The Tennessee Education Association has reviewed the Tennessee Department of Education’s proposed rules to implement the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act. Please allow this document to serve as TEA’s public comment to the proposed rules.
TEA is a Tennessee non-profit corporation that has been in existence in Tennessee for more than 157 years. It is a voluntary membership association made up primarily of Tennessee public school educators, including directors of schools, principals, administrators, teachers, and education support employees from every school district in the state. TEA’s mission is to protect and advocate for Tennessee’s public-school students, the teaching profession, and TEA’s members to create great public schools that prepare all students for success in a global society. TEA’s review of the proposed rules reveals the following substantive concerns:
As written, the TISA rules do not require either the State Department of Education, the State Board of Education, or the various school districts that will be receiving the TISA funding to publish information concerning exactly how TISA funds will be allocated, budgeted, and spent in each school district. Parents of children being served in Tennessee's public schools should have access to detailed information concerning such matters. Since TISA was designed to provide each student with the resources needed to succeed regardless of their circumstances, the rules should also provide for educator access to information that sets forth the amounts that are allocated for each student. Doing so would ensure that educators are aware of student-specific funding responsible for student success.
Under BEP, the Comptroller publishes a BEP calculator that provides a spreadsheet that simplifies total state and local funding for each school district and provides a way for the public to review specific funding metrics for school systems. The proposed TISA rules, however, fail to require publication of like data. For the public to understand how a school district qualifies for funding, the rules should provide for publication of such information.
The rules set forth the department’s responsibility to collect data from school districts and to calculate the TISA allocations, but the rules fail to set forth how this information is to be displayed to interested parties such as educators, parents, and lawmakers.
The rules provide that the department is required to monitor LEAs and charter schools to ensure that students on an IEP receive educational services in the least restrictive environment and to develop corrective action plans when they fail to do so. However, there is no requirement that anyone, other than the school district be notified when the department identifies violations.
Also, the rules do not provide for publication of school districts that qualify for and receive outcome bonuses, fast growth stipends, infrastructure stipends, and Cost Differential Factors.
The appeal window for the department’s TISA allocations is not long enough at only 15 days. This can result in a loss of necessary funding for students.
- Educator Voice
Tennessee’s educators are certainly in the best position to see the impact of TISA on teaching and learning in Tennessee. The rules, however, do not allow for educator input as to the effectiveness of TISA after it has been implemented. A rule that would allow annual input from Tennessee’s educators on the efficacy of TISA is needed. For example, under TISA, school districts will be tasked with monumental budgeting decisions, but the rules do not require that school districts receive information from the state that shows how many teachers, counselors or principal positions are being funded in the base formula.
A periodic review or evaluation by educators and LEAs of the funding mechanism is crucial to determine the effectiveness of and ultimate success of TISA. Moreover, the monthly ADM reporting requirement will be a great burden on districts. The rules should have a provision for school districts to offer input and ideas on ways to streamline reporting requirements as they will be in the best position to know the most efficient and trustworthy way to report. This is critical because ADM’s and the unique learning characteristics that must be reported are the basis of funding for each district. That coupled with the very short appeal process set forth in the rules can result in students not receiving the resources they need to succeed. The last thing our students need is a loss of funding caused by a bureaucratic process that does not allow for constructive feedback and evaluation.
III. Committed Equity
The Tennessee Education Association believes that adequate funding does matter in the quest to improve achievement for all students. The rules must provide a system that ensures that all students achieve high levels of learning, and that funding is allocated in a fair and equitable manner. We urge that the rules be improved by including an equity lens.
The rules must include strong provisions that address race and class challenges and socio-economic segregation with a focus on narrowing achievement gaps. The rules must be designed to prioritize equity for our students through active engagement of parents, educators, and students. The rules must include mechanisms for local parents, educators, and community partners to be annually informed on TISA’s funding impact to their respective districts. In addition, the rules should create a process for these stakeholders to have deliberate impacts on the conditions of their schools in order to improve educational outcomes.
The rules should contain a system of accountability focused on assuring appropriate use of resources, prevention of fraud, equitable distribution of a culturally diverse school workforce and continued improvement of the learning environment. The rules must include components which allow for an ongoing assessment and evaluation of TISA’s impact in all of the previously mentioned areas.
The rules must include processes that ensure implementation of teaching and learning conditions proven to be best practices for student outcomes. Issues such as lower class sizes, high-quality professional development, increased recruitment of ethnic-minority educators, and culturally responsive teaching have all proven to have positive impacts on high-poverty schools. The rules must create conditions to diminish the relationship between student background characteristics and student achievement.
