Mar 03 2015

Education: Tennessee’s Under-Funded Mandate

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, State Politics

The State of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such postsecondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines. -Tenn. Const. Art. XI, § 12

Back in the dark days of 2013, I wrote a series of posts (1, 2, 3) that delved into the issue of education funding.

The posts were written in a time where the County Commission was trying to beat down the new Unified School Board, to keep their budget tight so the County wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fund their part of education.

The debate featured a lot of red herrings, trojan horses, and outright lies…most foisted upon the School Board by folks who aren’t there anymore, but who, ironically, are or were involved in trying to build up a municipal school district now…through tax increases (Yes, I’m talking about you Mayor Bunker and your former City Manager Chris Thomas).

Through those posts, I sought to show regular folks just how the money comes in, what the money goes for, and that much of the debate about the money was just plain out of line.

Now there’s a new debate about funding brewing, in school board meetings across the state. This time, the State of Tennessee itself is in the crosshairs, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

Basic Education Program

Teachers just wanna teach

Teachers just wanna teach

The State funds its portion of the education pie through a program called the Basic Education Program.

This program uses a formula to determine how much financial support a system should get based on a lot of things, including: number of students, salaries, and cost of doing business (which varies from area to area). The number of students, rightly I might add, is the primary driver of how much money a district gets from the state.

This formula not only determines how much money the State will pitch in, but also the ‘maintenance of effort’ that local governments must provide to stay good with the law. Unfortunately, the State’s portion of the BEP has been underfunded (to the tune of $500m this year alone) since its most recent revision in 2007.

Finally, some school districts are starting to cry foul, as the State demands more with essentially less funding.

Its way past time this happened.

Demanding their Due

scsLast week, the Shelby County Board of Education voted unanimously to join Knox and Hamilton Counties in a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee for underfunding the BEP. Shelby County Schools loses about $103m/yr. because of the BEP shortfall. That’s about 9% of Shelby County Schools proposed budget.

The MNPS (Nashville) School Board is set to vote on joining a potential lawsuit in the coming days.

This post from Bluff City Education gets into the nuts and bolts of the issue…I won’t repeat it here, but its a good read for those of you looking to get into the history of the problem.

The basic crux of it is this: The state has a duty to fund public schools in a certain way, as set forth by the State Legislature. But neither the Governor’s office (who sets the budget), nor the legislature (who amends and approves the budget) has adequately funded education based on the law.

They have, however, lowered taxes on the wealthiest Tennesseans by about $120m/yr in 2012 (source).

While tax collections have exceeded expectations by about $300m this fiscal year, generally tax collections have missed the mark in the past two to three years, which has led to more cuts of state departments after being cut drastically in 2011-12.

On top of that, the state has sought to increase standards for schools, and in many cases, while underfunding schools, taken over low performers for not doing more with less, which is just another example of the Dickensian approach the State has taken on schools.

Moving the Bar

Last year, Governor Haslam appointed a Task Force to examine the BEP. The idea was, that if you can’t fund the thing, then move the bar so it looks like you’re funding the thing.

In the minutes from the second meeting of the task force Governor Haslam’s Chief of Staff, Mark Cate notes that the focus of the group is not to make the ‘pie bigger’, but to adjust how the pie is cut.

Those minutes also erroneously note that the BEP is fully funded, which is false, and has been since 2007.

The point seems to have been to change the way the BEP was calculated to ensure districts couldn’t sue a ‘low tax’ administration who’s hell bent on lowering taxes, even though their obligations and standards are increasing.

But the proof is in the pudding. Since BEP 2.0 was passed, both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that the formula isn’t fully funded…despite the new money the governor wants to put into education, which is little more than a drop in the bucket.

Schools Struggling…even the ASD

asdThis comes as schools across the state are struggling to meet state standards that seek to use funding as both carrot and stick…with the threat of a state takeover if they don’t get it done.

