Federal Government Says Child Poverty Rate is Down in Nashville, Withholds Millions from Schools

More on the continuing saga of Taking from the Poor…

Last week I wrote about Tennessee’s largest counties losing federal funding due to the government’s (mis)calculations identifying poverty decreases within the geographic boundaries of our largest school districts. Yes, you read that right – decreasing poverty in urban schools districts. Shelby County, Tennessee’s largest school district, will suffer a $5 million deficit in the coming school year and it seems that the funding is being redirected to the smaller, wealthier districts. 


In Nashville, the district has been on the budgeting battlefield preparing for the $4 million kick in the gut. As much as the deficit itself is a hard pill to swallow, the rationale behind the funding loss betrays logic.

The Metro Schools’ Federal Programs department has this to say:

“The poverty rate that drives our federal education budgets (such as Title I) are determined by the poverty rate for children 5-17 in Davidson County reported by the US Census.  To allocate funds to the State of TN and each of its districts for next fiscal year, the USED will use the US Census child poverty rate from 2015.  Our current Title I budget was based on the rate of 2014.  As determined by the US Census, Davidson County’s child poverty rate went down 13.18% in one year from their reported rate in 2014 to the 2015 rate.

In comparison, the national child poverty rate went down only 4.40%.”

The Heck You Say

Anyone living in Nashville for six minutes can see our growing homelessness (6th in the nation) and housing epidemic and say with total confidence that the federal government is just plain wrong.

As a matter of fact, just three months ago I sat in a day-long community needs presentation proving Nashville’s growing needs for the city’s most vulnerable (see Nashville’s Prosperity Rests on Backs of Unhoused, Over-Jailed, and Undereducated). Annually, the city’s social services department releases a community needs evaluation, collecting a year’s worth of service delivery data from governmental agencies and nonprofits. The nearly three-hundred-page tome doubles as an indictment on the city’s priorities and roadmap to absolution. Ultimately, it serves as proof of the colossal hole between what is reported and reality. 

What Could a $4 Million Loss Mean for Students?

While scrolling through Facebook last week, I came across a post from the principal of Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 10.16.52 AMmy old high school. Dr. Sue Kessler, principal of Hunters Lane High School (go Warriors!), posted a message to parents and students reminding them that the Warrior Bookstore is stocked and ready — relieving their minds of any worry of being ill-prepared for the first day of school. Just writing it gives me chills.

How on earth is Dr. Kessler able to provide free school supplies to every Hunters Lane student?

“We are in year 9 of this practice. Our marketing 1 students run the bookstore as an “inventory” exercise. All students can get what they need during lunch when the bookstore is open. It’s a win-win that ensure everyone has what they need, and requires that students take responsibility for retrieving the supplies they need when they need them. So, if geography teacher says you need colored pencils for next class the student knows to pick them up rather than ask parents to get them. For kids who come from families without resources for school supplies it’s a great equalizer. Free for all Warriors, no judgement and proof of “need” required. We use Title 1 funds to stock the bookstore and for 1600 kids only costs about $8000 to ensure everyone has access to the school supplies they need.”

Yes, Title 1 funds.

The government designates these funds to schools with high numbers of students living in low-income situations. Students with limited means struggle to get even the most basic of supplies and, thankfully, we have leaders like Dr. Kessler who identify student need and creatively make the funding work for every student. I believe she will fight to continue the underappreciated service of stockpiling the school bookstore and offering supplies to all students free of charge. More chills.

And it appears Metro Schools is working to protect students from the nonsensical funding shortfall. I pray they are successful.

Redirecting Federal Dollars from Poor Districts and Giving to Wealthier Ones – REALLY?

As you know, a few years ago Memphis City Schools underwent major surgery as several suburban districts seceded from the large urban district to establish their own school systems. Now called Shelby County Schools, the district is still rather large post-secession and overwhelmingly comprised of schools filled with children from distressed circumstances.

No urban district is immune to problems, but the large secession makes Shelby County unique. The surrounding middle/upper-class communities made it clear they no longer wanted to be associated with the urban district and now it seems they are being rewarded. According to the Commercial Appeal, five surrounding school districts have discovered they are the beneficiaries of healthy monetary gifts from the federal government.

