by Curtis Weathers —
Last week Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address and education funding arguably was the highlight of his remarks.
He laid out the priorities of his 2022 state budget that included:
- $750 million toward additional education investments.
- $550 million in career and technical education grants.
- $200 million to relocate public schools in flood plains, including schools in Shelby County.
- $125 million to increase teacher salaries.
- $32 million for charter school facility funding.
My favorite line item, of course, was teacher pay raises, which when announced caused the chamber to erupt into joyful applause.
Ironically, the governor felt compelled to reassure the audience that ‘this time a teacher raise will truly be a teacher raise.”
Lee, a Republican, explained that “historically, funds put into the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers, and when we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that.”
We’re all waiting for the details of his administration’s new funding formula to be released in the next couple of weeks, which supposedly features a new and improved “student-based” funding formula.
Even though the governor is proposing a recurring $1 billion increase in the state’s education budget, there still are some organizations out there that are genuinely concerned.
And how did they come up with the $1 billion price tag? What kind of sophisticated mathematics did they use to determine that amount? Is that all our state can afford?
We all know that one of the best indicators of how state governments prioritize public education is reflected in the state’s operating budget.
The Education Law Center (ELC) produces a yearly report called “Making the Grade” that tracks funding trends in eight Southern states including the state of Tennessee.
The report ranks and grades each state based on three key measures ˗˗ funding level, funding distribution and funding effort.
Tennessee was given a grade of “F” for both its funding level and funding efforts in each of its last three “Making the Grade” reports.
The other seven Southern states highlighted in the ELC report are Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
According to ELC’s “Inequity in School Funding” report, these states have “woefully insufficient” school funding levels and most of them fail to equitably distribute additional funds to high-poverty school districts.
Also, according to the same report, Tennessee’s funding level ranked 44th out of 51 states with $11,139 in cost-adjusted per-pupil revenue.
That is $3,975 below the 2021 national level of $14,548. The report suggests that Tennessee makes a lower-than-average effort to fund its schools. Maybe the governor’s actions this year will help improve the state’s grade going forward.
Under the governor’s student-based funding formula, districts and charter schools would get additional funds to help low-income students and those with learning disabilities.
But while some education advocates applaud the additional monies, they also believe that Tennessee schools still will be significantly underfunded.
Pointing to a 2020 report by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, they make the case that Tennessee schools need an additional $1.7 billion of state money to fairly and adequately fund its public schools.
ELC’s “Inequity in School Funding” report defines fair funding as “the funding needed in each state to provide qualified teachers, support staff, programs, services, and other resources essential for all students to have a meaningful opportunity to achieve the state’s academic standards and graduate high school prepared for citizenship, post-secondary education and the workforce.”
The question that must be answered now is: Does the new formula rise to the level of “fair funding” as defined in this definition?
There are so many more questions still left to answer.
“In the ELC’s Inequity in School Funding” report’s concluding statement, they draw direct attention to those Southern states and their interest in the expansion of school vouchers and the undermining of the viability of public schools.
While I am pleased to see our state provide additional funding to support our PreK-12 public schools, we are still almost $2 billion short of the “fair funding” threshold defined by the Tennessee Advisory Commission.
What is truly sad is that there appears to be no appetite among our lawmakers to make up the difference.
(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: [email protected].)