This, in effect, is putting the weight of society’s legacy ills (low wages, scant opportunity, low educational attainment, and heavy tax burdens for the working poor) on the back of the schools, making them both educators and social workers while not giving them the tools to even do one of these things.

At the same time, the ASD is looming, ready to sweep in and privatize schools and hand them off to companies that are friendly with the Governor so they can profit off of a public good.

If the aim were really to better education in struggling schools, it would seem the State would work to give those schools the resources to be both educators and social workers…but they’re not.

Now, the ASD itself is under fire. Three years into its existence, the ASD argues they’re still a work in progress. But legacy public schools wouldn’t have been given the amount of time the ASD has had for many of its schools…and Shelby County’s i-Zone schools, many of which are out-perorming ASD schools pose a real threat the the ASD model in the state’s most target rich environment. Combine that with a growing sentiment of ‘get off my lawn’ from the community, and the ASD is heading into dark days…and still not fully meeting expectations, which would get any other school shuttered.

Conclusion: Sleight of Hand and Twist of Fate

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

The honest to God truth is the past five years in education policy have been predicated on a wish that the wizard turns out to be as wonderful as we thought he might be. But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the power to get what you want doesn’t lie in some all powerful external thing…it lies with us.

We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Its not the first bill of goods, and it likely won’t be the last.

But the promise we’ve been promised isn’t happening and won’t happen until we acknowledge that there’s more to education than warehousing kids, or threatening school districts. Unions aren’t the problem…and they may not be the solution either. The problem is simple: We’re not fulfilling the broad range of promises our elected officials have made to the public, and we haven’t been doing that for a very long time. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that inaction.

And its on us too. We’ve seen all kinds of things happen, and we’ve, by and large, bought in to the distractions based on faulty preconceived notions. Instead of calling bullshit when bullshit needed to be called, we’ve bought the bullshit.

Now its time to dig out of a half-decade (or more) of bullshit, and start looking at the system (our society) as a system, rather than trying to ‘fix’ one part or the other while ignoring how that part fits with the other ones.

Because that’s been our strategy for the majority of my life. And maybe that’s been the strategy all along. But if we’re serious (and I’m not convinced we are) we need to stop just focusing on the ugly mole, and start focusing on the cancer that lies underneath it…

Nov 24 2014

The Steve Ross Show – Episode 2

Episode 2 of the Steve Ross Show is up and ready for your viewing pleasure.

You can watch it below or by clicking here.

This episode includes an interview with Rebecca Terrell, the Executive Director of Choices – The Memphis Center for Reproductive Health.

Rebecca and I talk about the state of reproductive healthcare in Tennessee in the wake of the Amendment 1 constitutional amendment.

I also take some time to touch on the President’s Executive Order on immigration, and the reaction to it, changes in Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, and the race for TNDP Chair.

For ‘My Take’ I talk about the attempt to suppress union organizing at the Chattanooga VW plant, and the company’s decision to work with the unions in the wake of that interference.

Hope you enjoy the show!

Nov 17 2014

The Steve Ross Show – Episode 1

It took a week of work, from the first concept, to the interview, to the writing, the hours of editing and trying to remember how to do all the things I haven’t been doing for the better part of 2 years now, but the very first episode of a video blog I produced is now up and online.

You can watch it below or by clicking here.

I’m really proud of the Freshman effort on this. Its not perfect, and I know for sure there are things I want to change for future episodes, but considering this wasn’t even something I was considering ever doing just 10 days ago, I feel pretty good about it.

This episode includes an interview with former Shelby County Commissioner and U of M Law Professor, Steve Mulroy. I talked to him about the marriage equality decision handed down by the 6th Circuit Court of appeals just over a week ago, as well as issues related to the Federal bench.

I also touched on some of the top stories in national and statewide politics, as well as the just passed mid-term elections.

So, I hope you like it.

Special thanks to Steve Mulroy for being the first guest.

Also, thanks to comedian and progressive talker Matthew Filipowicz for inspiring me to throw myself headlong into the project. I got to meet Matthew when he was in town two weeks ago.

