Tennessee Seeks a New Education Funding Formula
Since Gov. Bill Lee announced his plan to overhaul Tennessee’s current education funding formula in October, parents, politicians, education leaders and even students have joined the conversation to voice their feedback. Folks in Nashville have asked for more pay for teachers and support staff, more psychologists and counselors, and more funding for public schools in general, among other requests. In the coming legislative session — which is scheduled to convene on Jan. 11 — we’ll be able to see if Tennessee’s politicians are actually going to listen.
Since Lee’s announcement, the Tennessee Department of Education has encouraged people to communicate their priorities on how the state should fund its schools. These comments are then siphoned to subcommittees that will prioritize them and make recommendations to a steering committee, led by Lee, education commissioner Penny Schwinn, finance commissioner Butch Eley and nine other Republicans. This steering committee will then make recommendations that inform legislation and could affect education in Tennessee for decades to come.
The current Basic Education Program funding formula is roughly 30 years old, and districts throughout the state have been asking for a new one for years. Eighty-nine districts are teamed together in a 6-year-old lawsuit against the state arguing that the state does not adequately fund schools. The lawsuit has been pushed back from February to October to allow time for the General Assembly to pass legislation leading to a new formula. The lawsuit moving forward depends on whether legislation is passed, and whether the suing districts — Shelby and Davidson counties among them — think the legislation adequately invests in Tennessee’s future workforce.
Gini Pupo-Walker represents District 8 on the Metro Nashville Public Schools board and has also led conversations about education funding through her role as the state director of the Education Trust in Tennessee. “It’s really now a question of what the legislature decides to do, what kind of bill is proposed, what it contains and how it will evolve over time,” says Pupo-Walker. She says the Education Trust will share a weekly newsletter to help folks keep up with the process.
Also worth watching, Pupo-Walker says, will be how a new formula prioritizes students who need more resources to educate — such as those from low-income backgrounds or those with disabilities. Lawmakers will ultimately decide what weighted funds for those kids could look like.
A point that many parents and experts have spoken to: not simply how the funds are divided among districts and their students, but the fact that there aren’t enough funds to begin with. According to the Education Law Center, Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in per-pupil funding. It won’t matter how equitably a formula distributes money if there isn’t enough to go around in the first place. And if the state does inject more money into the education budget, will it be sustainable in the coming years?
According to former Metro school board member Will Pinkston: “Best-case scenario, they actually find a way to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new recurring funding as a down-payment on a multiyear plan to fix a system that’s woefully underfunded. … The more likely scenario: They cobble together a patchwork plan that they try to pass off as adequate, but that falls well short of meaningful new investments.”
Though the public-feedback period is coming to a close, concerned Tennesseans can send comments to the Tennessee Department of Education until Jan. 14 at TNEdu.Funding@tn.gov. You can also reach out to your state representatives and members of the education and finance committees.