- Funding Adequacy
Even with new state funding for the current year, Tennessee is still behind neighboring states such as Alabama and Kentucky in state K-12 funding per-pupil. Funding per-pupil is an appropriate and important gauge for student opportunity in all areas of public education, whether it is elementary, secondary, vocational, or other paths of student enrollment. FY22 public school current expenditures per-student for neighboring southern states shows the issue with Tennessee education funding:
Alabama: $12,645 State share: 53.9%
Arkansas: $11,183 State share: 45.3%
Georgia: $13,032 State share: 45.0%
Kentucky: $12,343 State share: 51.6%
Mississippi: $10,089 State share: 46.5%
Tennessee: $11,437 State share: 45.3%
- Carolina: $11,651 State share: 57.1%
Only Mississippi and Arkansas are lower in per-pupil funding. Comparable neighboring states of Kentucky and Alabama show Tennessee $1,000 less per pupil in funding on average, including new state dollars for the current fiscal year. Bringing Tennessee up to Kentucky and Alabama per-pupil investment requires close to $1 billion above what those neighboring states appropriate for education in similar budget years. For TISA to be successful in rules and in overall implementation, the state must make a long-term commitment to become an overall majority funder of K-12 education.
TEA believes the growth factor in the BEP had a role in maintaining Tennessee state government as a minority funder in education. The phrase “fully funding the BEP” was based on appropriating for the growth factor in the state budget (inflation and increases in enrollment), a factor that also was in part funded by local government. BEP ‘growth,’ along with other appropriations often did not keep up with increasing K-12 funding levels of neighboring states, putting Tennessee often in the bottom-five of states for funding per pupil.
The absence of a clear ‘growth’ factor in the TISA formula may increase opportunities to improve overall state investment in K-12 funding by eliminating the political crutch the factor became in the BEP. However, the absence of a growth estimate could cause atrophy of state funding support for K-12 over time as increased costs and inflationary trends are not recognized at the outset of the budgetary process.
- Financial commitment to educators
It is clear the shortage of licensed teachers is growing in Tennessee. Improving educator pay and benefits is key in reducing the growing staffing crisis, and to attract and retain Tennesseans to the teaching profession.
The TISA law and proposed rules provide mechanisms to drive state dollars into teacher salaries. Based on current law increasing the state minimum salary schedule when new state funds are appropriated for the BEP Instructional Component, the ability of the General Assembly to earmark new appropriations for teacher salaries is an important aspect to improving teacher compensation and reducing the discrepancy of salaries for other college educated professions in the state.
However, the area that drives down the take-home pay for educators is the high cost of insurance for K-12 employees. The state can and must do more. The state provides less than half of the overall funding for health insurance for licensed education professionals and a small fraction for educator support staff. In some LEAs educators pay 55% of the monthly premium for their health insurance, totaling well more than $800 per month for family coverage.
The state should provide all K-12 employees the same benefit that state employees receive: an 80-20 share on monthly premiums for insurance chosen by the employee. While there are several programmatic means to achieve this goal equitably, the first step is the financial commitment of the administration and General Assembly. The fiscal note last legislative session placed the cost of this commitment to meeting educator insurance at state employee levels at $373 million, a massive figure currently being paid from the pockets of hard-working and dedicated educators. Solving the health insurance issue is the most effective means of markedly increasing take-home compensation, the single most important step in educator retention.
- Incongruities of TISA for current rules and policies
As Tennessee moves forward with TISA, the department will need a thorough review of current education laws and rules to identify incongruities between the new funding formula priorities and requirements and what exists currently.
As an example, TISA and the proposed rules place a new heightened focus on Career and Technical Education (CTE). The goal of the new law and proposed rules—along with the massive increase in state funding for CTE—is to markedly increase the number of secondary students engaged in vocational programs and gaining industry certifications. However, there are no changes to the requirement that all secondary students take the ACT—even those fully immersed in CTE programs—and that overall scores from the college-admission test continue to be applied to schools and LEAs in the state accountability system. As any educator will note, motivation to take an exam is as important as knowledge of the content. Clearly students on a career path as outlined in these proposed TISA rules may see the ACT as a nuisance and unnecessary, depressing scores and penalizing schools with robust CTE programs. Certainly, the focus on increasing CTE offerings as outlined in the proposed TISA rules will reduce the ability of schools to schedule students in ACT prep courses currently offered, again courses that may not seem important to CTE students.
These types of incongruities between new TISA priorities and current laws, rules and policies need to be outlined and addressed.