"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, March 06, 2015

Urge Your School Board to Support the End of Unethical Funding for Schools

I sent the following letter this morning to members of the Nashville Metro School Board.  Feel free to post excerpt from TMoE where you feel the need.

Dear Honorable School Board Members:

If you have not already decided, I am sure that you and your Board are considering whether or not to join Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Shelby County in calling for a full and immediate funding of the BEP. 

The BEP was approved by the State Board of Education in November 1988 as a result of pressure exerted by a lawsuit filed by small school systems of Tennessee (Tennessee Small School Systems v McWherter).  It did not become law until 1992, and even after that, it has never been properly funded.  As you are likely familiar with the recent history and continuing criticisms of the BEP, you may be missing some of the basic  legislative and court history.  I am sending along, then, an excerpt (pp. 87-92) from The Mismeasure of Education (Horn & Wilburn, 2013).

I urge you to support the call for full funding of the BEP, which is the first step to a fair and equitable system of public schools in Tennessee.  I also urge you press the Governor and the General Assembly to demand a moratorium on all punitive actions stemming from school accountability measures  until the BEP is fully funded.  At present, any punitive actions against underfunded students, teachers, schools, and school systems only compound the unfairness and unethical nature of high stakes education reform.

Thank you very much.  I look forward to becoming a part of the public school discussion in Nashville Metro, as I am in the process of moving from Germantown to Nashville.

Jim Horn, PhD

From pp. 87-92, The Mismeasure of Education:

….While educational funding in Tennessee had been under study for a number of years, the 1989 ruling by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Rose v. The Council for Better Education, Inc. (790 S.W. 2d 186) created an urgency to head off the same kind of expensive legal rendering in Tennessee.  In ruling the entire state school system unconstitutional in a 3-2 decision on June 8, 1989, the Kentucky Supreme Court had determined that

. . . Kentucky’s system of common schools is underfunded and inadequate; is fraught with inequalities and inequities throughout the 168 local school districts; is ranked nationally in the lower 20-25% in virtually every category that is used to evaluate educational performance; and is not uniform among the districts in educational opportunities (p. 9).          
At the request of the Tennessee General Assembly following the Kentucky decision, Dr. Brent Poulton, Executive Director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, reviewed the Kentucky case for the Education Oversight Committee.  In his review, he compared the Kentucky case to the Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter (851 S.W. 2d 139) case, which had been filed on July 7, 1988.  What Poulton highlighted for Tennessee legislators was that the Kentucky Supreme Court was now the education authority in the state of Kentucky, developing both the program and funding formula for all public schools.  In response to a question from Committee members about why state mandates for personnel had not been adequately funded in the past, Poulton replied that both the State Board of Education and the General Assembly had increased the need for personnel without regard for local systems’ capacity to fund those positions, thus amounting “to tinkering with an overwhelmingly archaic system.”  Poulton added, “if we’re really serious about having good schools in the State then we ought to go to the heart of the problem and change the system” (Legislative minutes, Tennessee House Education Oversight Committee, 7/12/89, Brent Poulton).

            Poulton then explained the data collected in past funding reports completed by the State Board of Education and sent to the governor and the General Assembly had “identified funding problems as the single greatest impediment to achieving the goal of having schools among the best in the nation” (Weeks, 1988, p. 1).  One report (Weeks, 1988) included an examination of the Tennessee Foundation Program (TFP), which was set forth in 1924 “as a means for insuring adequate funding in Tennessee’s public schools” (Weeks, 1988, p. 1).  Citing Tennessee as 51st in per pupil spending for public schools in both 1984 and 1988, the report identified three problems with the TFP:

            • There is no link between the changes in appropriations and changes in the costs of delivering programs and services at the local level.

            • The amount of funding provided is too little to ensure adequate funding of a basic educational program in all systems.

            • It does not ensure the children in Tennessee equal access to quality educational resources (pp. 3–4).           

The study recommended a basic education program that would adequately address needs for professional and support personnel, transportation and textbooks, staffing ratios, and expenditure levels.  While calling for a new formula to fund these essential elements equitably, the report was notably silent on learning programs.

            Having failed since 1909 in repeated efforts to equalize state funding for education, the State Board of Education used the Weeks (1988) recommendations to develop a new funding formula for the Basic Education Plan (BEP), which was approved by the State Board of Education in November 1988.  The new plan, which would not become law for another four years, sought to narrow the funding disparities across counties in the state by establishing the basic elements for school operation, by shifting more of the funding burden to the state, and by assigning the local funding share according to the local board’s ability to raise revenue (Snodgrass, 1990, p. 69).

