Lost amid the election hubbub of the week were headlines about Gov. Bill Lee on Monday signing into law the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act. It's the new Tennessee school funding bill that replaces the Better Education Program, widely known as BEP and something everyone in Tennessee loved to hate.
What we still don't know, despite the bill's approval by the General Assembly last week, is exactly what this so-called "student-based" funding will do. And how it will flow down locally.
It is supposed to focus on the needs of each individual student and "follow" each individual student to provide extra money for needs like disability and economic disadvantage.
Time will tell how quickly parents decide to love this school funding formula or, perhaps, hate it, too. Comments throughout the state during public meetings last year by State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn were largely more about wants than about what the new law may actually offer.
At a public town hall in November at Howard School, parents and teachers called for smaller class sizes, better support for low-income students, increased post-secondary opportunities beyond college tracks and better teacher pay, among other things.
A Times Free Press look this week found the new law would increase school funding in Hamilton County by $47 million.
That means in fiscal 2024, the current $350 million the state pays for Hamilton students will rise to $397 million. Of that, $40 million will be allocated to the district's nearly 15,000 students with special needs and just more than $27 million will support economically disadvantaged students. In total, Hamilton County Schools may receive around $9,000 per student.
Hamilton Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson declined a TFP interview request but said in a statement that the new formula would better consider each individual student in Hamilton County.
"While we do not know many of the specific rules around the funding formula yet, as those will be determined by the TDOE [Tennessee Department of Education] and State Board of Education in rule-making process throughout the next year, we will always support the consideration of all students and their unique needs when allocating district-level funding."
Critics of the bill proffered by Lee have argued that the $1 billion it adds to Tennessee's nearly $6 billion education budget isn't anywhere near enough to get us out of the pathetic ranking of 44th in state education funding adequacy.
"At the end of the day, the most important part of a funding formula is the funding, and right now in Tennessee, we don't do that well," said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat.
Yarbro proposed adding $1 billion this year and keeping the current formula, but the Senate voted that down. Instead, buoyed by another year of state revenue surpluses, the legislature passed a state budget that takes effect this July 1 with a $125 million increase toward teacher salaries — equivalent to a 3% raise — and a one-time $500 million investment in career and technical education in middle and high schools.
Another very valid concern is that the new law is a not-very-veiled attempt to further charter public schools in the state — especially in light of Lee's February announcement that he will use some of the extra money to further embrace "Christian teachings" in our classes with the "formalization" of a partnership with Hillsdale College of Michigan, a school founded by Baptists and committed to preserving its "Christian identity" infused with intellectual, cultural and political conservatism. Hillsdale also exports K-12 charter schools around the country.
During his February state-of-the-state address, Lee announced that more than half of the added $1 billion to the state education budget will go toward Hillsdale's "informed patriotism" curriculum in K-12 classes "and beyond."
The curriculum was specifically designed to depart from The New York Times' 1619 Project and to counter critical race theory, Hillsdale officials told Newsweek last August.
Specifically, the new law also sets aside funding to help charter schools pay for their facilities, according to Chalkbeat. And it "supports" career and technical education for older students.
It also does some more normal things, like set a base funding amount of $6,860 per pupil and increases that for certain additional needs. And it allocates across-the-board funding of $500 more per K-3 students to improve reading, as well as money to pay for literacy tutoring for struggling fourth-grader readers.
Which brings up the is-this-really-enough question: $500 per student is enough to improve literacy?
One thing seems sure: Local governments are still constitutionally required in Tennessee to contribute funding for schools, and the average split is 70% from the state and 30% from locals. (The Lee administration has assured local officials that they'll have three years at the same local funding "to adjust.")
Would this not seem to indicate the state just mandated a bunch of local tax increases?