Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn's statewide bus tour came to Ooltewah High School this week, one of 50 school district stops over three weeks to highlight summer learning opportunities, as well as to boost the state's new public school funding formula, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement.
She followed the visit with a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview.
The new funding formula will infuse a one-time $250 million investment in educational spending statewide starting this fall. After that, $750 million in recurring funds will be dispersed in fiscal years 2023 and 2024.
The formula is student-weighted. It starts at a base amount of $6,860 per student and then includes additional funding for unique individual student needs, like those who are low-income or have a disability. The formula also allocates direct funds to support areas like early literacy, career and technical education programming, one-on-one tutoring and charter schools.
Hamilton County Schools is projected to receive $397 million in fiscal year 2024, $47 million more than the $350 million the system will receive this academic year, according to state Department of Education projections.
At the event, state officials, education leaders and students touted the new formula's focus on equity. Here's what Schwinn had to say about how the formula is weighted.
Q. How does the formula work?
A. The formula looks at the needs of every individual student. And so, if you are a student who has extra needs, or maybe a student where additional support is going to help you, you get more money. So, let's say you are a student who speaks a language other than English, that's something that's going to require your school to do more for you. So, we give that student an extra boost of anywhere from 40-60% more. If you're a student who is low income and might need additional resources in order to meet those grade-level expectations, we're going to make sure to give you more, and in this case it's a 25% boost. The formula is really built, instead of the average of all of the students in a district, it's really saying, "How much does each individual child need in order to ensure that the district and school can purchase the resources and supports and teachers and all of those things that will help that child to learn?"
Q. If a student changes schools, does the formula change?
A. The good news is that whatever public school that student goes to, that amount that that child generates is what moves. Let's say they moved from East Tennessee to West Tennessee for middle school and they have $12,500 that the formula generates for them. Their new district would have $12,500, just like their old district.
Q. On Monday, the Tennessee Department of Education published the proposed rules for the formula, however, they're a bit hard to decipher for the layperson. How can people better understand the rules?
A. The rules are essentially, one: restating the law. And then two: It is another legal way to go one layer deeper into detail. So, it'll explain for districts: Here is how we will determine who qualifies as a student with a disability or a student who speaks a language other than English. Or here's the technical process for submitting data and how often you'll hear you'll get feedback or results in the department.
And then the department will produce a guide. And that guide, it's in the layman's terms of: Here's what the formula is going to generate for you. Here are strategic ways to invest those dollars. Here are best practices.
Q. When will the guide be published?
A. We're looking at the very early fall. So, once we have the rules, then we can produce the guide. The guide will be based off of what those final submissions are.
Q. In Hamilton County, the school district has around $1 billion in deferred building repairs. How does the new formula help schools with infrastructure needs?
A. Districts will be able to have the flexibility to spend the money in whatever way they think is best for kids. And so, with a district like Hamilton County that's getting well over $40 million in new funding, I think that's a really important and critical addition for any number of investments they may want to make. Some of those are going to be academic. Some of those might be expanding their incredible high school and CTE (career and technical education) programs. And some of those are going to be things like deferred maintenance and capital expenditures. So, the beauty is that this formula really isn't trying to force or push people into certain types of spending. It's saying local districts should be empowered to spend the money in the way that they see fit for their local communities.