Photo Credit: Gov. Bill Lee / Facebook
The Center Square [By Jon Styf] and The Tennessee Conservative Staff –
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Friday the state will review its K-12 education funding model, the Basic Education Program (BEP), looking for ways to improve the way the state spends its education money.
Lee did not offer specifics of what the end plan will look like, but he said the review would be “collaborative, created by input we receive over the next couple of months.”
“It will be focused on more of a student-based funding strategy than a system-based funding strategy understanding the individual needs of students so that parents can see how dollars are invested for their student’s individual needs,” Lee said.
The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments this summer regarding the constitutionality of Lee’s education savings account (ESA) pilot program, which was passed in 2019 by the Tennessee Legislature. The program would allow low income students in Nashville and Memphis to get $7,100 scholarships to use at nonpublic schools.
“Tennessee has a pile of money to allocate from the influx of federal funds, a $2 billion surplus, and annual revenues possibly rising by at least $3 billion,” said Brian Straessle, director of external affairs at the Tennessee public policy center the Sycamore Institute, which is examining the state’s funding model. If their goal is to overhaul K-12 funding without shortchanging anybody, it’s hard to imagine better circumstances.”
Tennessee ranked 45th in the nation in per-pupil spending at $11,328 in 2020-21, a National Education Association report said. The Education Law Center gave Tennessee a grade of F in its Making the Grade 2020 school funding report.
“The Tennessee Education Association supports Gov. Lee’s intent to engage educators, parents and community members in a critical evaluation of the state’s education funding formula,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “However, the central problem is not the BEP, but the inadequate level of state funding. … It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.
“Any review of the BEP funding formula must include 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.”
The NEA report also said Tennessee’s average teacher and instructional salaries ranked 41st in the nation, at $51,862 and $54,577, respectively.
“The real problem here isn’t the complicated formula to split up the BEP funds,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said. “The problem is the uncomplicated decision to invest fewer dollars in education than basically every other state. We’ve reviewed, task forced, and blue ribbon commissioned the BEP to death over the last two decades. There’s no shortage of solutions, so much as there’s a shortage of will to follow the recommendations we’ve received.
“While we’re all for adjusting the components and calculations to address inequities and outdated assumptions, the real question is our timeline for investing an additional almost $2 billion each year in schools – so that we might catch up to our neighbors and might get out of the bottom ten list for per pupil funding.”
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Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said she believes reviewing the BEP formula will be the most important thing the state will do in education policy for years to come, and she encouraged public input at a website created by the state.
“Tennessee’s students are the future of our state, and we’ve got to be sure our public schools are well-equipped to prepare each and every one of them for lifelong success,” Schwinn said in a statement. “Consistent with our focus to continuously improve the academic achievement of all Tennessee students, we are excited to open public conversations and discuss an investment strategy that aligns with those goals and values.”
Lee would not put a timeline completing the review, but he said he hoped the plan would be ready for the state’s next regular legislative session in January.
Lee said school funding has increase during as his term as governor and he expects that trend to continue in the state’s next budget.
Following Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s announcement calling for education funding reforms that will prioritize students over systems Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee (AFP-TN) State Director Tori Venable issued the following statement:
We commend Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn for working to modernize how public education is funded. Our current funding formula (BEP) is overly complex and increases to funding rarely make it to the classroom.
Americans for Prosperity state director, Tori Venable added, “The old saying goes only 3 people in the state of Tennessee understand how BEP funding works…and two of them are dead.”
“This is an opportunity to enact meaningful reforms to allow the money the state invests in kids to follow them to whatever education will best meet their needs. This could be transformational for future generations of Tennesseans, giving them the best possible educational experience.”
While funding reform is a long-term solution, parents need options now. This is why Americans for Prosperity, yes. every kid., and other advocates are still calling on the legislature to include educational freedom in the call for a special session.
“The legislature could solve a number of problems by simply giving parents options and the freedom to move their child to a different learning environment. This could be done with open enrollment, allowing parents to select from any school with open seats available for immediate transfer, delivering direct grants to parents or expanding Education Savings Accounts would give parents the ultimate flexibility to select the best education options for their child,” said Venable.
Andrew Nelms with yes.every.kid. echoed AFP’s sentiment, “This is an opportunity for Tennessee to lead the transformational charge of how education is funded and viewed. Whether it’s funding reform or any educational related issues taken up during a special session, it’s vitally important that every family is given equal educational opportunities. Let’s empower families with the ability to customize a child’s education to best match their values and priorities.”
About the Author: Jon Styf, The Center Square Staff Reporter – Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies. Follow Jon on Twitter @JonStyf.