I also want to thank my beautiful bride Ellyn for putting up with my OCD and self-doubt while I was putting this thing together…and giving me some very good advice while I was putting the finishing touches on it.

So, there ya go. Hope you enjoy it!

Nov 05 2014

The Day After – 2014 Edition

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

You could see this as utter devastation. Or you can see it as a clean slate to start re-building something better.

You could see this as utter devastation. Or you can see it as a clean slate to start re-building something better.

Its been six years since the first bomb dropped on Democrats in Tennessee.

The 2008 election saw the State House and Senate fall to GOP control for the first time since Reconstruction. And while full GOP control may have been delayed for two years, thanks to some crafty behind the scenes maneuvering, it was only a brief delay in the total control that would come two years later.

That doesn’t make what happened last night any easier, but it does give us the opportunity to make some decisions about the future of the Democratic Party. And while the wounds may seem too fresh, and many may feel its too soon…this has been coming for six years now. No one should be surprised.

Where do we go from here?

I’ve waxed eloquent several times in this space about things the party, and progressives either in or outside the party, can do to try and turn things around. Privately, these thoughts have received some attention, but I’ve never seen any real action on them…and that inaction has led me to take a step back from some of the statewide issues, in favor of more local issues…that included a run for County Commission in 2012, among other things.

From my observations over the past six years, I’ve come to the conclusion that Democrats in Tennessee…and the south generally, are confronted with a two front battle: One is against a robust, well funded and well organized ideological opponent, the other a battle over the internal culture of the party, and the methods by which we might find a way to rebuild after these consecutive apocalypses.

It is the second front, not the first, that is the most challenging…but the lesson can’t be any more clear than it is now…three cycles after the initial fall: Our bi-annual pattern of last second ‘hail-mary’ passes can only be successful if the score is close in the first place.

For the past three cycles, it not only hasn’t been, but we’ve been sacked behind the line of scrimmage as the clock ran out.

Recognition

A lot of good people lost yesterday. One loss that I take personally is Gloria Johnson from Knoxville.

Gloria came just 200 votes shy of a second term according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office.

She’s a true fighter, who deserved a second term, in my humble opinion. And while we all knew she was against long odds, that didn’t stop her. She fought all the way to the finish. Unfortunately, she came up short.

My fear, in her loss, is that some will take it as proof that a fighter who stands tall for her beliefs can’t win in Tennessee. The fact is, by any measure she knew what she was up against and did it anyway.

GOP hack, Tom Leatherwood id’d her back in January of this year as one of the GOP’s top targets…and boy did they target her. The entire TNGOP mobilized against her.

I won’t speak for her but Gloria knew she might not have the kind of support a candidate in her position needs to win from some state Democratic groups…though I should note, The House Democratic Caucus, and several Democratic organizations in her area stood with her….even if it was at the very last second.

What’s most annoying is, there is no indication from available disclosures that the State Party was involved in her campaign in any measurable way. In fact, it appears she had to use a third party vendor, rather than the Democratic Party’s own tools to help manage her campaign…which, if true, is a travesty.

I’ll have to wait and see on the final disclosures that will come out later if they were involved…but considering the target on her back, it should have been ‘all hands on deck’ from the get-go.

The last second money doesn’t make it look like her fellow Democrats had her back. And if they did, they didn’t have it soon enough.

More Recognition

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees…Vote No on 1

Another group…or collection of groups I think is worth mentioning is the No on 1 campaign.

While they too may not have been successful at beating back the intrusion of state legislators into the medical decisions of women (and possibly men at some point), they outperformed all the other Constitutional Amendments on the ballot, keeping the margins close enough to keep hope alive well into the evening.

I’ve seen some comments on social media that have been less than flattering, I think the organizers of No on 1 should leave those comments where they are, and take solace in the fact that they ran a much better race than any other statewide progressive issue, or candidate.

The messaging was smart and efficient. The delivery was done well. The ground game, at least here in Shelby County, seemed to be well organized and vibrant.

But what no one could have planned for is the low turnout on our side of the ledger. 40,000 fewer voters in Shelby County, and 20,000 fewer in Davidson (as compared to 2010), most likely due to weakness at the top of the Democratic ticket hampered the No on 1 cause.

Congratulations and Thank You’s

Big congrats to my friend Lee Harris as he embarks on his first term as my State Senator. There are only five of you in the Caucus, so I expect you to be a big part in helping guide us out of the wilderness.

Congrats also to Sara Kyle, as she won her bid to complete the term of her husband…and former Minority leader.

Congrats to the members of the Shelby County House Democratic Caucus, but especially those who had contested elections: Larry Miller, Barbara Cooper, Raumesh Akbari, and G.A. Hardaway.

A special thanks to Dwayne Thompson for fighting the good fight in House Dist. 96.

A final thought

RestrEntrepreneur, and one time Democratic candidate for Shelby County Commission, Taylor Berger has been taking to his blog as of late to talk about the state of the Democratic Party in Shelby Co.

Even if you disagree with everything he has to say, we should welcome him into the fold. I’ve only met him once but he seems to be a smart guy with a lot of energy, and we need that.

His most recent post asks the question: “Will Democrats leave Tennessee after the wave of red that just washed across the state?”

Here’s my answer. You don’t lose until you quit. If you don’t quit, you might not win, but you don’t lose.

That’s something all Democrats across the South (hell, the whole damn country for that matter) ought to keep in mind as we lick our wounds for a bit before we jump back in the fray.

Buck up campers…we’ve got nowhere to go but up from here.

Oct 22 2014

The November Election Post I’ve Been Meaning To Write

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, State Politics

Wedding Night After Party

Wedding Night After Party

Election day is right around the corner, and I’ve been meaning to do a post on all of the Constitutional amendments that are on the ballot this November…but I’ve been a little busy.

After 5 years together, my beloved Ellyn and I got hitched back on October 11th. Needless to say, the wedding plans took a lot of time to put together.

But now that the wedding is over, and so is the planning, I’ve got a little more time to think about the upcoming election…and especially the amendments.

They’re not that complicated, but they’re also not as easy to sift through as you might think.

With that in mind, I’m going to touch on the amendments in this post. I may write about the state and federal races later, and I’m working on a post about the City’s “Civil Service” referendum as we speak.

A note on Constitutional Amendments in Tennessee

For a constitutional amendment to pass in Tennessee, two things must happen:

1. The “yes” votes for the amendment must make up the majority.
2. Those “yes” votes must be greater than 50% of all the votes cast for Governor.

So, if you want something to pass, vote for someone on the ballot (write-ins don’t count) in the gubernatorial election.

And, if you want something to fail, you sure as hell better raise that bar a little higher by voting in the Governor’s race (again, write-ins don’t count).

I fully expect a TV station or two somewhere in the state will declare something having passed when it hasn’t crossed these two thresholds, but I’ll wait until election night to mock them for that.

Without further ado, here’s the breakdown.

Amendment 1 – Removing your right to privacy

Some people call Amendment 1 “The Abortion Amendment”, and if you just read the caption on the ballot, you might think you’re right.

But since the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade in 1973, the issue of government intervention in difficult health decisions been about privacy.

I’ve written about this extensively in the past.

The caption for Amendment 1 says:

Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.

But the idea of the right to privacy in health decisions, and abortion, which is a medical procedure, are inextricably linked.

That’s what the TNSCOTUS ruled in 2000.

So, to make a medical procedure potentially “illegal”, which is what the majority of the TN legislature wants, is to take away the privacy in medical decisions away from patients.

The married couple agrees...Vote No on 1

The married couple agrees
Vote No on 1

The Legislature can’t do this on their own…they need you, the voter, to eschew the additional privacy protections inherent in the Tennessee Constitution, so they can then further limit your choices on your medical decisions.

If you think this will stop at abortion, you’re sadly mistaken. The legislature could use this amendment to regulate any number of widely accepted medical procedures under the guise that they have effectively restricted privacy with this amendment.

Its ironic really. The political right consistently rails against government intervention in personal decisions…until it comes to medical decisions, then they don’t think you’re qualified to do it on your own.

If one were to be consistent, they would strike down this amendment with an overwhelming majority…because none of us want Ron Ramsey, or Brian Kelsey making medical decisions for us.

They’ve already proven time and time again they don’t have our best interests at heart.

I urge you to vote NO on Amendment 1.

Amendment 2 – Judicial Disco

Judicial retention (for Appellate and Supreme Court justices) has been a big topic in State politics for a while now. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s effort to remove TN SCOTUS judges in the August election was just the start of a fight that’s been boiling over since Ramsey took the top spot in the State Senate.

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify it all…and enshrine a system similar to the current system in the State Constitution. However, the differences have many folks up at arms.

Currently, a nominating commission makes recommendations to the Governor, who then selects from a paired down field of candidates. That Commission expired in 2013, and wasn’t renewed.

Under the amendment, there would be no mandated commission (though Haslam has said he approves of the commission), and the General Assembly would have veto power over the selection by the Governor. In a state where a simple majority can overturn the Governor already, that’s a lot of political power over the judiciary from the legislative branch.

Opponents of the amendment say to vote no, because the current system, without the added step of the legislature approving of the nominations works, and we shouldn’t bend to the legislature just because they scare the be-jesus out of us.

Supporters I’ve heard from don’t really seem to support the amendment, per se, but say its better than direct election of Appellate judges (which would be a disaster by any measure). They fear that could happen if the Constitutional Amendment isn’t passed.

Opponents counter that even the most radical on both sides of the aisle don’t want that, and bills seeking to make that the law of the land consistently fail in committee.

To be honest with you, I’m still torn. But as a person who: a. doesn’t take kindly to bullies, and b. is ready to take out my policy brass knuckles at the drop of a hat to beat down really dumb ideas from Nashville (there is an ample supply), I’m inclined to vote No.

When someone’s being a bully you don’t bend to them, you turn around and kick their ass so they’ll leave you alone. That’s what needs to happen here.

Amendment 3 – Tennessee Tax Dystopia

Unlike Amendment 2, Amendment 3 is simple. If you want your sales tax to start bumping up to 14%…vote for it.

If you don’t, vote against it.

Tennessee already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation.

The Legislature, with the help of the Haslam administration, has been cutting taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy. As things get more expensive, and we keep underfunding every damn thing we have to fund…that revenue will have to be replaced somewhere…and the sales tax is the only place to go.

Sponsors of this Amendment, like Brian Kelsey of Germantown will say this saves the state from the tax hell of having an income tax…and by virtue, stops taxes from increasing.

But as anyone with half a brain in their head knows, the absence of a kind of tax doesn’t stop taxes in general from increasing. Come on dude…really?

Vote NO on Amendment 3.

Amendment 4 – Veteran’s Bingo “Gaming”

Amendment 4 is an effort to include Veteran’s organizations in the “games of chance” carveout that was enshrined in the lottery.

Currently, many not-for-profit organizations can hold fundraisers that involve games of chance (gambling, cakewalks, etc. but not bingo)…but Veteran’s groups can’t.

The reason goes back to a scandal in the 1980’s.

The amendment lays out some high hurdles for Veteran’s groups to be able to do this…and that’s actually my problem with the Constitutional amendment.

If the amendment just said the Constitution allows this type of organization to do this and the “how” may be regulated by the state, I’d probably be for it. But this amendment sets forth a specific policy prescription and safeguards, which, if they don’t work, will take years to change because they’ll require another constitutional amendment!

So while I certainly think Veteran’s groups do good work…and far too often they do work the state itself should be doing, I can’t support this amendment because it reads too much like a bill and not enough like a constitutional amendment…if that makes any sense.

So, I say vote No on Amendment 4.

So there ya go. Take it for what its worth. But most importantly, go vote.