A LACK OF HONEST CONVERSATION
“Having once been so high, humanity fell so low. What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale.”
― John Kennedy Toole
This one today maybe a little shorter than usual. Not because there is a lack of things to cover -just the opposite in fact - but rather because my own economic realities are in play. in other words, adulthood is calling and I have to work at my paying gig.
Despite the challenges, I still feel it's important to highlight a few important things that transpired this week in regards to changes in how education is funded in Tennessee, with hopes of expounding on them in the near future.
Before we get into things, I want to highlight an element of conversation, that in my mind is essential to any discussion around policy championed by both the Governor and his education commissioner.
When you and I discuss policy we do so with certain agreed-upon tenets. Some of you would refer to you as facts. but they don't have to be. You and I could have a discussion about anything without any of the tenets being factual. Just having them agreed upon would suffice to make the appearance of a quality conversation feasible. That doesn't translate to a factual conversation though. In order to do that, the tenets would have to be rooted in fact, not just agreed upon by us.
The former is rooted in the hypothetical, and hence called a hypothetical conversation, and can aid in developing policy but not in arguing for adoption. For a conversation intent on arguing adoption and benefit, it is essential that all tenets are rooted in fact. Unfortunately, the conversations this week over the state's new funding formula, TISA, between Commissioner Schwinn and state legislators are more former and less of the latter. That may all be a little confusing, but allow me to explain.
This week the Commissioner has repeatedly touted during testimony that the adoption of TISA will allow for a direct link to be established between funding and student outcomes. Knowing the level of funding that each child receives will somehow magically inform us of our return on investment in public education. That's rubbish,
There is no data that supports the ability to connect funding to outcomes with the level of specificity to which Schwinn ascribes. There are just too many variables involved with student performance to accurately pull out one and declare it the definitive variable. It always becomes a question of cause or correlation.
For example, we know that having a quality teacher increases a student's performance on a standardized test. But how much of that increase is due to outside factors beyond a teacher's control? We know that the best teachers are often located in less challenging schools. So do the socio-economic factors contribute more to elevated student outcomes or does the teacher? I'm not trying to downplay the impact of either just pointing out the question of cause or correlation. Truthfully I don't know the answer to that question and as the spouse of a teacher, I'm certainly not going to downplay the contributions of a teacher.
The idea that TISA will produce data that allows us to look at a student's test score and determine that funding a tutor for them led to 4 points of growth, thus justifying the investment, is farcical. That improvement in student performance could have just as likely come from the fact that mom quit drinking and now makes him lunch every day, so he no longer goes hungry all day. Or the train that runs by his house every night changed its schedule and no longer wakes him up three times a night, thus allowing him to go to school every day refreshed. Either variable is just as likely as the tutoring to be a primary factor in the student's improvement.
Any legislator who votes to pass TISA based on some future ability to link funding to student outcomes is setting themselves up for some disappointment in the near future. So while the commissioner's answers to the questing by elected officials about outcomes had an outward appearance of quality, it really wasn't rooted in any semblance of fact.
Ironically enough, the commissioner pointed to North Carolina as a state that is generating this kind of data. That would be a state that ranks 41st in school spending and 45th in funding, to Tennesse's 45th and 43rd respectfully, North Carolina is also viewed as the 36th best state for education, with Tennessee being ranked 31. May just be me, but I don't see a healthy argument for emulating that state.
The representative is fond of saying that he wants Tennessee to be number 1 in education in the country. I don't think that the path for Tennessee to get to number 1 lies through North Carolina, any more than the Titan's path through the Super Bowl runs through Cleveland. We should be casting our eyes upward, not to the side or behind.
The way TISA is supposed to work is that each student receives a base funding rate and then additional funding for weights they qualify for, making it a student-based funding plan. Weights are set up as a percentage of the base plus the base for unique learning needs -poverty, characteristics of Dyslexia, EL. Under calculations done in the senate education committee meeting at the behest of a legislator, it was shown that the maximum a student could qualify for, if they qualified for all the weights, coupled with direct allocations, was $33K. That's a lot of lettuce, and while it could be argued this would be an outlier, it wouldn't surprise me if a considerable number of kids would cost in the 15 to 17k range.
If you are a kid in poverty who is an EL student attending a Title 1 school and showing characteristics of dyslexia, your price tag would be around $16k Not saying that said child doesn't warrant that level of investment, just making sure everybody is aware and on board with the pending financial cost.
Consider the words of Commissioner Schwinn when she answered questions from State Senator Helmsly about how districts could measure investment.
"Here's how much that classroom teacher costs in my district. That teacher has 20 students. I know that 1/20th of that teacher salary can be attributed to each student."
If that quote doesn't signal intentions, I don't know what does. But let's do some math.
If you have a teacher making $40k with 20 kids, each of them is kicking in $2000 out of their backpack. The same 20 kids with a teacher earning $60k are having their back lightened by $3000. As a superintendent, it doesn't take me long to figure out that I need a lot more $40K teachers than I do $60K teachers. For numerous reasons. How does this not foster inequities even more than in the past?
Some people have brought up the defense that TISA allows Governor Lee to add $9 billion to education funding and that's a good thing right? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure that the level of funding isn't the same as in the past and they haven't just rolled all of those things that were previously funded outside the BEP and brought them into the tent in order to claim an increase
Look at it this way, if I raise my son's allowance from $10 a week to $50 a week, I could claim that I've increased his weekly allowance by 5 fold. But if previously, I paid him $10 a week in allowance and covered his baseball-related expenses and morning visits to the quick mart, along with two meals out a week, and now I'm paying $50 a week, but I'm direct funding his baseball and he's expected to cover everything else, did I really increase his allowance at all, let alone 5 fold?
Throughout her testimony, when talking about funding, Commissioner Schwinn repeatedly claimed that if the General Assembly increased annual funding of education by $100 million it would "generate" $230 million in increased funding. I would challenge the assertion. The increased funding is not generating anything, but it is reaching into the Tennessee taxpayer wallets and plucking another $130 million. So the only thing being generated is a balloon payment.
Which relates to teacher raises. Yes, I guess TISA would allow, as claimed by Commissioner Schwinn, for legislators to direct increased funding to teacher salaries. But that's unlikely to happen. Salaries are included in the base, any increase to the base, undirected or directed, requires additional funding to meet the obligations created by the weights. So an investment of $150 million, the bare minimum, would require an investment of nearly $290 million. And again to paraphrase Senator Bo Watson at last week's committee meetings, nobody is giving you $300 million.
The only benefit to adopting TISA that I see, and they might not be perceived as such by everybody, is that it facilitates a voucher program and moves the cost of public education more into the realm of the locals. Yes, initially the investment is greater from the state is higher, but after those years pass the bill for locals will increase. To the Governor I'm sure those are attractive outcomes, To everybody else? I'm not so sure.
The bottom line is, we need to take a much deeper look at the potential unintended consequences of adopting this funding formula. Unless of course, the unintended consequences are really the intended consequences.
On Monday I'll have more, but this will have to do for now.
If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.
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