            In spite of the State Board’s new funding formula, the State took a defensive position in response to the plaintiffs in the Tennessee Small Schools Systems case.  Aiming to minimize the State’s financial obligations, State Attorney General, Charles W. Burson, expressed the State’s position in a legal brief:

There are no constitutional rights to any specific allocation of funds for public education. All that is constitutionally required is some legislative scheme for funding public education that has a rational basis.  These requirements have clearly been met.  Even if students do not have computers or new textbooks as the complainant alleges, there is no indication that they are denied access to the fundamentals of education (“No guarantees for poor areas,” 11/27/88).
Cavit Cheshier, Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), responded that the defense’s brief
…reflects a narrow view of what is required for a basic level of education in today’s society.  Computers, up-to-date textbooks, modern vocational training equipment and reasonably sized classrooms are essentials for educating children and preparing them to live in an increasingly complex, technological society (“No guarantees for poor areas,” 11/27/88).
            Almost two years later, Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter (851 S.W. 2d 139) finally came to trial in Chancery Court on October 29, 1990, and after six weeks of argument, Chancellor C. A. High sided with the plaintiffs. Noting that “the statutory funding scheme has produced a great disparity in the revenues available in the different school districts” (Keese & Huffman, 1998, p. 165), the Court ruled that “under a uniform system [as guaranteed under the Tennessee Constitution of 1835], a child living in a poor district should have the same opportunity to receive substantially the same education as a child living in a rich district” (p. 165).  The State appealed the decision, which resulted in a 2-1 reversal by the State Court of Appeals in April 1992. The following year, however, all five justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court “endorsed the conclusions of the trial court and remanded the case for the trial judge to draft an order to correct the funding inequity problem” (p. 165). When Chancery Court held its hearing to begin drafting an order in July 1993, the State offered the 1992 passage of the EIA with a specific revised funding formula of the Basic Education Program (BEP) as new evidence that the State was making good on its responsibility to phase in an equitable funding formula.  Chancellor High was impressed and ruled that he would allow for the BEP to take effect before any further orders would be rendered (p. 165).

The BEP formula was comprised of forty-three separate funding components that included almost every aspect and category of school operations except the most expensive one: teachers. Another major exclusion of the new funding plan was a provision for “annual review of the actual costs of each component and for reviewing the formula each year to make adjustments for improving the system (Tennessee Small School Systems, et al. v. Ned Ray McWherter, et al. No. M2001-01957-SC-R3-CV, October 8, 2002, p. 5). Arguing that an equitable state system could not be achieved without an effort to equalize teacher salaries, the plaintiffs returned to court in what was known as Small Schools II.  In February of 1995, the Tennessee Supreme Court handed down a decision (Green, Smith, & Hydorn, 1995) in favor of equalizing teachers’ salaries across the state:  “The Court ruled that omitting teachers’ salaries from the BEP was a significant defect and had the potential to impair achieving the objectives of the BEP” (p. 9).

            The State’s solution was to pass new legislation that provided state funding to equalize teacher salaries in school systems where the average salary was below the state average of $28,094.  Because the plan did not provide for annual reviews or determine the state’s ongoing obligation in the same way that other funding components were reviewed and adjusted, the plaintiffs returned to court once again in Small Schools III.  The trial judge ruled in favor of the State that it had met its obligations to equalize teacher salaries, but on appeal, the State Supreme Court ruled once again in favor of the plaintiffs on May 1, 2002: . . . the salary equity plan in Tennessee Code Annotated § 49-3-366 fails to comport with the State’s constitutional obligation to formulate and maintain a system of public education that affords substantially equal educational opportunity to all students (Tennessee Small School Systems, et al. v. Ned Ray McWherter, et al. No. M2001-01957-SC-R3-CV, October 8, 2002, p. 7).  In rendering their judgment, the High Court clearly noted the State’s long-term resistance to establishing structures required for an equitable school finance system:

. . . the record supports the plaintiffs' argument that for the most part, the same disparities in teachers' salaries that existed when Small Schools II was decided still exist today. For example, in 1995, the City of Alcoa paid teachers an average of $40,672, while Jackson County paid teachers an average of $23,934, a difference of $16,738.  In 1997, Oak Ridge paid its teachers an average of $42,268, while in Monroe County the figure was $28,025, a disparity of $14,243. In 1998-1999, the disparity between Oak Ridge and Monroe County grew to $14,554. Thus, wide disparities still exist, and it takes little imagination to see how such disparities can lead to experienced and more educated teachers leaving the poorer school districts to teach in wealthier ones where they receive higher salaries.  In the end, the rural districts continue to suffer the same type of constitutional inequities that were present fourteen years ago when this litigation began (p. 13).
The BEP formula of the EIA offered a façade of deep-rooted education finance reform within the state funding structure for education when, in fact, the BEP proved ineffective in altering the long-standing inequities among the state school systems.  Peevely and Ray (2001) found that even when the phased in Basic Education Plan (BEP) reached full funding five years after passage in 1997, those underfunded systems named as litigants in the 1988 lawsuit against the State had improved funding, on average, only five percent “in comparison to both non-litigant and state average expenditure during the five year phase in of full funding (pp. 467-468). In 1999, plaintiff districts’ per pupil average funding stood at $4,577, while non-litigant average funding was $5,157 (88%), and state average funding was $5,077 (90%).  In 2000, the funding gap began to open up once more, and by 2003, almost all the progress made in narrowing the spending gap after 1992 had been lost once again (Center for Business and Economic Research, 2007, p. 41). Tennessee’s BEP formula did not adequately address the inequity in education funding between rich and poor districts.

