By Karen Campbell
When Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address last week, he focused on education, criminal justice and health care. The Press reached out to area leaders in these fields to offer a county perspective on key points.
Lee began his remarks with a challenge to deliver “world class education” that aligns with the “needs of the job creators of today and tomorrow.” To accomplish that, he said students need more guidance, teachers and principals need more support, and parents need more choices.
One action that will directly impact teachers is a recommended $71 million to the “fully funded” Basic Education Program (BEP) for a “well-deserved 2.5 percent pay raise for teachers.” The BEP is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools. The Board annually reviews and approves school system allocations generated through the BEP formula.
Weakley County Director of Schools Randy Frazier expressed gratitude for the governor’s support, but raised concerns regarding funding in his response to The Press.
“We are happy to get any additional funding and thank the governor for having public schools in mind. The teacher raises are much deserved,” he said. But he raised issue with the governor’s premise that the state is fully funding the BEP.
“We are not,” he stated. “We have almost 10,000 unfunded positions in the state that schools are paying for with local money. In our district, we have 30-35 positions not included in BEP.”
The funding formula is based on the number of students in the schools. Weakley County’s 4,000 students means that, for example, funding for one assistant principal is available, an allocation that is recognized by most of the audiences Frazier addresses as woefully inadequate. Another example is the number of school nurses. Weakley County receives funding for 1.6 nurses for the entire county, but has a nurse in every school.
Any shortages in funding must then be covered by local resources.
“If you call any superintendent, they will tell you we’re not funding appropriately what we need,” Frazier said.
The 2.5 percent increase for teachers’ salaries is also open to interpretation. In the BEP formula uses a designated amount for the certified salary rate for all teachers. That amount has been $47,150 – higher than that of a newly-graduated teacher, but lower than teachers and administrators with higher-level degrees and sometimes, decades more experience. Collectively, Frazier explains, the total amount does not cover a 2.5 percent increase across the board.
“When people are expecting a 2.5 percent increase and they don’t get it, it causes controversy,” Frazier noted.
In April, school districts will receive notification regarding the state averages and mandates related to teachers’ raises. Last year, sufficient funding was not included to cover the raises suggested. As a result of lower enrollment, Weakley County had to cut some teacher positions while simultaneously providing the required raises.
The Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents is looking at revamping BEP, which they consider to be a “broken funding formula,” Frazier said.
Lee introduced several new initiatives in his address including the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE Act), a $25 million investment to increase the number of young adults earning an industry certification and entering a career within one year of high school graduation; the Future Workforce Initiative, a $4 million effort to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – training in K-12 schools with the addition of 100 new Career and Technical Education programs; and new recurring funding for both FFA and 4-H youth programs.
Frazier sees the emphasis on CTE and adding more money for STEM as especially positive. But again comes back to the question of funding and whether the amounts will be one-time or recurring. While the new monies are appreciated, school systems left to sustain a new launch would once again have to turn to local sources.
Calling for “constant innovation” and the next “game-changer” for sustained improvement, Lee introduced support for “well-funded” and “highly-accountable” choices with respect to education. He doubled the amount of public charter school facility funding in his budget and said he would support legislation this year that makes it “easier to open good charter schools and easier to close bad ones.”
He also offered support of proposed Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are intended to enable low-income students from the most under-performing school districts to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family.
Lee acknowledged concerns that such programs will take money away from public schools and said his ESA plan will invest at least $25 million new monies in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school.
Frazier is one of those who has concerns. “My disappointment for doubling money for charter schools and adding for ESAs is that those additional dollars could have been put in formula for local schools to be funded appropriately. They have found a way to fund additional opportunities while public schools are struggling to fund positions needed to fund a quality school.”
“The scary part is where is money coming from?” he queried, noting that a few years ago when teacher raises were issued, funding for summer school and after school programs were cut. “So, I’m wondering what’s going to get cut? What’s taking the hit?”
“I’m always happy when we can get more money, but there is a big divide between fully funded and what we need to run quality schools.”
Funding questions are also behind Frazier’s concern related to the additional $30 million investment in a school safety fund that Lee mentioned in his address. Because Lee focused his remarks on “the districts with schools who currently have no school resource officers on duty,” Frazier is concerned that Weakley County’s fast action to secure SROs in each school might jeopardize access to this funding.
Frazier said he looks forward to the opportunity to address these and other matters when Lee reaches out for the input he mentioned in his address noting that all district leaders are “waiting on pins and needles until we see the details.”
“The Governor says he wants conversations with boards and I’m sure it’s going to be a learning process so I’m hoping the door is open,” he concluded.
To read the response to the governor’s take on criminal justice and healthcare, see the March 12 edition of the printed Press.