee’s urban superintendents have long complained that legislators dole out money to districts in such a convoluted way that the state’s neediest children are stuck in schoolhouses that can’t afford quality teachers, textbooks and basic facility upkeep. Tennessee was recently ranked 49th in the country in per-pupil spending.

Per-pupil funds are made up of local, state, and federal tax dollars and are distributed based on a formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP. Districts may use that money to pay for salary and curriculum, central office expenses, debt payments, capital improvements, and more.

Based on that formula, the ASD’s spokesman Elliot Smalley said the district’s per-pupil expenditure is $10,179. That’s slightly more than the state’s average of $9,293 on the 2012-13 report card, but less than the two districts from which the ASD absorbed its current schools. According to that report, Metro Nashville Public Schools spent $11,421.35 per student and Legacy Memphis City Schools spent $11,570 per student. Legacy Shelby County spent $9,123 on each child.

The ASD was created by the state’s First to the Top law in 2010 and got start-up money from a federal Race to the Top Grant, said Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state’s department of education.

The ASD’s boundaries are not dictated by geography (15 of its schools are spread throughout Memphis and one is in Nashville). It could eventually run more than 50 schools across the state. Its schools, most of which are run by charter operators, have autonomy over their budgets, hiring practices, curricula and other policies that are usually determined by regular districts’ central offices. 

According to Gauthier, the state didn’t report the ASD’s per-pupil spending on the report card released last month because there’s not an “apples-to-apples” comparison between the ASD and regular districts: The ASD is planning to expand quickly and is building infrastructure and capacity as it goes, she said, though it intends to maintain a small central office.

“The ASD is a district that’s set to grow,” she said. “There’s no apples-to-apples metric…If you are starting out and you have six schools, but you know next year you have 23, you don’t start on August 1 with brand new teachers and buildings. You’ll always have more [funds] than the number of students who are currently enrolled” [because you’re planning for next year’s growth].

A portion of the ASD’s per-pupil funds are taken from the districts the students come from, Gauthier said.

Just how much districts should spend on students’ learning is a topic of debate. For instance, Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University, says the numbers indicate that many times, charter schools that perform better academically often outspend other public schools. Other organizations, including free-market proponents at the Beacon Center in Tennessee, say that how much a district spends matters less than how those funds are allocated.

Here’s the ASD’s report card, with the spot where per-pupil expenditure would usually be listed highlighted (click to enlarge; the relevant information is in the bottom left-hand corner):

ASD screen shot annotated
Achievement School District’s report card for 2013

For comparison, here’s legacy Memphis City Schools’ report card:

Memphis City's report card
Memphis City district’s report card from 2012-13, with per-pupil spending highlighted.


As of Friday, the state had not updated the ASD’s report card page with the per-pupil expenditure reported by Smalley.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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