Review of TN state school funding likely to re-slice revenue pie, not increase it

NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam's task force studying Tennessee's school funding formula will focus primarily on how the money is distributed and not whether it needs a large infusion of new money, officials say.

The panel held its first meeting today. Haslam, a Republican, formed it in the midst of criticism over the state's current Basic Education Program funding formula, which has complaints from both rural and urban districts for different reasons.

"The purpose of the task force is not to say Tennessee needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more of money that we may or may not have," Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, said following the meeting. "The purpose of it to look at are the right components included as part of the formula, and given a fixed pie, how would you distribute that pie based on capacity."

Huffman said there "may be pieces that surface" on adequacy of funding in specific areas such as technology.

Lawmakers in 1992 hike the state sales tax and enacted the Basic Education Program in anticipation of an adverse ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court over a lawsuit filed by dozens of rural school systems. The systems had argued the then-funding program was unfair and violated the state's Constitution.

The court later ruled that was indeed the case but the BEP resolved that -- at least temporarily. Rural schools later sued twice more successfully on issues related to funding for teachers.

Coming under pressure from urban systems, including Hamilton County's in 2007, lawmakers approved a revamp of the formula by then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. Known as BEP 2.0, it addressed inequities and was accompanied by a 42-cent per pack hike on cigarettes. But the Great Recession hit shortly after and the revised formula has never been fully implemented.

Officials estimated it would cost about $147 million to fully make the transition to BEP 2.0. But while it helped some urban systems, many rural and some suburban systems have cried foul over the changes.

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