charter funding

Comptroller report underscores ‘insufficient clarity, transparency’ in Tennessee funding for charter schools

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Sen. Delores Gresham (at right) presents a bill this year on the floor of the Tennessee Senate. Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, requested this week's report from the state comptroller's office.

Tennessee guidelines are so muddled on how funding should be allocated to charter schools that it’s unclear whether those schools are receiving the correct amount of money from their local districts, says a report released Tuesday by the state comptroller.

After analyzing five years of enrollment and funding data, the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability concluded that “there is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee.”

The report, requested last winter from Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, comes as debate intensifies in Tennessee about the cost and impact of charter school growth on traditional schools, as well as the adequacy of state funding for public education.

The State Department of Education already is preparing legislation to bring before the General Assembly next year to address some of the concerns about charter school funding.

The findings have special significance to Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, home to the vast majority of the state’s charter schools, which are independent but publicly funded schools operated under a charter contract between the school and its authorizing agency.

In Tennessee, local districts allocate funding to charter schools based on the district’s total funding from state and local governments, along with district and charter school enrollment. The report keys in on questions about which local district enrollment numbers to use when calculating money owed to charters. Districts generally use their previous-year enrollment.

Charter school funding = (state and local money / district enrollment) X charter school enrollment

But the report highlights one case in which the state instructed Shelby County Schools, seemingly against protocol, to use the district’s current-year enrollment instead of previous-year enrollment. That resulted in Shelby County Schools shelling out $517,000 more to charter schools at a time when Tennessee’s largest district was reeling from decreased funding due to an exodus of students entering six suburban municipal school districts created in 2014.

“State law, State Board of Education rules, and Tennessee Department of Education policies do not currently provide clear and complete definitions of formula components districts use to calculate charter school funding,” the report said. “The situation has resulted in a lack of uniformity in calculating funding for charter schools across the state.”

In growing districts, such as Metro Nashville, state guidelines are also unclear about allocation of additional state funds meant to offset cost of an increased student population. That ambiguity could cause charter operators to lose out on state money or give them an unfair increase if they aren’t growing at the same rate as the local district — all dependent on how administrators interpret the guidelines.

District leaders in both Memphis and Nashville have bemoaned the amount of education funding being siphoned off to charter schools. Nashville commissioned two independent studies in 2014 and 2015 on charter fiscal impact, both of which showed managing charter schools comes at considerable cost to the local district, largely because of the administrative tasks involved with approving and regulating them, as well as the fixed costs of school buildings and loss of student revenue.

"... There is insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification associated with the calculation and receipt of charter school funding in Tennessee."Office of Research and Education Accountability

To Shelby County Schools board member Chris Caldwell, the report raises more questions about the state’s funding formulas than about districts’ handling of charter school funds.

“The real hypocrisy is the state talking about the lack of transparency and having a funding formula like (Basic Education Plan),” said Caldwell of the BEP, over which the district is suing the state. “The state has never done anything with the funding of education to be transparent about what they’re doing.”

Will Pinkston, a Nashville school board member and frequent charter school critic, was skeptical of report’s timing and of legislation being prepared by the state Education Department.

“This is a well-orchestrated prelude to a legislative agenda,” he said. “…This is about helping the charter movement.”

Leaders of the Tennessee Charter School Center commended efforts surrounding the report.

“Transparency and collaboration remain critical throughout this process and we look forward to working with the local districts and state officials to help establish increasingly more effective systems and procedures for accounting and distributing funds,” said a statement from the center.

Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, a black advocacy organization that promotes school choice, said the report rightly points out areas to improve with charter school funding, but misses the ongoing struggle for equitable funding for traditional schools.

“Are we also funding our traditional schools to what they’re needing? And the answer to that is no,” Grinter said. “We’re not doing enough at the state level, but the constant question is still going to be what we’re doing as a whole to make sure schools are getting the right amount of funding.”


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.