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School Finance 101: Smoky Mountain Smokescreen: A Tennessee Story

My last post was about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s role in starving the Philadelphia school district into submission. The failure by deprivation of the city district has now been used as a basis for blaming the district and its employees – primarily teachers, for that failure.

Of course, once the district has been quietly squeezed into submission over time, the obvious reformy answer for fixing Philly schools (along with expanding the policies that have not worked so well for the past 10 years, including charter expansion and private management), is to subvert existing employee contracts and district/city policies to break the union stronghold that protects the interests of teachers over those of children. Two steps toward this end game include eliminating “last in, first out” layoff preferences and adopting “mutual consent” teacher placement (save discussion of slashing contractually obligated pensions for those who put in years of service at modest wages for another day).

These are classic smokescreen reforms which a) have little to do with the district’s current mess and b) do little to improve conditions. First of all, a simple back of the napkin cost-benefit analysis shows that the supposed gains from replacing seniority based layoffs are very small [nickles & dimes won’t close this gap]. Second, yet another study has (first study summary, second study) shown that seniority provisions in district contracts aren’t associated with or a drive within-district, between-school disparities. Besides, it’s not like “within district” disparities across schools were/are the primary problem facing Philly!?!

The bottom line is that none of this stuff has anything to do with actually improving the conditions of public schooling in Philadelphia. If proponents of these resource-free (yeah… $50 million in the Philly context is still relatively resource-free) policy changes really think it does, then they are even more clueless than I thought.

But this post isn’t about Philly… well… okay… the first part is. This post is about an entire state that has taken a similar approach – Good ol’ Tennessee. Yeah… that’s right… racin’ to the top Tennessee.

And this post is about yet another, emerging reformy smokescreen! Teacher licensure reform!

There’s a whole lot goin’ on in Tennessee these past few years, and weeks. Most notably, in recent weeks Tennessee was praised by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for its changes to teacher licensure.

“I want to praise Tennessee’s continuing effort to improve support and evaluation for teachers. For too long, in too many places, schools systems have hurt students by treating every teacher the same – failing to identify those who need support and those whose work deserves particular recognition. Tennessee has been a leader in developing systems that do better—and that have earned the support of a growing number of teachers. Tennessee’s new teacher licensure rules continue that effort, by ensuring that decisions on licensure are informed by multiple measures of their effectiveness in the classroom, including measures of student learning. The new system also adds reasonable safeguards to make sure any judgment about teacher performance is fair.”

Under these new policies, teachers in Tennessee will have to produce student test score gains to obtain, or keep their teaching license and to keep their jobs/careers.  After all, it is well understood that overpaid lazy unionized teachers with fat pensions are the undeniable cause of Tennessee’s persistently low NAEP scores.  Oh wait… Tennessee already had very weak union protections… coupled with their low NAEP scores… silly me (complete post).

Yep, that’s right. Teacher tenure and license renewal in Tennessee will now be subjected to a roll of the dice!

Tennessee will strive through aggressive deselection, via licensure requirements, (of the 1/3 for whom scores can be generated), to achieve a statewide system of Irreplaceables!

The true reformy brilliance here is that these changes, with little doubt, will cause the best teachers from around the region and even from Finland, Shanghai and Singapore to flock to Tennessee to teach…at least for as long as they don’t roll a 1 and lose their license (pack your dice!).  In fact, it is a well understood reformy truth that the “best teachers” would be willing to take a much lower salary if they only knew they would be evaluated based on a highly unstable metric that is significantly beyond their direct control. That’s just the reformy truth! [a reformy truth commonly validated via survey questions of new teachers worded as "don't you think great teachers should be rewarded?" and "Wouldn't you rather be a teacher in a system that rewards great teachers?"]

No money needed here. Salaries… not a problem.  Resource-Free Reformyness solves all!

All that aside, what do we know about the great state of Tennessee?

Let’s take a visual/graphic stroll through some of these issues.

First, here’s the relationship between funding effort (state and local spending as a share of gross state product) and funding levels. Specifically, this graph looks at the predicted state and local revenues (based on the model used in our funding fairness studies, updated with 2009-2011 data) for districts with high poverty concentrations.

Figure 1.


Hmmm… Tennessee is certainly no standout there – well – actually it kind of is – and not in a good way – better than Arizona I guess…slightly. Really low spending… and really low effort to get them there. But heck, schools don’t need money… they need reformyness! Just like Philly!

Besides, with some solid teacher compensation reforms – dumping the lazy overpaid deadwood – a little pension slashing – tenure based on test scores… license renewal based on test scores – we can have the greatest teachers in the world (or at least close to Finland) and maybe even spend less than Arizona!

Here is the current relationship between the average “competitive wage” for teachers and funding effort. Here, competitive wage is based on a regression model of U.S. Census data in which I compare the average teacher wage, on an hourly basis (controlling for hours per week and weeks per year) with the wages of non-teachers at the same age and education level (among only those with a BA or MA). 100%, or 1.0 means teacher wages are roughly at parity with non-teacher wages on an hourly basis (other models, such as the one here, typically produce lower relative wage estimates for teachers).

Figure 2.


So, it would seem, that teacher wages in Tennessee overall aren’t that competitive. And relative wages matter! But hey… what’s it matter if we throw in a little more career uncertainty!

Here is Tennessee’s public school funding effort with respect to the income gap between public and private school enrolled children – public school household income to private school household income ratio. Hmmmm… it doesn’t look like Tennessee’s higher income households are particularly invested in the public system.

Figure 3.


But heck… we know that those higher income families will flock back to the public schools as soon as they can rest easy knowing their child’s teachers will only keep their license if their child cranks out sufficient test score gains!?!

Now, it’s one thing for Tennessee politicians to move forward with these teacher licensing policies with their own political goals in mind, ignoring the real issues – their persistent underfunding of the entire state system for decades (or more).  And it’s one thing for someone like Andy Smarick to be so belligerently uniformed about Philadelphia.

It is yet another, however, for the U.S. Secretary of Education to continue patting state and local school officials on the back for completely ignoring the real issues severely undermining their public education system.

My point here is that we all need to start looking at the BIG PICTURE regarding these state systems of schooling – the context into which new policies, new strategies, “reforms” if you will, are to be introduced. As I’ve noted previously, even if some of these reform strategies might be reasonable ideas warranting experimentation, whether charter expansion or teacher compensation and licensure reform, none can succeed in a system so substantially lacking in resources, and none can improve the equity of children’s outcomes unless there exists greater equity in availability of resources.

Yeah… I know it’s tough for the punditocracy, the ignorati as some have called them, to actually try to contextualize reform proposals to better understand the complexities of actually makin’ stuff work.  In fact, I’ve grown to understand that some of them, on either side of the aisle, really don’t care.

But there’s no excuse for the U.S. Secretary of Education to do the same…



and Over again!

Please stop the madness!

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Bruce D. Baker

Bruce Baker is Professor and Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami. Professor Baker is widely recognized as the nation’...