In the last three months, Nashville Mayor John Cooper has broken two records for public education spending.
In February, Cooper’s administration dedicated a record $191 million in capital projects for Metro Nashville Public Schools. The capital spending plan included $100 million for a new Bellevue high school, which would be the most expensive capital schools project in the city’s history.
Cooper followed up the capital investment record with a proposed $50 million in teacher pay raises, which, if approved by Metro Council as expected, will set another record.
Those spending commitments, combined with the Cooper administration’s successful legal challenge of the state’s controversial school voucher law, have created a sense of optimism among Nashville’s public education stakeholders. And, that optimism is welcomed in Nashville public education circles since the district has been dealing with virtual learning due to the pandemic, the resulting learning loss, two major lawsuits that could reshape how public education functions and incessant battles with the state.
Nashville school board chairwoman Christiane Buggs said she didn’t know what to expect from Cooper on education issues when he took office. Cooper campaigned on investing in teachers during the 2019 mayor’s race and commissioned a compensation study shortly after taking office. But, the uncertainty of the pandemic led Cooper to exclude the pay structure overhaul from last year’s budget.
“I really didn’t know where he stood on education, and he’s surprised me in the best way,” Buggs said, attributing the positive working relationship between Cooper and the district to the work of Cooper’s top education adviser Robert Fisher. “I’m cautiously optimistic because of it.”
Cooper said the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines made it possible for his administration to propose an “investment budget” on education and other fronts. Cooper also proposed large spending increases for transportation and affordable housing.
“If we hadn’t had Pfizer and Moderna and we couldn’t say we are dropping (public health) restrictions on May 14 – if we were still in the middle of COVID – we could not make this level of investment that we’re doing,” Cooper said. “The second thing that makes this possible is the decisive move by the council to fix the property tax rate, and also fiscal management, ended up getting you enough surplus that you could fix our cash problem.
“And that gives you a sound enough financial basis to begin to invest your new revenues in services and in people.”
Cooper said Nashville is fortunate to be in a position where it can compensate for the state under-funding of public education in order to achieve goals such as the $50 million in teacher raises. That doesn’t mean the state is adequately funding schools, Cooper said.
But, entering his second budget cycle, Cooper said his assessment of MNPS is optimistic.
“I’ve never been more optimistic since I’ve been in public life than I am now about schools going forward,” Cooper said. “You’ve got a strong superintendent (MNPS Direct Adrienne Battle), a strong working relationship with the school board, a mayor and a council making historic investments in public education, teacher retention is excellent and you have the Biden money which really can be transformational.”
Cooper was referring to the federal stimulus funds passed under President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which earmarked $275 million directly for MNPS. That’s on top of $123 million from President Donald Trump’s stimulus plan passed late in 2020. Taken together, Cooper said the city has the opportunity to make critical investments in short order that might otherwise have taken a decade or more to achieve. He pointed to last year’s funds to provide a laptop for every MNPS student who needed one as an example of the city leveraging the federal money on education.
“We got 10 years worth of digital platform-building done in the last year. It really would have taken 10 years to get to where we are now,” he said. “You’re bringing a new-era tool to the table to help expand the platform for education. You put all these things together, this really has all this optimism in education going forward. It was not that many years ago when every one of these facts would have been the reverse: an uncertain superintendent, a board was challenged, there were rumors the state wanted to take over, maybe the mayor wanted to take over, there was no funding. It was going to be years before students got laptops, teachers were leaving in droves. Right now, I’ve never been more optimistic about the future.”
Metro Councilman Dave Rosenberg agreed. Rosenberg said he didn’t know what to think about Cooper on the issue of education following the 2019 campaign, and worried about whether the city would follow through on its funding commitment to build the new Bellevue high school.
Frankly, I'm just blown away that he's not just making financial investments, but communicating with Dr. Battle regularly and with school board reps. For a guy whose public education was never something I've known him to be passionate about, he's been a game-changer on it. – Dave Rosenberg, Metro Councilmember
Rosenberg said the working relationship between Battle and Cooper’s offices is especially encouraging. The goal of the teacher compensation overhaul was to give MNPS teachers raises at strategic intervals in their careers when in previous years top talent was leaving the district for better paying jobs. The largest raises are for teachers in years eight through 15 of their careers.
“A long while back, the mayor was talking to me about something unrelated and he was going on about the teacher pay study,” Rosenberg. “He was saying he was looking forward to getting that information back and then being able to act on it. And then, the historic capital investment when there are a lot of other priorities in the city that he could have used as other reasons not to do that. And there are plenty of needs now.
“Frankly I’m just blown away that he’s been not just making financial investments, but communicating with Dr. Battle regularly and with school board reps. For a guy whom public education was never something I’ve known him to be passionate about, he’s been a game-changer on it.”
In prepared remarks after Cooper unveiled his budget, Battle called the proposed teacher pay raises and overall $81 million increase in education funding “historic.”
“In addition to improving the pay structure to retain and recruit great teachers, Mayor Cooper has fully funded our continuity of operations budget – the amount of money that is required to maintain our current level of services – as well as a $2.5 million investment in social-emotional learning programs, specifically advocacy centers and care specialists, who help students to better process their emotions and learn to find non-violent, constructive ways to deal with frustrations and challenges in school and in life.
“On top of the historic $81 million investment by the city, we also will be leveraging one-time federal stimulus funds that have been made available to school districts to invest in additional services, programs, and capital infrastructure to support student learning and social-emotional progress through high-dosage tutoring, our Promising Scholars summer learning program, and many other initiatives being undertaken to make MNPS the premier large school district in Tennessee and beyond.”
Of course, allocating money may be the easy part. It’s certainly easier to cut a check to give teachers raises than it is to address the enormous challenges facing the district – learning loss, dramatic enrollment drops and what critics say is chronic under-funding from the state.
Nashville won one lawsuit to block the implementation of a voucher law allowing families to use taxpayer money to help pay for private school. The district is also embroiled in another lawsuit with the state over the adequacy of Tennessee’s public education funding formula. A slate of bills in the legislature seemed to take aim at Nashville and Shelby County Schools, including a proposal to take away funding for districts that didn’t offer in-person learning and another to hold districts accountable for standardized test results if at least 80 percent of the students didn’t participate.
Buggs said the challenge for Nashville’s education leaders will be parlaying the current optimism into lasting change. She said she’s not viewing the federal funds as a quick fix, but the beginning of a long term investment that will help students for many years.
“I think of my son who I’m enrolling in pre-school and wondering, ‘how can we use these funds in a way that benefits him and his classmates when he’s in middle school, or in high school, or even when he’s grown up and has kids of his own in the district?’” Buggs said. “This is a long-term question, and the encouraging thing is, yes, there is a positive working relationship with the mayor, with Dr. Battle and with the board to make those decisions moving forward.”