published Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Tennessee: Education spending gap persists statewide


by Kelli Gauthier
Audio clip

David Eichenthal

Tennessee spends more money to educate white children than black or Latino students, according to a study.

Statewide, a funding gap between white and minority students has shrunk but still persists, a report by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies says.

According to figures from the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, the state allocates about $150 less to educate black students than white, and nearly $300 less for Latino students.

“It’s a bad thing that it appears there’s a gap,” said David Eichenthal, Ochs Center president. “What you do about it and how quickly you do something is for others to think and talk about.”

The study shows some progress in closing the gap: In 2002, the state spent $248 less to educate black students. However, the gap has grown larger for Latino students — in 2002, the state spent $228 less to educate them.

The study, released today on the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, shows that school funding from the state remains unequal for whites and minorities, Mr. Eichenthal said.

The study does not examine local or federal money distributed to public schools, he said. Title I money from the federal government provides extra money to schools with high populations of low-income students, many of whom are minorities.

The Ochs report also notes that while state funding is allocated at the district level, local funding can and frequently is directed to individual schools.

“When local revenue is considered, state and local spending was higher in Tennessee in high minority districts than in low minority districts,” based on 2004 data reported to the U.S. Department of Education, the report states.

Allocation of state education funds through the Basic Education Program is meant to provide more money to school districts whose tax base is smaller. So smaller, rural systems such as Grundy County end up receiving a larger amount of perpupil funding than a larger district such as Memphis.

The problem, Mr. Eichenthal said, is that more money for rural students often means less for minority students. Many minorities tend to live in larger, urban districts such as Hamilton and Metro Nashville.

Mr. Eichenthal insisted his report was not created to point fingers at anyone but to present state legislators, school officials and community members with a new way to look at school funding.

“From our perspective, this is purely informational,” he said. “It’s important for people to understand that this exists.”

But Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, wondered why Mr. Eichenthal even raised the race issue. Lawsuits brought against the state by rural school systems have required legislators to skew the allocations in favor of those districts, he said.

“I don’t know why (the Ochs Center’s study) is fixated on race, honestly,” he said. “I’m certain that the state of Tennessee does not discriminate in favor of rural areas based on race issues, and personally I think there are more important things to consider.”

Schools Superintendent Jim Scales said if legislators consider rewriting the BEP formula, they should consider socioeconomic factors, and give more money to areas with a larger population of poor students.

“Once you see the data on how we are spending dollars, hopefully people of goodwill would be hit with the wow factor,” he said. “’What can we do about this?’ becomes the question. More than race, we need to focus on economic issues.”

The core issue with school funding is that there simply is not enough of it, said local attorney Travis McDonough, a member of a citizen advisory panel that examined Hamilton County Schools’s budget.

“Aggressive state support of public education will mean the BEP does not have to be a formula that, arguably, picks winners and losers,” he said.

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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