So the largely poor district loses federal $5 million in Title I funding—money meant for schools with a majority of low-income students—and meanwhile, the districts with significantly less impoverished students get the cash. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the scenario a touch, but the outcome doesn’t change. Large urban poor school district loses millions of dollars to wealthier school districts.

Incidentally, this leads me to Nashville, which is expected to lose $4 million in funding for schools with low-income students. This is a huge concern. As our city gets more prosperous, our school district becomes increasingly impoverished and these funds are given based on the income levels of residents in the district. The crazy thing is that people can’t afford housing here. It’s well-documented! We have a ridiculous amount of people moving around, month-to-month, trying to find affordable housing. No way we should be losing federal funding. I need a little help understanding this one.

Check out the Commercial Appeal article about Shelby County Schools in its entirety.

If you’re interested in how Nashville’s growth -”prosperity”- is happening at the speed of light and leaving scores of families in the dust (literally on the streets), check out the pieces below. Few articles, if any, talk about the negative impact on schools.

Nashville’s Prosperity Rests on Backs of Unhoused, Over-Jailed, and Undereducated

The Costs of Growth and Change (Series)

New Data: Nashville Region Still Growing By 100 People A Day

Cost of Living Rising in Nashville, Study Says


“We Believe Black People Must Seek That Education By Any Means Necessary.”

During the most recent Tennessee legislative session, the subject of vouchers was indeed the star of the show. While the existence and proliferation of charter schools is a hot topic around here, the discourse on using public dollars for private schools (vouchers) is transitioning from slow burn to a full-blown fire. Even though several bills were introduced during the 2017 session, only one passed, but there’s more to come in 2018. Here’s my take on the 2017 session.

What’s Up With Vouchers?

The argument for and against vouchers is very similar to that of charters. Supporters believe vouchers provide additional choices to families, particularly to the traditionally underserved. Meanwhile, the opposition believes the motivation behind vouchers is an agent of privatization and, therefore, will administer the final blow to public education. Sound familiar?

In this The 74 article, three great minds leading the national education debate joined forces to state the case for vouchers for Black children. Whether you love ’em or loathe ’em, this case for vouchers cannot be easily dismissed. You be the judge.

Check out Howard Fuller, Marquette University professor, Derrell Bradford of EVP of 50CAN, and Chris Stewart, CEO of Wayfinder Foundation:

Critics of school choice programs find the politics of empowering Black families with the wider range of options available to wealthier families difficult, but we don’t. Some may find it radical to believe that we should use every school available to ensure our children are educated. We don’t. Some may believe that the quest for “choice” and the historic role of private schools in education is a moral and historical inconvenience. Indeed, the opposite is true: It’s a necessity. Some believe vouchers and other forms of parent choice are a threat to democracy. The real threat to democracy is an uneducated populace. We believe Black people must seek that education by any means necessary.

Tennessee’s Untapped Superpower: Making Kids Invisible

by Lane Wright, Editor at Education Post

When I was a kid, sometimes my friends and I would ask each other which superpower would we give ourselves if we could. Inevitably, the power to make yourself invisible was always hotly debated. (Why would you want that, you creep!)

Well today, Tennessee has a superpower—not to make itself invisible, but to make some of its students disappear. Actually, under the new federal law all states have this power. Some education advocates (and friends of mine) worry Tennessee is making plans to use this power, but I disagree. I think the state is making a calculated trade-off that is ultimately best for students.

Let me explain.

Who Counts, Who Doesn’t

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the current federal education law, states have to tell folks in Washington how they’re going to make sure schools are accountable for gettin’ some learnin’ into them thar brains.

There’s a special focus on kids who typically end up getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education, like poor kids, students with disabilities, children who are learning to speak English, and racial minorities.

States have to track each of those groups of students and have a plan of action for the schools that struggle most. But they can choose how big the group needs to be before they do that.

Why It’s Tricky

For example, if you’ve got a school where there are only five black students, publically reporting on the progress of that small group of students—and attaching consequences—can be problematic.

Let’s say 60 percent of that group (three of the five) are passing math. Next year one student slips and is no longer passing. Serious consequences could be triggered because the group dropped from 60 percent to 40 percent even though it was only one student. That wouldn’t be fair to the school. The other issue is you risk identifying (and embarrassing) individual students when you have so few in a group.

