A version of this column appeared in the Hendersonville Star News on August 24, 2012:
The annual budget brawl about funding for our schools is coming to a close and our children are back in their classes. This year’s edition has been particularly intense and certainly frustrating. In response, some have been circulating the myth that our schools are doing just fine. While I agree that money is not the answer to every education problem, depriving a school system of money is a certain path to its demise.
Can wisely invested money help create an excellent school system? Absolutely. And Sumner County simply hasn’t had significant investment in our schools. Unfortunately, that’s starting to catch up with us.
Consider the fact that the average per pupil spending of the top ten districts in our state in terms of academic achievement (I’m using three-year average ACT scores here to ensure reliability of data) is $1800 more than Sumner County’s per pupil spending. Are these high achieving districts simply throwing money away? Or, do they know that wise investments in their schools yield positive results for their community?
Consider also a recent study by researchers at the London School of Economics. The study found a direct correlation between teacher pay and student achievement. That is, if you raise teacher pay by 5-10% across the board, you see a 5-10% gain in student achievement. We hear a lot these days about the importance of teacher quality. One way to ensure that students have great teachers is to ensure that those teachers are paid competitively.
If London-based research is too far from home for you, consider our neighbors in Nashville. Metro Nashville Public Schools recently raised teacher pay such that starting teachers make $40,000 a year. The result was that MNPS saw the number of applicants for open teaching jobs double this year over their previous norm. What does that mean for kids? It means Metro principals have more quality applicants to choose from and it increases the odds that strong teachers will be in every classroom.
Right here in Sumner County, it would take a brand new teacher 10 years to earn a $40,000 annual paycheck. And a teacher with 15 years of experience in Sumner could take a job in Metro and make $15,000 more than they do here. If we don’t start investing in our teachers in a meaningful way soon, we’ll lose the best we have and have a difficult time attracting new ones.
Another fact to consider is that many of our schools are overcrowded. We badly need new classrooms and will ultimately need new buildings to house students. But the County Commission’s reallocation of capital funds to address this year’s school budget shortfall means those projects will have to wait. And our students and teachers will continue using makeshift classrooms in offices and auditoriums or sit in portable tin cans waiting until the funding materializes so they can have a classroom.
Here’s something else that’s a fact. Our district needed to hire 28 new teachers this year to cover growing demand and new standards requiring additional math courses. But instead, they are offering small stipends to teachers who will give up their planning time to teach these courses. This saves $1.4 million. But it also shortchanges our kids. And it means we start next year 28 teachers behind before we ever factor in growth or new class needs.
Finally, on the revenue side, Sumner County has the lowest property tax rate of any county touching Davidson. We could raise property taxes by 23 cents and still have the lowest tax rate of any of these counties.
The top ten school districts in Tennessee don’t maintain consistently high scores by denying their schools needed funds. Their budgets indicate they provide the basics and much more. If Sumner County truly wants to be among the state’s best school districts, fact is, we’ve got to pay for it.