Opinion: Tennessee's new education funding won't be perfect but it's a start for K-12 schools

When the Tennessee legislature passed the Basic Education Program (then the Basic Education Plan) for K-12 public education in 1992, not everybody thought it was a panacea.

Even though it dealt with the fact a Nashville judge had said the state's previous funding formula was unconstitutional, and even though it infused many schools districts with new money, it still had its critics. Some had worries about how the money would be spent, others fretted about its funding going forward and still others claimed it didn't calculate funding fairly.

"If we have to save public education in Tennessee," state Sen. Ray Albright, R-Chattanooga, said at the time, "the educators will have to prove they are doing a good job. If this money doesn't end up in the classroom to ensure that every child has the materials he needs, I believe public education is in for a hard time."

"We have put a Band-Air on the education sore so it's not bleeding profusely right now," said state Rep. C.B. Robinson, D-Chattanooga. "We need to come back next year and fully fund the educational program. We need [a state] income tax to fully fund the educational program."

"We haven't dealt with the basic issue," Chattanooga city schools Superintendent Harry Reynolds said. "How do you fund it statewide and ensure that every child gets a fair share according to his needs?"

The BEP was passed 30 years ago by a Democratic legislature and signed by a Democratic governor. Over the last decade, it has been presided over by a Republican legislature and two Republican governors.

Last week, the legislature passed a new funding formula proposed by Gov. Bill Lee, based on a wide variety of public input, known as TISA (Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement). As with the previous formula, it infuses schools with more money and allegedly does what Reynolds mentioned at the time - helps ensure every child gets a fair share according to his needs.

And as with the BEP, the new formula has its critics. Some don't like the way it defines poverty, others have a problem with how it calculates local capacity and still others - as in 1992 - say not enough money is proposed for the formula. Some legislators on both sides said the legislation to create the new formula was not given enough consideration. Criticism would be expected on any each bill.

The funding formula, which won't begin until the 2023-2024 school year, is said to be a "student-based" approach that calculates the cost of an adequate K-12 education by giving extra weight to certain student- and district-level characteristics.

It is built around the three priorities of empowering each student to read proficiently by third grade, preparing each high school graduate for postsecondary success and providing resources needed to all students to ensure they succeed.

"For the first time in 30 years," Lee said in a statement earlier this month, "we have a unique opportunity to replace Tennessee's outdated K-12 funding formula with a modern, student-focused approach."

The fund begins with a base funding rate of $6,860 per student. Additional funding per student is added for each district based on, for example, the number of students considered economically disadvantaged, those who have unique learning needs, those who live in rural areas and those who have concentrated poverty.

We wrote last month of a dashboard published by The Sycamore Institute, a Nashville-based public policy research center, on the metrics of how the per-pupil formula would be adopted in each county.

In Hamilton County, the state base rate for pupils would be increased based on a weight of 5% for not being a small district, 5% for not being a sparse district, 25% for having 35.5% economically disadvantaged students, 5% for having 65.9% students living in concentrated poverty, between 20% and 70% for having 9.9% students with limited English proficiency, between 15% and 150% for having 12.8% of students with other unique learning needs and 4% for having 3.7% charter school students.

The new plan also adds roughly $152 million for students in kindergarten through third grade and some in fourth grade to receive literacy supports like tutoring and paraprofessionals. In Hamilton County, that's a real need.

According to 2021 reading scores for district students released last fall, in only 11 out of 43 elementary schools were 50% of students reading at or above proficiency level. In six elementaries, less than 10% of students were reading at or above the proficiency level. And in two of those schools, less than 5% of students were reading at proficiency level.

The plan also adds money for fast-growing districts and high-performing students as well as some accountability measures.

Will it be perfect? No. Will everybody be happy with it? No. Can legislators change it? Yes.

We won't know for several years how the new funding formula is working. But we'll leave you with the words of then-House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, who said upon the passage of the BEP in 1992 words that are true for TISA today:

"We have passed too many bills in the name of education," he said. "We need to make sure this is not more of the same. People are tired of taxes being passed in the name of education and nothing happening."

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