Tennessee Gov. Lee pushes for review of state's school funding formula

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions after he spoke to a joint session of the legislature at the start of a special session on education in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee says his administration will conduct a review of Tennessee's nearly 30-year-old funding formula for public school districts and explore changing the current system to one where state money "follows" a student to the school he or she attends.

"We will pursue a rigorous review of our state's education funding to ensure we are properly investing in students and stewarding our resources well," the Republican governor said in a statement Friday while also calling on the public to weigh in. "I invite every Tennessee parent to tell us about their current experiences as well as their hopes for the education, environment and experience in our K-12 public schools."

The state has created a website for that.

"Public engagement will focus on a student investment strategy that prioritizes students over systems, incentivizes student outcomes and reflects Tennesseans' values," the website promises.

"We're at a very important time in our state," Lee said at a news conference. "We've had significant challenges and changes in our education system, but we think this is the right opportunity. We need to make sure we're spending those dollars correctly. We all recognize that a funding formula that has been in place for 30 years likely has a lot of opportunity for improvement."

The governor's move comes as he and state government fight back against a school finance lawsuit Lee inherited when he took office. It charges Tennessee is shorting local school districts on funding. The litigation was brought by the state's two largest school systems - Shelby County and Metro Nashville - and later joined by 84 rural school districts. The districts charge public K-12 education isn't getting adequate funding.

Hamilton County Schools sued the state in 2015 but dropped the case last year amid criticism.

Tennessee created the school funding formula in 1992 with both then-Gov. Ned Wherter and lawmakers on full notice that the Tennessee Supreme Court would be soon hearing a landmark lawsuit filed by rural school systems that said the old funding mechanism shorted them. By the time the high court ruled the state's old system was unconstitutional, the new formula was in place.

The 46-component formula provides funding support to districts in areas ranging from instructional salaries for classroom teachers and other staff with teaching licenses, to school nurses, financial support for school bus operations, maintenance and computers.

Tennessee is spending $5.17 billion through the formula this fiscal year while another $1.14 billion used for the program comes from the federal government. Local governments also financially support the program, and that varies based on their ability to pay.

Joined by state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Lee told reporters Friday that the review of state funding "will be a focus on more of a student-based funding strategy than a system-based funding strategy, understanding the individual needs of students."

(READ MORE: Tennessee Education Commissioner Schwinn gets an education in governance and politics)

photo Staff file photo / Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn delivers the keynote address during the 38th annual Superintendent's Honors Banquet at the Chattanooga Convention Center on April 29, 2019, in Chattanooga.

Administration materials describe it as a "student-centered approach," echoing language from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which offers up proposed conservative legislation to legislatures across the country.

The council also proposes a student formula in which money "follows" a child to his or her school.

Lee has sought to push the envelope on private schools, persuading GOP lawmakers in 2019 to pass a bill providing school vouchers worth about $7,300 in state money to up to 5,000 qualifying students in Shelby and Metro Nashville school districts to use for private school tuition. Opponents sued and the case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

'Inadequate' state funding

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown said in a statement that while the educators' union supports Lee's effort to engage teachers, parents and community members in a critical evaluation of the school funding formula, the effort ignores the elephant in the room.

"[T]he central problem with education funding is not the [school funding formula], but the inadequate level of state funding," Brown said in a statement. "Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for what we invest per student."

Brown called it "irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history."

Brown said that any review of the school funding formula must include more than just recommendations on how to change it.

"Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve," she said.

Dale Lynch, executive of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, called this a "perfect time" to look at the school funding formula.

"But I also think there's been a lot of work done and a lot of time invested in looking at our current school funding formula," Lynch said, going on to cite work done by a State Board of Education review committee. There are a numer of experts on the panel, which meets at least quarterly to review the funding program's components and identify needed revisions, additions or deletions.

Members include the state finance commissioner, the state comptroller, a lawmaker, several local school superintendents and a representative for Tennessee School Systems for Equity, whose legal crusade against low education funding resulted in the court ruling that forced lawmakers into creating the school funding formula. There are many education experts on the panel, Lynch said in a telephone interview.

Several states, including Texas, have implemented variations of "student-centered" legislation, according to Lee and Schwinn.

"I think when you look at our current funding formula, I don't think it would be the right approach if we take away from certain areas of the formula, unless through this opportunity to listen to stakeholders across the state, there are areas we feel are being overly funded in our formula," Lynch said. "And I certainly don't know of where we are overly funded in our formula.

"We've got different components in our formula. And I think a way to start at this approach would be to look at the largest variants in those different variants that are funded."

State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said there has always been much discussion about the school funding formula and how it operates.

"It's not very transparent. It appears that things kind of go into a black box and they come out. And there's not a lot of understanding about how decisions are made," Watson said in a phone interview. "So I think if they're looking at reviewing that and maybe coming up with maybe a more transparent system, I think probably we'd certainly be much more open to that than the system we currently have, so long as everyone was treated fairly."

Hamilton County School Board Chairman Tucker McClendon of East Ridge said he hasn't had time to speak to anyone about the governor's move.

"I have no clue what we can expect from it or what the outcome could be for Hamilton County," he said in a phone interview. But he said it's good to look at the formula.

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, was skeptical of the governor's initiative.

"Is this one of these ivory tower concepts that 'We on top know what's best for the children'?" he asked.

Hakeem said he would like to see more participation by school systems, superintendents and parent organizations.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.