THE CURIOUS CASE OF A $100 MILLION INVESTMENT IN EDUCATION COSTING $230 MILLION, AKA MATH IS HARD
“But we are living in a skeptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age; and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day..”
― James Joyce
Back in my drinking life, we'd be out at the bar most every night. Occasionally, as a result of being overserved, we would play the fool. There is nothing quite like waking up the next morning, after a night of drinking, with patchy memories and a sinking feeling that you were not your best self the previous night.
The natural inclination was to stay away from the bar for a couple nights, in hopes that either your behavior would recede from memory, or that someone else would provide new fodder for discussion. However, it was our rule of thumb, that you had to appear the next night as if nothing had happened. It was important to walk right in and claim your seat as if the very thought of embarrassment, or wrongful actions was an impossibility.
To be honest, it was a strategy that was often successful. Fellow patrons would see us acting with nonchalance and question their own memories. Surely if our behavior was as bad as remembered we wouldn't be showing our face so quickly, would we? We might share a couple chuckles over the previous night, but then new topics would arise, and seldom would another question come up.
Stay away too long, and the narrative would become that we were ashamed of our behavior, and tales of our exploits would become exaggerated. In a room always looking to cast stones and others, our absence would make us fodder for ridicule from others.
You might wonder why I'm bringing this memory forward today. Well. the performance of Commissioner Schwinn on Monday of this week in front of the Senate joint finance and education committee prompted the recollection. It was that egregious. This was to be the first trip out of the harbor for a bill that was expected to sail right through confirmation, and instead, she ran it ashore. Possibly permanently. At the risk of evoking another visit from the State Homeland Security, she screwed the pooch on this one.
Schwinn was testifying on the Governors bill to reform education funding for Tennessee's K-12 schools. Beyond being saddled with perhaps one of the worst acronyms in recent memory, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement(TISA) is a thinly veiled attempt at creating a funding formula that facilitates the future establishment of education vouchers in Tennessee. The process to adoption has been rushed, and the math fuzzy, but since it's the Governor's plan and his party enjoys a supermajority, expectations are that the bill will pass relatively easy. Unless Mrs.Schwinn keeps talking.
You know I love to draw sports analogies, so here's another. Much like the 2022 Kentucky Wildcats, Commissioner Schwinn leads a deeply flawed team that is playing their worse games late in the season. Despite ample evidence of those flaws, people overlook them because of the perception of talent that is given based on name and reputation. Both Schwinn and Kentucky have always won in the past, so surely they'll find a way to once again secure victory.
Unfortunately for the two, this week brought similar results. As most of you know by now, Kentucky was on the losing side of one of the largest NCAA Tournament upsets ever, beaten by a lowly ranked St. Petersburg that only won 19 games this year. Despite going into overtime, the result was never truly in doubt, nor should it have been a surprise to those paying attention. Kentucky was a team filled with talent but inexplicably unable to get on the same page as of late.
For her part, Schwinn may not have lost the game, but she certainly put her team in an inescapable hole with a performance reminiscent of the Wildcats. And like the Wildcats, the results should have come as no surprise.
Despite Senator Bell's best efforts to toss her softballs in the early going of the committee meeting -going so far as to make some of her arguments for her - Schwinn's testimony unraveled quickly. She was scattered, unprepared, and at times manic, ironically much like the Wildcats. As a result, she pretty much got kicked around by everybody, including normal allies like Memphis State Senator Akbari, as under questioning deeper and deeper flaws were exposed in the Governor's plan.
Flaws that are arguably unfixable. To remove the issues exposed during Schwinn's testimony would be akin to making a chocolate cake without the chocolate. In the end, you may still produce a cake, but it certainly wouldn't be a chocolate one.
The meeting lasted roughly two hours before the mercy rule was evoked, and the proceedings were closed. Expectations were that the House K-12 committee would hear the next round on Tuesday afternoon. That didn't happen. Nor did the bill get heard on Wednesday in either the Senate or House. Once again, it was rolled for a week. Considering that session is expected to end come mid-April, is concerning.
I suspect Schwinn and her allies have been hard at work at TNDOE this week churning out new infographics and trying to close holes that were left gaping by Monday's questioning. Unfortunately, it's going to take a little more than a fresh application of lipstick, a hairbrush, and a fancy new dress to obscure the fundamental flaws that Schwinn revealed before the Senate.
This bill is a recipe for the loss of local control and increased local taxes. Those tax increases are going to come sooner rather than later.
We could dive deep into Schwinn's testimony and find any number of areas where she was either unfamiliar with the subject or misspoke. Chief among those was when she described adjustments in funding to schools affected by student transience as taking place in real-time under TISA, and when she attempted to paint a picture where it would be clear how investment in specific areas would be measurable against student outcomes. We could spend gallons of ink on dissecting the incongruities between Ms. Schwinn's testimony and reality if we chose to do so.