The law says you’ve got to pick a minimum number of students needed at a school before you start holding schools accountable for them. Pick a number too low, and you run into problems where you can’t really rely on the information (at least not to draw any conclusions about the school) and you might cause harm to individual students. Pick a number too high, and you can literally make entire groups of students invisible to everyone in the state. Nobody will be able to see how those kids are doing compared to everyone else.

Like I said, superpower.

Concerns With Tennessee’s Plan

Experts say anything higher than 30 risks overlooking too many students. Tennessee is right at 30—tied with Michigan as the highest in the country among the 17 states that have turned in their plans so far. Most range from 10 to 20 students.

While this is a concern for some education advocates in the state, the bigger concern for many is with Tennessee’s plan to combine black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one subgroup, instead of breaking them out separately.

That means if you wanted to track math scores among Native American students at XYZ School in Tennessee and step in if they’re consistently struggling, you’re out of luck. You can only expect the state to take action if all the students, on average, in the black/Hispanic/Native American group are falling behind.

Advocates rightfully argue that these different ethnic groups have unique challenges: The problem for one group may be different from the other. And the solutions may be different too.

Combining the three racial minority groups also makes it possible for two of the groups to do well while one falls way behind. But since they’re combined, the accountability report card will simply show that, on average, that group is doing okay.

Again, we see the real power to make students invisible.

Why Combining Racial Groups Makes Sense

Education Leaders in Tennessee argue that the current plan, holds schools accountable for 43,000 more black, Hispanic and Native American students, than if they were counted separately.

In other words, for schools with less than 30 students in one of those groups, the architects of Tennessee’s plan believe it’s better to count students in a combined group than to not count them at all.

Fortunately, parents can still see how individual groups of black, Hispanic, and Native American students groups are doing.

Tennessee plans to have schools report each group separately if there are at least 10 students in a group at a school. There’s just no guarantee the state will spring to action if one group is struggling. But with that transparency, parents and others who care about public education can still put pressure on the state when they see a problem.

Being able to make groups of students disappear is a serious power. It’s not imaginary, and it’s not a joke. But Tennessee is approaching this thoughtfully and responsibly. They’re balancing the need for an accountability system that is fair to schools, with one that looks out for the needs of students. And they’re transparent about the individual performance of black, Hispanic, and Native American students which allows everyone to see if there is a problem that needs addressing, regardless of what’s written in the law.

This is Not the Time to Sleep On Federal and State Education Policy Talk

Recently, I sat through a daylong bootcamp sponsored by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition to take in additional information about the new federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). After the third person inquired into my reason for being there, I began to wonder ‘Why in the hell am I sitting through hours of policy talk?’

Because it matters.

Sure, the federal law seems as far away from the classroom as the distance from Nashville to D. C., but it’s in how a state responds to the law that should make parents say, “wait, what?”

Why It Matters

When you live in a southern state and are aware of the history and vestiges, thereof, and happen to be a person of color, it’s difficult to trust the system to work on your behalf.

Yet, by all accounts, Tennessee has crafted a solid plan to satisfy ESSA requirements and meet the needs of all of children. State leaders asked for feedback from a wide range of people and got it. They even made adjustments based on that feedback before turning the plan into the feds in April. This plan has a direct impact on our kids. It affects teaching in the classroom, how students are tested, how states will track the quality of each school and report that back to parents, and what they’ll do if kids aren’t getting what they need. Note: just because some people say it’s a good plan, doesn’t mean you should hand over the education of your children to something that may or may not be true — for you.

So, for several months I’ve pored through portions of the plan and sat through several meetings on ESSA with education commissioner Candice McQueen speaking passionately about meeting the needs of all children. I believe her passion, but it just doesn’t align to the “all means all” commitment.

You See, There’s This Subgroup… 

You may remember the hoopla around subgroups during the advent of No Child Left Behind. Also known as nickelby, NCLB forced school districts to pinpoint achievement across demographic groups for each child. For instance, a black female low-socioeconomic special education student would be listed across four subgroups – Black, Female, Low-Socioeconomic, and Students with Disabilities.

