New report

Tennessee gets a C-minus for public education, and an F in school spending

Gov. Bill Haslam oversees budget hearings last fall. Haslam has increased K-12 education spending over the last couple of years.

Tennessee doesn’t spend enough on public schools, but it distributes what it does spend relatively fairly, according to a new national report.

The state earned a C-minus overall in public education on Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report, ranking 36th of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. The overall grade takes into account finance, performance and “chance for success,” a category representing the role that education plays in outcomes from early education to adulthood.

Tennessee’s lowest grade was in spending: an F and a national ranking of 46th. However, the state received a B-plus and ranked No. 5 for equity in distributing funding across districts. The finance grade was based on federal data from 2014.

The state’s highest grade was in the category of “chance for success,” scoring a 73.7, or a C.

The report, released last week, comes as Gov. Bill Haslam prepares to present his annual budget for 2017-18 following several years of spending increases for K-12 education. He hinted after a budget hearing in November that he’ll propose more increases for teacher pay, but nothing drastic.

“We will continue to invest in education whenever we can, but we would like to be thoughtful,” Haslam said.

Education funding, and how it should be distributed, has been a perennial fight in Tennessee, spawning three lawsuits from local districts in the last two years.

The Tennessee Legislature convenes on Jan. 10.

money matters

Educators agree student funding in Michigan is broken. This group hopes their research will change that.

PHOTO: School Finance Research Collaborative
Children play instruments in a classroom in a video by the School Finance Research Collaborative.

After 19 months and hundreds of interviews with educators across the state, a collaborative of Michigan school officials, former legislators and business leaders is set to release recommendations next month for a better way to fund schools. 

The Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation and a $100,000 grant from the Mott Foundation. Combined with a 2016 grant from Kellogg and contributions from 18 intermediate school districts, the group has raised $842,609 to fund the study.

The collaborative has high hopes for this project because the report uses information from hundreds of diverse sources to decide how to properly fund Michigan schools.

“School finance in Michigan is broken,” said Robert Moore, project director and deputy superintendent of finance and operations at Oakland Schools. “You have to have good information to support the reform efforts.”

A study of Michigan school finance last year recommended that the state increase school funding level to $8,667 per student with additional funds for children who have special needs and those who are still learning English. The majority of schools in the state still receive less than $8,000.

That earlier state-funded study was largely ignored by lawmakers but Moore says he believes the new study coming out next month will paint a fuller picture of the challenges facing Michigan schools and will have a stronger impact because it uses different methods to determine whether districts are sufficiently funded.

While the state’s 2016 study did provide a breakdown of student education costs, the effort from the School Finance Research Collaborative will include information from current and former teachers, something the previous study did include.

The prior study only looked at “successful” schools to determine how much funding schools need. It did not consider whether some students are more expensive to educate. 

“They only relied on tests scores, meaning if you take a wealthy district, kids come in at the 80th percentile and they leave at the 80th percentile,” Moore said. “What about a district that has kids come at 20 and leave at 65? They weren’t included, and neither was special education or charter schools.

“When we redid this, we insisted on two other methods, so in the end Michigan would have the benefit of three total methods, and that will make the resulting information really powerful in driving school finance reform,” he added.

This time, researchers used two additional methods for the new study.  A total of 266 educators, two thirds of whom were teachers, shared their experiences and views on student financing needs. Researchers looked at geographic cost differences, labor cost differences, and analysis of geographic isolation, among other factors.

The new research is already set to be used by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, whose co-chair, CEO of the Skillman Foundation Tonya Allen, is also a member of the financing project. (The Skillman Foundation is also a Chalkbeat funder). The study’s assessment of special education costs will support a key coalition priority to change the way schools in Michigan are funded. 

“We need to know the answer and the true cost” of educating students, Moore said, so the collaborative can work “to help move Michigan toward a better place.”

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”