            While it is clear that both poor and rich school districts suffer from underfunding when compared to the national average or to most states in the Southeast, citizens of poorer districts pay an unfair proportion of the taxes to support their schools.  Tennessee’s schools are funded by property taxes and local sales tax options, creating an inherent inequity (Edmiston & Murray, 1998) in both the distribution of the tax burden across income levels and between businesses and individuals, with the greatest burden falling on the poor who can least afford it: “if one compares the tax burdens of households earning $25,000 per year and $100,000 per year across all states, Tennessee has the most regressive tax system in the nation” (p. 193).  Based on 2012 calculations by the Tax Foundation (2012), Tennessee still has the most regressive tax system in the U. S.

            With a string of continuing reform “firsts,” from value-added assessment implementation to being one of the first two states to win a Race to the Top grant to singular recognition from the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, for “making unprecedented progress in producing statewide reform and boosting student achievement” (U. S. Department of Education, 2012) a 2012 report by the Education Law Center (Baker, Sciarra, & Farrie, 2012) showed that Tennessee compared poorly on four dimensions of education funding: funding level, funding distribution, state effort, and coverage.  Tennessee ranks 51st in the nation for funding level, which is described in the report as the “overall level of state and local revenue provided to school districts” in comparison to other states’ average per-pupil revenue (p. 6, 12).  When comparing the distribution of funding across local districts within a state to student poverty rates in those districts, Tennessee received a grade of C in comparison to other states (p. 7, 14).  Tennessee’s funding effort, or “the ratio of state spending to state per capita gross domestic product (GDP)” rated an F (p. 7, 22), while “coverage” or the funding for the proportion of school-age children that attend public school versus parochial or private school ranked 46th in the nation (p. 7, 24).

            Even when faced with State Supreme Court rulings, low national educational rankings, and continuing inequities between rich and poor systems, the executive and legislative branches of Tennessee government continued inadequate funding of education in the EIA, despite the rhetorical commitment to exceed the national achievement levels in Commissioner Charles Smith’s 21st Century Challenge.  Instead of the promised “comprehensive approach to funding schools” that would enable “accountability standards for quality and productivity” (Goal 10), the state offered poor school districts the high goals and accountability demands of the EIA without the needed funding to achieve goals or satisfy demands. At the same time, the state adopted new value-added accountability measures that served to mask the continuing disparities between rich and poor systems, while justifying the regressive tax increases that proved inadequate and as inequitable as the system they sought to remedy.  Meanwhile, Tennessee’s continuing rhetorical commitment allowed resources to be shifted without fanfare toward purposes other than education and the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Baker, B., Sciarra, D., & Farrie, D.  (2012).  Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card (2nd edition).  Retrieved from http://www.schoolfundingfairness.org/National_Report_Card_2012.pdf

Center for Business and Economic Research.  (2007).  Education crossroads:  Opportunities for you, me, and Tennessee.  Knoxville, TN:  University of Tennessee.  Retrieved from http://cber.utk.edu/tsa/tsa03/ch16.pdf

Edmiston, K. D., & Murray, M. N.  (1998).  Finances of Tennessee state government.  In J. R. Vile & M. Byrnes (Eds.), Tennessee government and politics: Democracy in the Volunteer State (pp. 197-198). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. 

Green, H., C. Smith, & S. Hydorn.  (1995, June).  Funding Tennessee schools:  From reform to restructuring.  Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations Report.  Nashville, TN:  TACIR.

Keese, N. & Huffman, J. (1998). Education in the Volunteer State. In J. R. Vile & M. Byrnes (Eds.), Tennessee government and politics: Democracy in the Volunteer State (pp. 151-166). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press. 

Peevely, G. & Ray, J.  (2001).  Does equalization litigation effect a narrowing of the gap of value added achievement outcomes among school districts?  Journal of Education Finance, 26(4), 463-476.

Snodgrass, W.  (1990, February).  Performance audit.  Nashville, TN: Comptroller of the Treasury, Office of Education Accountability Report.

Tax Foundation. (2012). State and local sales tax rates as of January 1, 2012.  Retrieved from http://taxfoundation.org/sites/taxfoundation.org/files/docs/state%26local_sales%26use_rates_jan2012-20120216.pdf

U. S. Department of Education. (2012, July 16). Statement from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on "Teacher Evaluation in Tennessee: A Report on Year 1 Implementation" (Press release).  Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/statement-us-secretary-education-arne-duncan-teacher-evaluation-tennessee-report

Weeks, K. (1988). A study of the Tennessee Foundation Program.  Nashville, TN:  Tennessee State Board of Education.

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