Today, under ESSA that same student would be combined with Hispanic and Native American students in a grande group (the state calls it a super subgroup) known as BHN, Black, Hispanic, and Native American. During the bootcamp, we had the pleasure of hearing from TNDOE executive director of accountability Mary Batiwalla, who works hard to distill findings in an effort to make it palatable for the masses. Though, the explanation supporting the creation of the grande group was not satisfying. Batiwalla explained that without the grande group, 43,000 students would be left unaccounted for, but offered little information about the composition of this group when asked. Look, I’m no statistician, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. I believe if the will outranked the need for neat calculations, there would be no BHN.

And I’m Not Alone

The bootcampers were also privileged to hear from Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. King explained the role her coalition plays to ensure historically underserved groups are provided the basic civil right of an excellent education. Most poignantly, King expressed concerned about combining the three groups into one group as each have very different experiences. I think I may have said “amen” out loud, but one can never be sure about these things.

What I am sure about is the need to stay woke. It’s more than just a cool saying. You must ensure your child is counted and we must see to it that BHN gets the proper consideration. Because, after all, what gets measured gets handled.

So, I will stay up-to-date on Tennessee’s plan for ESSA, it’s “all means all” promise, and a couple of additional issues that I will write about in the coming weeks.

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Tennessee Graduation Rate Exceeds National Average… For Some

A GradNation report released last week offers a report card on graduation rates across the country. GradNation’s goal is to “increase the on-time graduation rate to 90% by the class of 2020″ and provides data and best practice opportunities to help states reach this goal.

Graduation rate is one those things we’ve come to depend on when assessing the health of a school. This would be fine if there were no instances of attempting to the game system by hiding students in alternative schools or employing “creative” tactics during testing.

The authors of this report acknowledge the skepticism, but make the point that while there is some truth to the skepticisms, for the most part, graduation rates are still a good way to see one slice of how students are doing.

According to the report, Tennessee has a graduation rate of 87.9% which is above the national average of 83.2%. This would be promising if we hadn’t just discovered hundreds of students graduating without the proper number of credits. While this little tidbit of information doesn’t alter the graduation rate, it does influence its credibility.

Still, with improved standards courtesy of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Tennessee is poised to realize a 90% graduation rate by 2020. Or is it?

The subgroup breakdown tells a different story (doesn’t it always?).

Screenshot 2017-05-08 at 7.33.45 AM

The gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, low socioeconomic and non, and students with disabilities and students without disabilities are astounding. How is it possible to celebrate a state graduation rate that beats the national average while only 80% of its black students and 70% of students with disabilities are so disturbingly below the mark? No celebrating here, but hope lies ahead.

Screenshot 2017-05-08 at 8.18.23 AM

One of the components of Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds is aptly titled All Means All created specifically to address inequities. The state department of education is to be commended for acknowledging the importance of closing achievement gaps by making it a priority. Because what gets measured gets done, right?

Thankfully, we’ve learned hard lessons from No Child Left Behind where subgroups were measured to death, so today states are doing everything possible to neutralize the effects of the well-meaning but off-putting education policy. And by most accounts, Tennessee is at the head of the class thanks to Race to the Top reforms and a solid ESSA plan.

Tennessee’s graduation rate is headed in the right direction and possibly moving on a faster clip than most states. Most significantly, there is a real possibility that the finish line will include all students. Fingers crossed.

See Tennessee’s GradNation report here.

2017 Testing in Tennessee Is Off to a Great Start…Whether We Like It or Not

It’s Day 3 of TNReady, Tennessee’s renamed standardized test, and so far, so good! You may remember last year’s fatal glitches, but by all accounts, this year’s tests are smooth sailing. Check out Commissioner Candace McQueen below:

Standardized Tests or Nah?

Let’s be real, nobody loves standardized tests. But name another way to find out if our children’s performance is better (or worse) than the year before? Or how groups of children perform in comparison to others? (Why State Tests? Click here)

Like brussel sprouts, standardized tests fall at the bottom of my list.  Funny looks aside, there is no amount anything that can drown out its natural flavor. But here’s the kicker, those baby cabbages are loaded with protein and I sorely need healthier options rather than my go-to cheeseburger.

Think of it this way, you know how important education people (politicians, too) love to talk about the Achievement Gap? Well, from those pesky standardized test results performance gaps are revealed allowing schools to correct teaching and learning for children of color, poor children, students with disabilities, and English Learners. The information gleaned from test results in invaluable to educators and parents alike.

So while testing may not be good TO us, it’s certainly good FOR us. Accountability is never a bad thing where children are concerned!