This OpEd was also published in The Tennessean on March 31, 2022

Key Points
  • Public-school advocates and local communities are worried about how the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) will affect them.
  • Critics of the Common Core Standards should look at the money behind proponents for TISA.
  • Tennessee should use its surplus to increase funding to K-12 public schools.

Tennessee legislators are considering a lot of dangerous education legislation this session.

This legislation is not just dangerous to Tennessee’s public school students, families and teachers.  These bills could also endanger the political careers of lawmakers who vote for them because of their impact on local property taxes and local control of school districts.

Most of these bills, including charter and voucher expansion bills, are being promoted by out of state millionaires and billionaires who don’t have any real interest in Tennessee values. They do have an interest in making money in a state that seems to be primed for full-scale privatization.

Perhaps this year’s greatest threat to legislator incumbency is Governor Bill Lee’s new K-12 funding bill, which he calls the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement act, or TISA. In spite of continued statements from the governor and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn that the administration’s “student-based” funding formula was developed in response to dozens of stakeholder meetings and hundreds of public comments, this funding plan is model legislation developed in 2010 by ALEC, the school privatizing think tank.

Jeb Bush’s voucher, charter and virtual school promoting organization, ExcelinEd, has been promoting this funding model since at least 2017. It is definitely not a response to the 1,300 public comments from real Tennesseans, almost all of which called for more state funding, no vouchers and no more charter schools. Check out the comments here.


In spite of how this bill is being promoted, the primary purpose of this bill is to shift even more of the cost of K-12 education to local taxpayers.

Last summer, the Gates Foundation started spending millions of dollars on national and Tennessee organizations to promote the spending plan that the governor has now proposed.

Gates first got involved in Tennessee in 2008 when he began funding organizations to promote the adoption of Common Core state education standards. As Forbes reported in 2020: “Gates did not invent Common Core, but … he provided financial backing, organization, and sheer clout to swiftly push [Common Core] into every state in the nation.”

After adopting Common Core standards in 2010, Tennessee lawmakers figured out that Common Core was education snake oil and voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to stop implementing Gates’ Common Core standards. It is not a coincidence that 2014 was an election year.

Lawmakers were concerned that Common Core would be a campaign issue that could end their political careers. In 2016, early GOP presidential frontrunner Jeb Bush ended his bid for the presidency after critics attacked his promotion of Gates’ Common Core.


Tennessee should be increasing funding for public schools

Bill Gates is now one of the main funders of lobbyists for the Governor’s TISA plan. Gates has spent $10.5 million in Tennessee on education reform since Governor Lee was elected. Some of the same organizations that promoted Gates’ Common Core in Tennessee, including SCORE, the Tennessee Charter School Center, The Education Trust, and 50Can are funded by Bill Gates and now lobby for TISA.

Common Core became unpopular in Tennessee and most of the other 45 states that adopted the standards after parents came to realize that Common Core defied common sense. “Common Core math” is still a popular punchline.

So why should legislators be concerned about embracing a funding plan promoted by the same people who gave us Common Core?

While the Governor’s plan appears to increase the total amount of funding for Tennessee schools, the Governor’s TISA bill actually would increase funding for vouchers and privately-run charter schools.


Local communities worry about increased burden

In addition to these concerns, the TISA bill’s shift of the financial burden for K12 education spending to local taxpayers should concern legislators considering yet another Gates-promoted education scheme.

According to the state’s most recent financial audit, the state of Tennessee has over $10 billion in “unrestricted” funds — that’s our surplus. Plus, there are the surpluses of the last two fiscal years. Fiscal year 2021 (August 2020 to July 2021) showed a surplus of $3.1 billion and Fiscal year 2022 through February has yielded a $2.1 billion surplus, according to the Nashville-based Sycamore Institute.

The state has the means to invest billions of new dollars in public schools. But as Commissioner Schwinn’s recent testimony and The Tennessean’s recent reporting have revealed, local governments eventually will be on the hook for additional local funding if TISA becomes law. And city and county governments do not have billions of dollars in surplus.

TISA’s increased local match requirements will lead to property tax increases that local governments and taxpayers will blame on the new school funding formula if it becomes law. That blame could start with this year’s elections.

We strongly encourage state lawmakers to do three things.
First, keep the current, much more transparent, process for determining the cost of funding schools.
Second, expand the scope of the formula to include the cost of thousands of teachers currently paid exclusively with local tax dollars.
And third, increase the state’s portion of K-12 education funding from 70% to at least 80%. The state can afford this — more than $10 billion of our taxes are sitting in surplus accounts.  Raising the state’s percentage of K-12 education funding will reduce the threat of local property tax increases for which legislators will take the blame if they vote for the current bill.

Tennessee’s legislators have a decision to make this legislative session. They must decide whether they work for Bill Gates and other out-of-state billionaires, or for their own constituents and Tennessee’s children. We will know who they serve by how they vote.


Tennessee Coalition for Public Education.

Anderson County: David Campbell, Susan Fowler, Lori C. Houck, Marsha Livingston, Patsye Thurmon

Ashland City: Elena Roser

Clarksville: T.M. Chusac, Rosa Ponce

Cleveland: Dan Lawson

Kingsport: Denny Darnell, Susan Lodal

Knoxville/Knox County: Candace Bannister, Sarah Bateman, Dave Gorman, Bob Kronick, Lillian T. Mashburn, Lance McCold, Dominique Oakley, Jennifer Owen, Steven Rodgers, Jane Skinner, Doug Veum

Memphis: Nita Black, Jerri Green, Gabby Salinas, Peg Watkins

Nashville: Keri Kidd Cannon, Amy Flatt, Amy Frogge, Mary Holden, Sibyl Reagan, Dave Rosenberg, Jill Speering, Nancy Stetten

Sumner County: Vanessa Sheehan, Andy Spears

Tipton County: Lee-Ann Nolan

Williamson County: Tammy Lipsey, Harper-Grace Niedermeyer

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