But she made that conversation moot when she revealed the following in response to questions from Democrat State Senator Yarboro, Her comment strike to the crux of what is wrong with Governor Lee's funding proposal. Per Ms. Schwinn, in response to Senator Yarboro's question around the increased opportunity associated with TISA
"Remember, when you put in a #100 million in the base it still flows through weights and, therefore, $100 million actually generates $220 million in funding for public education."
For his part, Yarboro realized that sometimes you don't need to say anything, and he yielded the floor. The thread was instantly picked up by Republican legislators. First was Bo. Watson, succinctly pointing out, that in order to increase the base by $100 million, the General Assembly would have to put in $250 million. He then added, "We are not giving you $250 million."
Others picked up the thread and picked at it like a 3-day old scab. After the committee meeting, the Governor's operatives tried to paint a picture where Mrs. Schwinn misspoke. But the reality is that she spoke the truth, maybe for the first time this week. Let me explain.
Hypothetically, if the state adds $100 million to the base, all of that money should come directly from the state. That's not exactly true, the locals split the cost of both the base and the weights at an average rate of 70-30, though some districts will pay a higher cost based on fiscal capacity.
As Mrs. Schwinn points out in her testimony, adding $100 million to base increases the per-pupil expenditure from $6860 to roughly $6960, or $100. A district's portion of that would be approximately $30., again without getting into semantics. So, if a district had $10K kids, you are looking at an increase of $300K. The expectation has been voiced by the commissioner that the $100 million investment would be made every year. That's without the wights.
Add the weights in, and depending on a district's demographics, Its easy to see a scenario where that annual bill rises to a million dollars. Where is that money going to come from? Hint, local property taxes.
Now take into consideration that the Governor is talking about adding a billion in 2024. That one million dollars suddenly becomes $10 million for a district of 10K students. I don't have enough fingers or toes to count the impact on larger districts like Rutherford, Clarksville-Montgomery, Williamson, Sumner, or Wilson County, not to mention the core four urban districts. That's going to require substantial input from the locals, and if the money is not readily available...
this process has been solely focused on the student, and to some extent rightfully so. But, schools have a much larger impact. They are funded locally and in some cases, they are the county's biggest employers. to act as if the policy only impacts students is disingenuous at best. But in this case, even the student benefit is mitigated.
If the state holds true to its promise to annually fund schools at $100 million, that means about a 1% increase in the base for kids - not even enough to keep up with inflation. To do a customary 3% increase for inflation would require the state to invest at a minimum of $300 million. And if Bo Watson is right, and the General Assembly ain't giving the DOE $250 million, then I assume $300 million is off the table as well.
No matter how you slice, dice, or parse this program it falls apart on basic math. In an attempt to convince lawmakers of the benefit of TISA, the Commissioner drew some hypothetical scenario where lawmakers invested an additional $150 million in teacher salaries, Yea, that ain't happening and if evidence from other states that have enacted a similar holds true, a meaningful increase to the base isn't coming anytime soon. But that property tax increase sure is.
Without a substantial increase to the base, forget about teacher salary increases because that's where teacher salaries are addressed. You could pull the funding out of the base and make salaries directly funded, but that's expensive would require quotes, which is one of the advertised benefits of TISA. So that ain't likely either.
The Tennessean's Meghan Mangrum recently filed a story on the projected costs of the new legislation to local districts. It shouldn't be a shock to anybody fluent in math that she confirms the increased financial burden to LEAs. Twenty-eight districts are identified as being at risk to see an increase in cost in 2024. While some argue the number is slightly higher, others disagree with the premise.
Maryanne Durski, interim CFO and local finance officer for the Tennessee Department of Education - doesn't it feel like everyone at TNDOE serves on an interim basis - tells the Tennessean that bout 25% of local districts, including those 28, would have to increase taxes to meet required local matches if lawmakers added this year's proposed $1 billion increase in funding to the current formula, the Basic Education Program, or BEP. So we are left at an impasse.
Mangrum offers Grundy as an example of increased cost,
In fiscal 2023, Grundy County is required to contribute $2.29 million in local funds toward education, compared to the $13 million in state funding it receives. But in fiscal 2024, if TISA is implemented, the county will be required to spend $2.35 million.
It's worth noting that Grundy county has around 1780 students. MNPS has just shy of 80K students.
Here's another math problem. MNPS has lost around $4K kids. Through the required maintenance of effort, the funding has remained stable. But once you start identifying the exact dollar figure attached to each kid, the cost of those kids becomes quickly calculable. Losing 20 EL kids becomes a whole lot more costly than losing 20 kids with no weights. Twenty kids with no weight is a loss of $137200. Twenty EL kids come at a revenue loss of $154,360. That number becomes concerning as it moves to scale.
