Accusing Republicans of compromising the future of Tennessee’s 1 million students, Democratic lawmakers called Wednesday for $1.5 billion more for public schools and an overhaul of an education funding formula that they called “fundamentally broken.”
Leaders of the minority party also slammed Gov. Bill Lee and the Republican-controlled legislature for passing policies such as vouchers that shift taxpayer money to private schools and for-profit companies — at a time when many public school teachers are taking second jobs to make ends meet and digging into their own wallets to buy supplies for their students.
“We’ve heard the governor talk about this notion that Tennessee schools are fully funded. That’s just not true, as everybody who is in our schools knows,” said Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, who chairs the Democratic caucus, during a morning news conference.
The call to action comes as the Republican governor prepares to unveil his proposed budget and lay out the administration’s priorities in his second State of the State Address on Feb. 3. Public education is expected to be a focal point of that agenda.
It also coincides with another year of surplus tax collections in Tennessee, data ranking the state 45th in per-pupil spending, and test results suggesting that student achievement has hit a plateau.
“At a time when this notion of full funding is bandied about, our commissioner of education is admitting that we’re not making progress, that our scores our flat,” Stewart said.
Tennessee currently spends about $6.5 billion on public education out of its $39 billion annual budget. That includes $1.5 billion added in the eight years under former Gov. Bill Haslam and a $370 million boost for teacher pay since 2016.
Even so, Tennessee’s investment of $9,225 per student trails most states in the South and its level of school funding remains the elephant in the room for state government. A trial is expected this year in a 5-year-old lawsuit filed by school districts in Memphis and Nashville over the adequacy of the state’s funding for students and schools. If successful, the case could mean sweeping changes for how much Tennessee spends on K-12 education.
Central to that case is the Basic Education Program, or BEP, the funding formula that most everyone seems to hate but no one has been able to fix.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro called it an “outdated formula that doesn’t reflect reality.”
“The BEP is a byzantine creation that almost no community in the state is happy with, and for good reason,” Yarbro said. “We have spent a lot of time talking about how to divide up the pie between small towns and bigger cities, between rural areas and suburban areas, when in reality there’s just not enough pie. The funding formula for the BEP is fundamentally broken.”
For instance, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a recent analysis presented to the BEP Review Committee.
“It’s important that we get this right,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis. “We’re saying as a House and Senate Democratic caucus, enough is enough. … We cannot continue to support a broken formula to decide what money goes to our schools.”
A spokesman for Lee declined to comment Wednesday in response.
But in a 2018 interview with Chalkbeat before leaving office, Haslam talked about the challenges of trying to revamp the formula.
“We came in and looked at turning it inside out in every way possible,” Haslam said. “But it was very difficult because, when you change it, you’re going to have winners and losers. You just are. And so the only way to change it is to do it like we did — add more money to the pie. If you’re just going to cut it up differently, it won’t work because the mad people will be madder than the happy people will be happy.”
This developing story will be updated.
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