This OpEd was also published in The Tennessean on January 22, 2022
Tell Tennessee legislators that whatever funding formula they choose, it must include enough additional money to adequately fund our public schools. Right now, we aren’t even close.
As Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn are encouraging Tennessee lawmakers to adopt a “student-centered” public school funding formula, this is a good time to remind Tennesseans of two important facts:
A Tennessee family of four, on average, pays over $1,000 a year in additional local taxes to offset the state’s ongoing underfunding of K-12 education.
Even with those local funds, Tennessee spends $4,300 less per student than the national average.
Every true conservative knows that you get what you pay for, and underfunding our schools has real consequences.
In more prosperous areas, homeowners and businesses pay more taxes to make up for the state’s deficiencies, while still having to raise extra money to provide basic classroom materials that should be a given. In less prosperous areas, students simply go without.
There is no way “accountability” is going to get Tesla-level performance from a 10-year-old minivan. In the case of our public schools, our state’s stinginess is costing our children educational opportunities they deserve.
$1.6 billion of local costs are not acknowledged
Governor Lee should acknowledge what his own experts, including the Tennessee Comptroller and Supreme Court, have already concluded: the state’s current funding formula (the Basic Education Program or BEP) does not adequately fund K-12 education and has not done so for the 30 years that it’s been in existence.
A new formula that fails to provide significant new funding for public schools will be as flawed as the BEP.
The BEP formula yields $7.4 billion of combined state and local funding. However, the Tennessee Department of Education’s 2021 Report Card on K-12 spending shows that the total state and local spending for K-12 education is almost $9 billion; $1.6 billion of real costs not acknowledged by the BEP are made up for locally.
The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) gets a similar result. It estimated that local governments spend at least $1.7 billion over BEP requirements due to deficiencies in the BEP and unfunded state mandates.
Local taxpayers are covering costs outside the state formula.
The gap is the result of the many ways the BEP understates the real cost of educating students.
For instance, the BEP does not provide enough to cover teacher pay. TACIR and the Comptroller have pointed out that the BEP does not fund the actual number of teachers required for state-mandated class sizes leaving approximately 11,000 Tennessee teachers to be covered exclusively by local taxpayers, with no state contribution.
In addition, the BEP Review Committee, which provides lawmakers with a list of funding deficiencies every year, reports that the 2021 average Tennessee teacher salary was $55,917, but the BEP funds only $48,330 per teacher, resulting in a $7,587 gap in state funding per teacher.
This means local taxpayers cover both the cost of an additional 11,000 teachers outside the BEP, and the $7,587 shortage in funding per teacher.
The funds are available; tell your legislators.
The BEP Review Committee also reports that the state provides funding for far too few nurses, counselors and social workers to run Tennessee’s schools, and other essential expenses such as buildings, classroom supplies and technology.
In years past, the Legislature and Governor have claimed they just didn’t have the money to increase school funding.
Last fiscal year, the state booked a surplus of about $2 billion. This year the state is on track to bring in between $3 billion and $4 billion in excess of projections. Increasing state investment in our children’s education by $2 to $3 billion could be accomplished easily, and without raising taxes by a single dollar.
The need is obvious. The funds are available. Tell your legislators that whatever funding formula they choose, it must include enough additional money to adequately fund our public schools. Right now, we aren’t even close.
Our children deserve better. Tennessee deserves better.
Signed by the Tennessee Public Education Coalition and Pastors for Tennessee Children
Davidson County: Jami Oakley, Mary Holden, Amy Frogge, Keri Kidd Cannon
Hamilton County: Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd, III
Knox County: Robert F. Kronick, Lance McCold, Dave Gorman, Jane Skinner, Candace Bannister
Shelby County: Peggy Watkins, Gabby Salinas, Jerri Green, Stephanie Love
Sumner County: Vanessa Sheehan and Andy Spears
Washington County: Paula Treece