Who Is In Charge

Lawmakers: Increase education spending, but keep courts out of school funding debate

PHOTO: Flickr

State legislators easily passed a bill Tuesday to increase funding for public education next year, while also voting narrowly in favor of a constitutional amendment that would give judges less say over school funding.

The House Administration and Planning Committee unanimously approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan, which would increase education funding by $261 million including more investments in technology, teacher salaries, and English language learners. The bill also would codify the state’s funding formula, which has been in flux for more than two decades, with three court decisions spurring the legislature to overhaul the way it funds public schools.

The committee then voted 7-5 in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution to emphasize the General Assembly’s role in setting education policy. The sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, says the amendment, which eventually would require a referendum vote by Tennesseans, is designed to block “tyrannical” judges from demanding certain education policies, including possibly more funding.

Dunn cited Kansas as an example of courts overstepping their bounds. There, a 2014 State Supreme Court ruling identified unconstitutional disparities among school districts and ordered the legislature to address them by a July 1 deadline. Then a lower court recently ruled that the law put in place by the Kansas legislature to fix the disparities is inadequate.

“We see across the country that there are judges stepping in saying no, we’re going to make the policy for our school system,” Dunn said.

Dunn was pressed on students’ rights to an equitable education by Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Democrat from Rock Island, who credits his public school education in part to increased school funding that resulted from court orders. Dunn responded that he supported past lawsuits that led the legislature to boost education funding, but is concerned about potential judicial overreach in the future.

It’s not clear how either the proposed constitutional amendment, or the governor’s proposed budget, would impact two current school funding lawsuits against the state filed by school boards in Shelby and Hamilton counties, along with six smaller districts.

Dunn said he has not yet received a response from the state attorney general about how the proposed amendment would affect the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which was key in a court ruling that led the legislature to craft Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) in 1992, as well as the 2002 lawsuit that prompted BEP 2.0.

The legislature passed BEP 2.0 in 2007 but, because of the Great Recession, it has never been fully funded. Instead, Tennessee has been using a hybrid of the two BEP formulas. The administration’s bill, based on two years of review, proposes to stick with that hybrid.

“We’ve taken a really focused effort to look at the way we distribute the dollars,” said Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of education. “In the end, when we looked at the outcomes, we really feel like what we’ve been doing the past nine years is an appropriate way to distribute the dollars.”

But that likely won’t appease districts seeking more money and changes to the funding formula. In March, seven school districts in southeast Tennessee, led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in education inequality across the state. The state has urged dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education, an argument that likely would be bolstered under the proposed constitutional amendment.

Shelby County Schools’ lawsuit maintains that the state doesn’t provide enough funding for its most vulnerable students.

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Despite the legal questions, Smith told lawmakers that districts should rejoice over education spending increases. Districts would get $178 million more for teacher salaries than the amount guaranteed by BEP 2.0, he said. Smith added that the budget bill mandates that districts who pay teachers below the state average spend money allotted for teacher pay on actual salaries, not insurance costs, so teachers can feel the difference.

“This is a record investment for education,” Smith said.

Both Dunn’s amendment resolution and the budget proposal will be heard next in the House Finance Committee.

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: