JC Bowman: Helping Tennessee’s Governor Keep His Word On Education

by J.C. Bowman

Leadership is defined many ways.  However, if you are out in front on an issue and nobody is following, your future as a leader may be short lived- no matter who you are or what your title is. Such has been the debate with the Common Core Standards and PARCC Testing in Tennessee.  Children are not guinea pigs.  Neither are educators.  Leaders understand that it is not the role of elected officials to force their opinions or ideas without the consent of the governed. State leadership has failed to coherently articulate on K-12 Education Policy to citizens.  Subsequently, a very vocal and growing opposition has formed. That is the reality in which we have all found ourselves, policymakers and stakeholders alike.

Personally, and as an organization, we have embraced higher standards, with the caveat that we should always seek higher standards and a commitment to student achievement.  To the critics of Common Core-96% of the previous standards are contained in them; to supporters of Common Core- 96% of the previous standards are contained in the previous standards.  We have waged a costly and somewhat senseless argument over 4% of the standards.  The dispute was concentrated on the periphery issues.  We have always understood this was not our first stop or the last stop on the standards’ train.  However, we have cautioned, to all who will listen, that many districts were not prepared to move forward on PARCC Testing.  The technology simply wasn’t in place.  It is unfair to hold teachers’ accountable for a flawed product in an imperfect system.  This message has fallen on deaf ears at the highest level of state government.

We offered to work with the state, with and through, other education organizations to address legitimate concerns about Common Core State Standards and PARCC Testing.  The message from top leadership in the Haslam administration and their allies in those organizations: our help wasn’t needed.   When many superintendents opined legitimate concern over their attempts to obtain a voice within the administration, we could also relate.  We share the view that school teachers, principals and superintendents are habitually regarded by this administration as impediments to school improvement rather than partners. Fortunately, the Tennessee House and Senate have listened and we are grateful to those legislators.

The critic, Niccolo Machiavelli, taught us that assertions of virtue and integrity in politicians are often grinning masks of deception.  So we are not surprised when politicians routinely overpromise and underdeliver.   Governor Haslam pledged to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries.  We intend to help him keep his word.  His announcement was included in a special meeting in October, as well as confirmed in the State of the State speech in February.  If revenues are not there, or projections were not met, we have to ask:  how could the Governor of Tennessee not know that the state could not meet his bold pledge as late as February 2014?  We need competent people in position to identify financial pledges prior to making grandiose promises.

We modestly offer a few criticisms and propose how to “fix” the problem.  For example, if we continually assert that Tennessee had the most ‘growth’ of any state on the latest NAEP results, why were teacher salaries a lower priority than unproven PARCC Testing or adding Media/Marketing and Event Coordinators at the Tennessee Department of Education?  Our recommendation, delay or find a less costly alternative to the PARCC Test and move the savings back into teacher salaries.  We also suggest that the state eliminate the new media/marketing positions and event coordinators at the Department of Education.

Governor Haslam has justly boasted “we are one of only six states in the country that has consistently increased state spending on K-12 education as a percentage of our total budget.”  He has added that since 2011, “we’ve had the fourth largest increase in education spending compared to the rest of the country.” The questions we need to ask:  How much of this has been Race to the Top Funds?  Where were all those funds allocated?  How much money is actually being earmarked to the classroom?   If we are going to say Tennessee is the fourth largest state for increase in education spending, then funds from RTTT needs additional explanation into that calculation.

In addition, our estimation is that roughly $252 million of the RTTT grant was retained by the Tennessee Department of Education and never saw the inside of a school or classroom. Each district has a scope of work for RTTT posted online, but the states half is filled with consultants’ contracts and partnerships. We would strongly suggest all RTTT spending is worth a state audit, as well as a line-by-line examination in the state budget.  The state should place an easy to understand, easy to navigate budget for the state online like other states and become completely transparent. In September 2013, we made clear our belief that every dollar should be spent after a rigorous examination of the costs and benefits to Tennessee school children, and any spending that cannot be shown to produce real, tangible results should not be initiated or completed.

In light of state budget issues, we recommend that the State Board of Education delay and/or rescind the mandate for LEA’s to create a differentiated pay plan. Without the state’s increased financial contribution this creates an unfunded mandate on our local school systems. Unfunded mandates fly in the face of conservative orthodoxy and sound public policy.  If the state mandates a requirement they should subsequently provide the necessary funding to facilitate that obligation at the local level.

Teacher attrition is a serious issue the state should concentrate on.  This can be accomplished by keeping our experienced educators in the classroom.  We would contend that our Tennessee colleges and universities are very adept at meeting the demand for producing quality educators in this state.  Historically, approximately 50% of the teachers that graduate with a degree in education do not find a teaching job.  Teaching is higher calling for professionals, not a pre-career placeholder. Therefore, it makes little sense to employ temporary teachers and spend scarce tax dollars and resources then watch a teacher leave after two years. Our goal should be hiring and retaining quality teachers that want to live, play, and worship in our communities long-term, instead of marking off days until a loan is forgiven and entrance to graduate school is accomplished.

We do not oppose alternative certification programs, but we are not sure if a program that offers only five weeks in the summer with virtually no student teaching is the best program for our students. A strategy they admit is flawed.  Therefore, we would suggest that LEA’s and the State review and delay all Teach for America (TFA) contracts, until revenues catch up with budget projections. Researcher, Elaine Weiss, revealed that Tennessee spends more money per Teach for America recruit than any other state.  Some reports state that total compensation ranges from $5,000 to $9,000, to as high as $15,000 have been reportedly paid to Teach for America for their recruits.  Is this true?  If so, why is this occurring with a large number of teachers looking for an opportunity here in their own state?

Professional Educators of Tennessee represents the actual practitioners in the classroom. Our organization strives to create a working positive relationship with policymakers for the benefit of our educators and the students we serve.  We must work together to strengthen the future of public education in Tennessee.  However, we have no obligation to embrace an agenda when it marginalizes the views of public educators.

Our desire is not to be unduly critical of the Haslam Administration, but the media is the last bastion of hope to reach the Governor with this message.  We recognize that there are many competent people in the Department of Education, as well as in the Haslam administration.  We encourage the Governor to confront issues directly, answer emails timely and regularly meet face-to-face with education stakeholders on a consistent basis, not through intermediaries.  Governor Haslam, you need our help and we want to extend our hand yet again to offer the assistance you need.

J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Franklin, TN.

J.C. Bowman
J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.
J.C. Bowman

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