Staff File Photo / Students discuss a poem during a March 2020 class at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

While Tennessee taxpayer funding for K-12 education has grown 30.5% in the last eight years, less and less money is making it to the classroom, a new report showed.

Indeed, according to the report by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, in fiscal 2020, only 53% of the state's $11 billion outlay for education operating expenditures was spent on teacher salaries and other learning and material costs.

That figure is 7% less than the 60% national average of education expenditures that make it to the classroom, according to the most recent report on public education spending by the United States Census Bureau.

If there is a bright spot, it is that state funds spent for the classroom experience — such as technology and textbooks — have increased about 33% since 2017, reaching their highest level in nine years.

One area that isn't seeing less, though, is educational administration, the costs for which have grown 33% per student since 2012 and 13.45% since 2018. Those amounts exceed the 5% enrollment growth in Tennessee public schools and the rate of inflation over the period.

Some of that spending has come at the expense of teachers.

Since a previous Beacon Center report in 2013, enrollment has grown modestly, but the number of classroom teachers has fallen nearly 3%. Meanwhile, vice principal positions have increased a whopping 24% and principal slots about 3%.

The compensation for teachers vs. principals and district superintendents is on the same trajectory.

Since 2012, Tennessee classroom teachers have seen a 12% increase in salary, but the pay for principals and superintendents has jumped 15% and 22.85%, respectively.

In Hamilton County, the difference has been even more stark.

In 2013, starting teachers made $34,000 and in 2021 make slightly over $40,000, a 17.7% increase. But in 2013, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith made $165,000, and this year the now-departed Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson made $240,000, a 45.5% increase.

Adjusted for inflation, the Tennessee numbers show teacher salaries actually have decreased 1.5% since 2012 and principal salaries have increased a small 1.4%. But superintendent salaries have climbed 8.3%.

The report didn't address the number of administrative positions in each district or the non-teaching positions in each school, but those figures undoubtedly would show large increases over the last eight years as well.

A directory for one Hamilton County high school, for instance, shows teachers, assistant principals, at-risk coaches, behavior specialists, bilingual assistants, college and career advisors, counselors, customized learning and personal finance facilitators, family and community support specialists, deans of students, interpreter/translators, registrars, social workers, student advocates and teaching assistants. And those are only the personnel for which a title is shown.

The report also covered the perceptions of education spending, with a 2020 survey showing that understanding of how much is spent per pupil across the state decreased 10% since a 2013 report. The most recent report showed that 80% of the public and 82% of parents with school-age children underestimate education spending.

Education funding, of course, increases every year and is the largest state budget item — about a third of every tax dollar.

The specific per-pupil amount for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the 2020 Annual Statistical Report published by the state Department of Education, was $9,998. That amount is more than double what the public believes was spent per child and about five times higher than the median $2,000 response from school parents.

The Beacon Center report argued, though, that the actual per-pupil expenditure for the year was $11,391, about 14% higher than what is reportedly publicly, and that the figure has averaged more than 9% higher than the official government amount since 2012. To reach the higher figure, the report claimed taxpayer-funded spending on school community services, capital outlay, debt service, capital projects and student body education also should be included.

Every year, despite hefty increases in education funding suggested over the last 11 years by state Republican governors, the amounts are said to be too little, the teacher raises not high enough and the fully funded Basic Education Program not adequate.

Earlier this week, for instance, a Chattanooga City Council member wondered if the city of Chattanooga should jump back in the school business because it seemed "our inner-city [students], the most at risk [were] not getting the resources for them to be successful."

If the complainers are referring to less and less money going to teachers and to the classroom, the Beacon Center report may open their eyes to reality. Sometimes it's not the amount of funding that's the problem but where it's going and how it's being used.