This article also appeared in The Tennessean May 3, 2021

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to cover unfunded mandates and deficiencies in the Basic Education Program for K-12 public school students.

A Tennessee family of four, on average, pays over $1,000 a year in property taxes to offset the state’s ongoing underfunding of K-12 education. The state continues to rely on local taxpayers to finance numerous unfunded mandates critical to operating schools, which are glaringly absent from the Basic Education Program, the state’s K-12 funding formula. With unprecedented revenue surpluses and an astronomical amount of money in the state’s reserves this year, it is time for Tennessee’s governor and legislature to remedy funding inadequacies that the Tennessee Supreme Court and the state’s own policy experts have been highlighting for 20 years.

Since 1992, when the General Assembly implemented the BEP, the state has never fully funded its share of what it costs to operate Tennessee’s schools. Before Gov. Bill Lee presented his budget amendment, there was some optimism that this issue might finally be addressed, especially since the state is projected to have more than $3 billion in surplus revenue at the end of this fiscal year.

Unfortunately, Lee again chose to ignore the problem by failing to propose any significant new funding for public schools, announcing instead that he was “fully funding the BEP.” He refused to acknowledge what his own experts, including the state comptroller and the Tennessee Supreme Court, have already concluded: The BEP does not fully fund the cost of K-12 education.

The Tennessee Department of Education’s 2020 Report Card on K-12 spending shows that the total combined state and local spending for K-12 education is almost $9 billion. The BEP formula generates only $7.4 billion. Another report, by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, estimated that local governments spend at least $1.7 billion over BEP requirements due to deficiencies in the BEP and unfunded state mandates.

BEP doesn’t cover teachers’ salaries

Notably, the BEP does not provide enough to cover teacher pay. In 2002, 10 years after the program’s implementation, the Tennessee Supreme Court said the state’s K-12 funding formula should be based on the actual cost of operating schools. The court determined that since teacher salaries are the “largest and most important component” of the state’s funding formula, the cost of providing teachers should be based on the actual cost of teacher salaries. The Supreme Court concluded that the formula had “no relationship to the current, actual cost of providing teachers.” This is still true almost 20 years later.

More recently, TACIR and the state comptroller pointed out that the BEP does not fund the actual number of teachers required for state-mandated class sizes. As a result, the total cost of approximately 11,000 Tennessee teachers is covered exclusively by local taxpayers, with no state funding. The General Assembly’s own BEP Review Committee, which provides lawmakers with a list of funding deficiencies every year, identified another problem this year: The average teacher salary in Tennessee is $55,630, but the BEP provides only $48,330 per teacher, resulting in a $7,300 gap in state funding per teacher. This means local taxpayers not only cover the cost of an additional 11,000 teachers outside the BEP, but also the $7,300 shortage in funding per teacher already included in the BEP.

Technology, nurses, counselors and social workers

The BEP Review Committee also pointed out that the state has failed to provide enough funding for adequate technology and for the appropriate number of nurses, counselors and social workers to run Tennessee’s schools. Although the governor touted a proposed $250 million for student mental health services, none of this money is going to Tennessee’s schools. It will go into the state’s reserves, where state lawmakers have already socked away a staggering $7.5 billion, according to the state’s latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Earnings from these new reserves could be appropriated starting next year for mental health services. However, even though Lee has expressed concern about the mental health of students who missed in-person classes this year, none of this money will be used to provide mental health counseling to students during the upcoming school year.

So how much does all of this cost local taxpayers? Tennessee’s population is about 6.6 million. If you divide $1.7 billion (TACIR’s estimate of the state’s underfunding) by 6.6 million, that’s $257 for every Tennessean, simply because lawmakers refuse to fully fund Tennessee schools.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median property tax bill in Tennessee is $1,190. For a family of four, all but $162 of that median property tax bill is a result of the state of Tennessee not funding its share of K-12 education and requiring local taxpayers to pay more.

Inform your legislators that “fully funding the BEP” doesn’t mean fully funding public education in Tennessee. Not even close. With ample funding available in the state’s coffers to fully fund schools, local taxpayers should not be left holding the bag.

Signed by Pastors for Tennessee Children and the Tennessee Public Education Coalition.

Knoxville: Candace Bannister, Tanya T. Coats, Travis Donoho, Dave Gorman, Dr. Robert Kronick, Caroline Mann, Lance McCold, Jennifer Owen, Jane Skinner

Nashville: Keri Cannon, Amy Frogge, Mary Holden, Jami Oakley, Rev. David Kidd, Jill Speering

Franklin: Patty Daniel, Brad Fiscus, Dr. Tammy Lipsey

Dickson: Larry Proffitt

Memphis: Jerri Green, Stephanie Love, Peg Watkins

Montgomery County: Rosa Ponce

Tipton County: Lee-Ann Nolan

Johnson City: Paula Treece

Scott County: Steven Rogers

Kingsport: Susan Lodal, Juanita Mitchell

Chattanooga: Rev. Laura Becker, Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd III

Hendersonville: Andy Spears

Germantown: Terri Harris

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