Tennessee's proposed budget for fiscal 2023 is $52.6 billion — with 41 cents of every dollar to be spent on education.
The new spending plan ups Tennessee's ante for education, now nearly $6 billion, by another $1 billion, and it comes with a nod toward Gov. Bill Lee's plan to update the state's education funding formula known for years as BEP, short for Better Education Program.
BEP is a much-hated and complicated funding guide with 46 components to determine how much money the state sends to districts for salaries, textbooks, technology and other needs. But what Lee proposes now is described as a "student-centered" funding formula, which would theoretically allow districts and charter schools to receive additional education investments catered to their students' needs.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has said this approach would assist students who are managing issues such as learning disabilities and the challenges of living in poverty, translating to more help for teachers in the classroom.
Let us say again that BEP is no one's ideal funding guide, but the fact remains that it already does include — on paper, at least — some extras for certain school challenges — like poverty.
Meanwhile, there still are few specifics on the new "student-centered" plan, and it remains to be seen how the new funding scheme will slice our dollars.
Here, however, are some other highlights of the how Lee and Schwinn want to spend some of the 41 cents of every dollar from our state taxes aimed at schooling our children:
– $32 million for charter school facility funding.
– $125 million to increase teacher salaries. (No specifics here either.)
– $200 million to relocate public schools in flood plains.
– $550 million in career and technical education grants.
– $750 million toward additional education investments.
As for the extra $1 billion, let's be clear: Tennessee K-12 education needs some tender loving cash care.
The Education Law Center, in a national report looking at all states and titled "Making the Grade 2020," gave the Volunteer State an F for its education funding.
The ELC broke funding criteria into three categories.
In "funding level," we received an F, as we rank 43 out of 51 with our yearly $10,894 in cost-adjusted per-pupil spending. That's $3,655 below the national average of $14,548.
In "funding distribution," we received a C because while BEP's funding distribution fluctuates (theoretically for need), it still is basically "flat," according to the ELC report. On average, high poverty districts receive 4%, or $349, more per pupil than low poverty districts.
In "funding effort," we earned another F. This measure compares allocations to education as a percentage of the state's economic activity, or GDP. We make a lower-than-average schools funding effort. And, guess what? As a state we have a lower than average GDP per capita.
Look at this in reverse and ask yourselves: Does this mean — with both lower-than-average school funding and a lower-than-average GDP — we're getting what we pay for?
Unfortunately the equation is unlikely to change even with an extra $1 billion.
On one hand, adding money to the education budget — even money with lots of zeros at the end — is as Schwinn told Chalkbeat recently, "a good first step."
On the other hand, context is important: Tennessee schools actually need an additional $1.7 billion of state money, according to a 2020 report by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relation.
By that measure, if lawmakers approve Lee's proposed budget (which we believe also includes some very murky education programs and policies, as we'll explain here Sunday), Tennessee still will be just over halfway where it should be.
And Tennessee education — and our classrooms — will still be underfunded.