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Staff file photo / Ashlyn Albury assembles a "plant cell" in her 2017 fourth-grade class as they learn about plant cell structure using the Science Sparks! curriculum. The pilot was one of the ways Hamilton County Schools has worked to better engage students and teachers.

Parents, teachers and taxpayers in our Southeast Tennessee region have an opportunity next Thursday to spout off and suggest new approaches to Tennessee's nearly three-decade-old school funding formula known as the Basic Education Program — BEP, for short.

Thursday's meeting at 5:30 p.m. at The Howard School in Chattanooga will be the sixth in a series of eight town hall hearings planned by officials as they review the state's K-12 funding formula which now uses 45 components to determine funding, including teacher salaries.

The BEP and its formula have long been criticized as complicated and outdated. Democrats and the Tennessee Education Association argue reforms should increase funding.

"The real problem here isn't the complicated formula to split up the BEP funds. The problem is the uncomplicated decision to invest fewer dollars in education than basically every other state," says Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

At the first of these meetings Wednesday near Nashville, about 150 people attending talked up themes like investing more, providing options for parents other than traditional public schools and funding more support staff like school counselors.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn in early October told The Tennessean that a new funding model likely will take a more "student-centered approach." That could mean potentially allowing the state to establish a weighted student-based formula in which a certain amount of funding follows every student, no matter where they attend school.

If you're thinking that sounds a bit like another avenue into Gov. Bill Lee's legally embattled school voucher program that allows parents to use state school funding — our tax dollars — to send their children to private schools, you're not alone. State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, has exactly that concern.

"I hope that this will be a good thing for Tennessee students and Tennessee schools," Johnson told The Tennessean. "But we have to be dogged about holding their feet to the fire and making sure that this is money going to public schools, because it is our public schools that are underfunded."

Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation based on per-pupil funding levels, spending about $4,000 less per child than the nationwide average, according to the Education Law Center.

The meeting Thursday at The Howard School is important. If you can't be there, watch it livestreamed on the Tennessee Department of Education Facebook Page. This is your money they're talking about.

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