dollars and cents

Early reactions to mayor's budget plan: Cautious optimism

Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers union, and Betsy Gotbaum, the public advocate, are usually hard on Mayor Bloomberg when it comes to education budget cuts. But because the majority of school cuts announced today will come from the Department of Education’s central bureaucracy, not individual schools, they have both issued cautiously optimistic responses to today’s budget announcement.

Weingarten’s and Gotbaum’s full responses after the jump.

UPDATE: Maybe this will turn out to be a budget fight. The principals’ union president, Ernest Logan, just came out with a statement, and it’s more confrontational than Weingarten’s. Weingarten said she is looking forward to working with the mayor; Logan says firmly that he opposes a mid-year cut. “Forcing another mid-year cut will hinder the progress we have made thus far,” he said. And he adds: “Let’s be clear – CSA is committed to standing up for the children of this city and will continue to fight for what’s right.”

Here’s Weingarten’s full response:

Given the state of the economy, we fully expected today’s bad news, and we waited to respond until we had a better sense of the whole citywide picture, not just how education will be impacted.

We are encouraged that cuts are being made to the central bureaucracy, which is a better alternative than cutting programs and services that kids depend on. We believe more can be done in this regard, particularly by looking at ways to create 360 degree accountability while also streamlining some of the existing components. We also must always be looking for new revenue sources, such as the property tax proposal, which we support.

Cuts don’t come without a price. The reduction of safety operations and custodial services has an adverse affect on schools. Reductions in pre-k services and summer school affect kids’ readiness to learn. Any cuts being considered in schools should be viewed through that lens. The Mayor has said this round of cuts will not impact on classrooms, and we’re going to have to be the eyes and ears on the school-level to make sure that holds true.

I firmly believe that layoffs should always be a last resort, because they impact on important services and have a devastating effect on families that lose their earnings. There are always other alternatives, such as redeployments, freezes on new hires and early retirement incentives. Teachers and other personnel in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool should also be better utilized.

There is clearly a lot to be concerned about as we move forward, and the severity of the city’s and state’s economic situations cannot be ignored. The tough choices are only going to get tougher, and that is why it’s important for all stakeholders to stand together. We are committed to working with the Mayor and the City Council as they confront the challenges ahead.

Gotbaum’s statement:

I am concerned about how the proposed cuts will affect education. The mayor assured me that the budget cuts to education will not directly impact the classroom, and instead will be made mostly to the Department of Education’s central administration. As I have long stated, DOE central can afford to trim some fat. For instance, there are still nine open positions listed on the DOE website under their accountability initiative, some paying up to $170,000.

Logan’s statement:

“At this critical time, it is essential that the best interests of the children be kept in mind before any budgetary decisions are made. We all know that education is the key to prosperity and the quality of education we provide to our students cannot be sacrificed during tough economic times. Our children won’t get a second chance.

We have been, and will continue to meet with the DoE to ensure school leaders are afforded flexibility in dealing with their budgets and to ensure schools have enough time to plan, prepare and strategize on the best way to continue to improve student achievement, despite budgets woes. Forcing another mid-year cut will hinder the progress we have made thus far.

With a growing financial crisis, now is not the time to roll out new initiatives, spend with reckless disregard, or continue with practices that have no proven record of success. We must re-evaluate and streamline our resources to focus on initiatives that truly increase student achievement.

Let’s be clear – CSA is committed to standing up for the children of this city and will continue to fight for what’s right.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede