Thursday, January 25, 2007

State Government Shortchanges Memphis Schools, Comptroller Says

Memphis City Schools got an early Valentine from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office this week.

It came in the form of two reports that compliment the district’s reform efforts and make the case for more funding.

While state reports are about as common in Nashville as political fundraisers, these two may have more traction because they come from the highly-respected Comptroller of the Treasury John G. Morgan as part of his office’s study of districts that have failed to meet state standards for AYP (adequate yearly progress).

High Priorities

One report deals with the programs undertaken by Memphis City Schools to improve their high priority schools. The other one evaluates what Tennessee has done to improve the high priority schools in urban school districts.

While there’s plenty of interesting conclusions in the about 70 pages of reports, there’s probably nothing in the report that’s more welcome to the city district than this paragraph:

“The BEP (Basic Education Program) does not adequately fund the state’s urban districts in part because it understates the cost of educating at-risk students and English language learners. These deficiencies of the BEP force some districts to raise substantially more local funds for education.”
The report, State Approaches to Improving Tennessee’s High Priority Schools, points out that BEP accounts for 75 percent of state and local funds, but in the four urban districts, it’s “substantially less,” comprising less than 40 percent of total revenues in the four urban districts.

A Grade of F

“It should not be inferred that giving more state money to systems that fail to achieve performance standards would increase performance; however, low state support combined with inadequate BEP-generated funds for certain groups of students places additional financial burdens on systems with a disproportionate share of these students,” the reports adds.

The conclusion about the need for more money is given greater weight is strengthened in the report focusing on Memphis City Schools, saying that budgetary constraints are one of the three serious challenges facing the city district. “For the past three school years, MCS has operated with a significant budget shortfall and without any increase in its operating budget,” according to District Approaches to Improving Tennessee’s High-Priority Schools – Memphis City Schools.

Talk about a set-up for a concerted push for more funds for Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga in the next session of the Legislature. Hopefully, Memphis district leaders will lead the development of a joint assault on the Capital in pursuit of more funding from state government for the four urban districts.

Legislators are accustomed to the urban school districts pleading for more money, but rarely have the educators had the backing of a state agency itself. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office goes so far as to suggest that the General Assembly should consider “enhanced” funding.

Refreshingly Candid

The reports also fault state government for failing to fund new teacher programs, but holds up Memphis City Schools’ new teacher project as a model for Tennessee. All in all, the report on state actions is refreshingly blunt for a state agency and should be the wake-up call that the Department of Education needs.

Some other criticisms of DOE include:

· The state does not require frequent teacher evaluations
· Teacher retention continues to be a problem.
· The state’s tenure law appears to protect some poorly qualified teachers; firing an ineffective teacher remains an arduous process.
· The state – with one of the lowest graduation rates in the U.S. – does not adequately help districts with data nor does it have a comprehensive plan.
· The state should ensure that the results of an evaluation of tutoring made available by No Child Left Behind to students in low-performing schools are provided to parents. (Memphis has 20,886 eligible for services like tutoring, but only 2,278 participate.)

In its review of Memphis City Schools, the Comptroller’s Office says that since its last report in 2001, the district has placed major emphasis on district-wide reform, principal leadership, budgetary efficiencies, alternative sources of financial support, teacher recruitment and induction, truancy prevention and technology use.


The obstacles to its progress, according to the report, are concentrated poverty with 95 percent of the schools qualifying for Title 1 funds (federal money for high-poverty schools), high rates of student movement between schools and lack of budget increases.

The mobility statistics in particular are startling. The so-called student mobility rate for Memphis City Schools is 30 percent, up from 25 percent five years ago. However, the rate for the six high-priority schools is higher than that, with Oakhaven Middle/High School having a rate of 36 percent.

The constant movement of such a large number of its students creates serious hardships for the district as it tries to teach students, not to mention tracking them for its planning and for determining benchmarks like graduation rates.

Disciplinary Issues

Another interesting chart shows the percent change in disciplinary problems, compared to the previous two school years. Fighting and firearms problems were down 2% and 19% respectively, but all others were up by double digits – weapons possession (17%); gang-related (18%); bullying (13%); assaults to students (26%); battery against staff members (30%) and threats to staff (30%).

Under the heading of behavior problems, it was a mixed bag. Class cutting was up 18%, insubordination was up 8% and alcohol/drugs up 6%. Meanwhile, misconduct was down 31%, office referrals down 17% and dress code violations were down 18%. Finally, suspensions were down 5% and expulsions were up 27%. All in all, it gives the sense that the verdict is out on the district’s Blue Ribbon Plan that ended corporal punishment in favor of intervention and “win-win” discipline.

The report is required reading for anyone who wants a quick snapshot of Memphis City Schools and the programs that have been put in place, largely by Supt. Carol Johnson, to reverse the direction of the district. As a compendium of an array of strategies under way, it paints the picture of a district trying a variety of programs to deal with what the report says Dr. Johnson refers to as the “brutal facts” about the district’s need for improvement.

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