The irony of the Governor's plan falling apart based on the math in the wake of the state just updating its student math standards, and the math textbook adoption process just getting started, is not lost on me.
Like the fans of Kentucky basketball pre-tournament, legislators now find themselves in a conundrum. They can ignore the bill's flaws and try to pass it based on reputation and perception. Or they can recognize the flaws, take the time to fix them, and then make a true championship run. We already know how the former worked out for the Wildcats, so let's hope Tennessee's legislators choose the latter.
LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM
Over the past couple of years, Tennessee State House Representative Scott Cepicky has served as a bit of a whipping boy for public education advocates. The Republican from Muarry County didn't waste any time getting his feet wet before jumping full force into the education policy pool. Oftentimes in the past, his enthusiasm failed to match his knowledge, but this year we've seen some maturation.
While he was the primary champion for the state's ill-conceived library bill, he's also been the primary antagonist for school interests. Often calling them out for trying to gin the rules in their favor.
In defense of the latter, I think he would argue that his library bill is more about creating a process that allows for local control without giving a sole person the power to review books in the library than it is about censorship, a not unreasonable endeavor. Few would argue that every book ever written should be in a school library, the question becomes what is permissible and what is best left to community libraries and who decides.
As an avid reader in a world filled with non-readers, I can't help but wonder how many people have actually read the books under consideration - either as champions or critics. Unfortunately for Cepicky, much of the testimony around the bill ran off the rails and devolved into a bad Saturday Night Live skit. That's unfortunate. because I think like most of the subjects surrounding our schools, there is a more nuanced conversation that needs to take place but can't because of the rhetoric from both sides. We are all so quick to leap to offense.
The rise in social media has facilitated conversations around policy but also has birthed some unintended consequences. Among them is the need to treat every policy discussion as akin to rooting for our favorite sports team. It becomes all about scoring points on our perceived opponents and less about getting to the meat of the matter in an effort to craft quality legislation.
There has also been born a greater reticence to take a nuanced approach to controversial topics. Nobody wants to be subject to a post gone viral. People capable of seeing both sides of an issue are treated as if they suffer from malaise. As a result, most tend to shy away from conversations that risk misinterpretation. Cepicky has to date resisted that urge,. Instead of running away from the burning building, he keeps running into it. For that he deserves credit.
As chair of the House Education Committee-Instruction, he wields a lot of influence. He seems to be continually improving in how he applies that influence. In a recent committee meeting of the House Education K-12 Committee, he boldly pointed out that a bill being presented had previously been in front of his committee for the last 5 weeks, It was a bill that would force LEAs to make underutilized properties more readily available to charter schools. The sponsor had refused to make requested changes and instead found a way to get the bill switched to the K-12 committee. Cepicky publically took the sponsor to task for their course of action. It was a welcome rebuke.
I think sometimes we tend to get lost in outcomes and we fail to recognize the work in progress. Cepicky is definitely a work in progress, but one that continues to hold potential. That potential is worthy of recognition.
You can always count on Mrs. Schwinn and her minions doing one thing while your attention is focused on a mother. At this point, nearly everybody recognizes the state's Achievement School District for what it is, a failed experiment. Usually, when confronted with failure you abandon the strategy, but not so fast in Tennessee, There is a new RFI released by the TNDOE this week. it includes the following, which should fill education advocates with dread,
Through this RFI, the State seeks to:
Identify experienced and qualified non-profit entities (i.e., charter management
organizations and/or education management organizations) that are interested in
operating a zone of Priority Schools in Tennessee.
Non-profit entity’s ability to operate a zone of Priority Schools in Tennessee.
Non-profit entity’s capacity to operate a zone of Priority Schools in Tennessee.
Here we go again.
Earlier this month State Representative Robin Smith from Hixson was indicted for wire fraud. Smith wasted no time in resigning and accepting the fed's plea deal. Speculation is that she is fully cooperating with federal authorities, which can't be good news for Representative Glen Casada. Casada, you'll remember engaged in some questionable practices during the passing of voucher legislation and is indirectly named in court documents attached to Robin Smith. If Smith did roll on Casada, well then the Representative better find a bigger fish to roll on and only one comes to mind. All of this makes passing TISA all the more difficult. Sam Stockard of the Tennessee Lookout does a great job of connecting the dots.
MNPS students report back to school on Monday under new mask guidance. The mandate has been lifted and masks are now strictly optional. this represents a huge shift and it'll be interesting to see how it affects day-to-day operations going forward. It'll require adaptation from both teachers and students, but in my opinion, is long overdue.
That does it for today.
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