Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and his education commissioner unveiled a sweeping new plan Thursday for how to pay for public education in the state, detailing for the first time a proposal that puts the funding focus more directly on students.
The plan would allocate $9 billion in state and local funds toward education, including $1.8 billion for students with specific needs, such as those living in high poverty.
No school district would receive less money than they currently do now, provided there is stable enrollment, and the state would not require local governments to contribute more until fiscal 2027, state officials said.
“We need to invest more in our public schools in our state, but we don’t need to invest in a bulky, out-of-date formula,” Lee said during a news conference Thursday. “The [existing formula] doesn’t deserve a billion dollars to be put in it, but our students do deserve a billion-dollar increase for public education.”
Tennessee has long faced criticism for underfunding education, and Lee in his State of the State address last month vowed to spend $1 billion more.
The new funding proposal, which must still gain legislative approval, is the culmination of a process that began in October. The new plan would replace the state’s decades-old Basic Education Program, a complicated funding plan that increasingly faced criticism for its inequities.
The new plan would impact each school district’s share of state funding.
For instance, the two largest districts in the state would see increases — a 12% boost for Memphis-Shelby County Schools and 7% more for Metro Nashville Public Schools — under the new plan, according to draft data obtained by The Tennessean. Knox County Schools could see a jump of 12%.
Still, the road ahead for the legislation could prove challenging as some lawmakers have remained hesitant about moving ahead so quickly this year without enough time to properly vet such a massive change.
Legislation to enact the new model, dubbed the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, is being introduced well into the current legislative session. And Democrats have mounted criticism that the amount Lee is proposing to include for education, while welcome, is far short of what Tennessee’s students need.
“This feels like a formula that was written to split up the money the Governor was willing to spend rather than to determine what’s actually needed to fund schools. adequately,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said Thursday.
“The Governor has complained that the current funding formula is too complicated, but what I’ve seen and heard thus far isn’t exactly a model of clarity.”
The new plan’s highlights include:
- Base funding of $6,860 per pupil
- A 25% weight, or an additional $1,715 per pupil, for economically disadvantaged students
- Anywhere from $1,029 to $10,290 in additional funding for students with unique learning needs, including English language learners, students with disabilities and students with characteristics of dyslexia
- $500 for every student in grades K-3 through a $376 million direct funding allocation
- $500 per pupil for fourth-grade literacy tutoring programs — a new requirement for districts under the Tennessee Literacy Success Act passed last year
- And $100 million in outcomes-based funding that would award bonuses to districts based on whether a student is reading on grade-level by third grade or meets certain benchmarks on the ACT
Per-pupil funding amounts will vary under the new formula, but school districts would receive more funding under TISA than they would under the Basic Education Program — the state’s current funding formula — Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told reporters Wednesday.
Overall, the state and local governments will split the costs of the base and weights of the formula 70/30. But how much each specific local government will contribute to its public schools will be determined by an annual review of local funding capacity.
The state will also be responsible for direct funding and outcomes-based funding allocations.
Under the BEP, state funding currently makes up a greater share of some districts’ budgets, especially smaller, rural districts, than others.
In large urban districts like Metro Nashville Public Schools or Hamilton County Schools, state funding makes up less than half of the district’s overall operating budget each year.
Lee proposes $1 billion increase
This year, Lee has proposed investing an additional $1 billion into school funding, including $250 million for teacher salaries and to cover annual inflationary costs and $750 million earmarked for the new formula.
Though the governor hasn’t said he would repurpose the funds if his proposal isn’t approved by lawmakers, Lee said at a Feb. 10 news conference that “there is an understanding and agreement and plan that those two things are tied together.”
This year, the $750 million would be used for one-time costs including upgrades to career and technical education infrastructure and moving 14 schools out of flood plains across the state. The new formula would go into effect for the 2023-24 school year.
Provisions of the 34-page legislation also lay out new reporting requirements for school districts and school boards, including requiring boards to “establish academic goals that the local budget is intended to support,” and the process for how the state will determine a local community’s fiscal capacity, or ability to raise local funds for schools, each year.
Schwinn said the formula is designed to do three things: empower each student to read proficiently by third grade, prepare each high school graduate to succeed in a post-secondary program or career and provide each student with the resources needed to succeed.
When pressed by reporters Wednesday, Schwinn acknowledged a funding formula is not a spending plan and also cannot guarantee or ensure specific outcomes.
“That is why it is very carefully worded, that it is designed to accomplish three things. We cannot ensure that it will accomplish anything. It is designed to provide the funding that should allow for those things to occur,” Schwinn said.
The governor and Schwinn publicly unveiled the formula Thursday, after weeks of anticipation.
The proposal is a cumulation of months of collecting public feedback and reviewing policy recommendations from 18 subcommittees launched last fall to guide the process, Schwinn said.
Education advocacy groups including the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, known as SCORE, the Education Trust in Tennessee and pro-charter school groups like TennesseeCan and Tennesseans for Student Success were instrumental in leading the conversation around school funding reform. The department also enlisted national experts and other groups, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s group, Excel in Ed, throughout the process.
Lee launched a 90-day review of how the state funds education last fall with the desire to rectify longstanding concerns with the BEP, which some lawmakers and educators have called antiquated, as well as create a formula that would be easier for to parents know exactly how much funding is sent on educating their individual child.
“Our goal has been to take what is a cumbersome and outdated BEP formula and create a model that supports, in a transparent way, students in our state,” Lee said Thursday.
The proposal also includes additional funding for charter school facilities — a contentious point for some wary of Lee’s ongoing push to expand school choice across the state and directs how increased funding specifically for educator salaries would need to be used at the local level.
Though Schwinn said she is excited about the proposal and what it can mean for Tennessee students, Thursday’s reveal is “a step in the process.”
“There are lots of future steps that we need to get through,” Schwinn said. “There are seven committees that will vet the proposal, it will be voted on by the Senate and in the House, if it gets that far.”
Some lawmakers have been hesitant to commit to getting the proposal through the legislature this year, with many, anxious to hit the campaign trail, hoping to wrap up the session earlier rather than later this spring.
Information comparing funding allotments for each school district under the BEP versus TISA is forthcoming, department officials said. How unique learning needs were will defined for additional funding will also follow the rulemaking process within the department Schwinn said Wednesday.
Reporter Laura Testino contributed to this story.
Meghan Mangrum covers education for the USA TODAY Network — Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
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