In October, Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced their intention to review and explore the creation of a new formula for how the state funds K-12 education. Schwinn went on a tour of town halls garnering public comment and formed committees of lawmakers, policymakers, corporate leaders, parents, and educators on different topics.
“We are going to build something new, from scratch, and we are going to build that together,” Schwinn said.
Regardless of any changes to the state funding formula, the number one issue is the lack of investment in public education in the state.
“Tennessee is 46th in the nation—and next to last in the region in per-pupil funding,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Recent increases still fall far short of what our state can afford to invest in our students due to record surplus month after month. The main issue is not how the state distributes its funding, it’s that there isn’t enough to meet the needs of students.”
The central problem with education funding is not the BEP, a 30-year-old funding formula used by the state to distribute education dollars, but the inadequate level of state funding.
“Any review of the BEP must have more than recommendations on how to change the formula,” Brown said. “Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve.”
With record revenue surpluses and a fast-rebounding economy that continues to fill state coffers at a record pace, there is a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom rankings in funding.
“Every public-school employee can attest that we don’t have enough staff or resources at our schools,” said Brown. “We see a record number of unfilled positions for teachers and support professionals due to difficult conditions and low pay. Insufficient state investment has led to a lack of school nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need.”
Educators who attended the town halls shared that their needs are dire and urgent. They continue to spend hundreds of their own dollars on classroom supplies and needed resources. TEA members have attended in large numbers.
The town halls also showed that out-of-state privatizers intent on siphoning public education funding away from our already deeply underfunded schools are trying to use this process for their own agenda. Leaders of these groups have been at the town halls, and several have been appointed to committees formed by the administration.
“We welcome a review of school funding in our state, but not a back-door approach to reintroducing another voucher scheme,” Brown said.
Tennessee educators deserve to have their questions answered and recommendations heard. After the end of the town halls, committees went to work to focus on different topics, with TEA President Brown serving on the state's key subcommittee on the funding formula revision.
More than a decade ago, the promise of more funding with Race to the Top (RTTT) led to agreement on wholesale changes to education not in the interest of students or public schools, like the Achievement School District. Tennessee public education is doing remarkable things, and TEA is letting lawmakers know promises of more funding must never undermine our students and educators.