by Curtis Weathers —
Our governor Bill Lee and state legislators are starting to tinker again with Tennessee’s school funding formula.
So, what are they up to? Why now? What is going on?
Those are all excellent questions. And for now, we only have partial answers.
But how we fund education in our state is one of the most important conversations we can have. According to the state budget, combined with federal and other funding sources, the state spends about $6.9 billion on K-12 education, the single largest expense category in the state budget.
Tennessee spends about $10,894 per pupil, which is about $4,000 less per pupil than the national average, according to the Education Law Center.
Tennessee’s current BEP (Basic Education Program) formula was created in 1992 through the Education Improvement Act under then-governor Ned McWherter.
It consists of a mind-boggling 46 components the state uses to determine how much money schools get for expenditures such as teacher salaries, books and transportation, for example.
The formula was last updated in 2007 by former governor Phil Bredesen, but later, under governor Bill Haslam, parts of that update were rolled back.
So how will this new effort to change the BEP impact schools? Students?
Well, many believe that whatever happens, any type of significant changes to our funding formula will have ripple effects across the state at every level of our K-12 educational system. Gov. Lee and state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn both have emphasized the importance of making sure that school systems throughout the state, when this process is all said and done, do not end up with less funding than they started with.
But there are no simple fixes and, in spite of Schwinn and Lee’s aspirational hopes, most believe there will again, as always, be winners and losers at the conclusion of this journey.
So, since we are moving forward with this process of reimagining our complicated and antiquated school funding apparatus, why not start by changing the name of the funding formula from BEP (Basic Education Program) to AEP (Advanced Education Program) and fund schools accordingly.
In other words, let’s reset the expectations for our schools and fund them in a manner that reflects the high expectations and the advanced level of performance we expect from our students and educators.
For example, right now, we are funding schools at a very basic, minimal level.
Tennessee has one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the nation. As a result, the average public school teacher salary in Tennessee is about $54,251, but the range typically falls between $47,362 and $62,629, which is among the lowest in the nation.
You want better educational results? Then maybe we should raise the performance expectations for our teachers and pay them accordingly by making them among the highest-paid educators in the nation.
Create an Advance Education Program (AEP) funding formula that (1) reflects the high value we place on our teachers, (2) provides the resources school leaders need to achieve high (not just basic) levels of performance and (3) that incentivizes and hold schools accountable for achieving such results.
That sounds like a great idea to me, especially while our budget coffers are flushed with federal covid relief dollars and higher-than-expected tax revenue.
Creating an AEP formula that is fair, easy to understand, equitable and promotes high performance would be a monumental task.
But this is an excellent opportunity for state leaders to make a definitive statement about the high value we place on public education in our state.
Though both Gov. Lee and Commissioner Schwinn have declined to give specific reasons why the state is undergoing this review at this particular time, keep in mind politics is always lurking in the background.
Gov. Lee is approaching a 2022 re-election campaign, and a longstanding lawsuit filed against the state about education funding, by Tennessee’s two largest metro areas, Davidson and Shelby counties, is scheduled to go to trial early next year.
And lastly, Gov. Lee has been touting a student-centered funding approach as a possible framework to address the funding issue. This type of funding takes into consideration each student’s needs, circumstances and learning path, and supposedly provides greater levels of accountability.
But student-centered funding also allows money to follow a child to his or her school based on the student’s needs. Such a model could potentially pave the way for Tennessee to launch a private-school voucher program, which I’m sure is appealing to Gov. Lee and other voucher advocates throughout the state.
So, let’s keep an eye on this process as it continues to unfold. This is an opportunity to fix a broken system as long as people have genuine motives guiding the work.
Stay safe everyone!
(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)