Money Talks

Funny how a little thing like a BEP lawsuit asking for more than $600 million can cause Governor Haslam to propose adding a little more money to the education pot.

Yes, seven Tennessee school districts are suing over the inadequacy of the state’s education funding. And, just one week after the suit was filed, Governor Haslam suddenly “found” some $30 million to invest in funding an additional month of teacher health insurance. The state currently pays 45% of 10 months of teacher insurance, but teachers are insured for a full 12 months.

The districts are suing based on numbers provided by the BEP Review Committee, the state group tasked with annually reviewing the BEP formula and making recommendations for improvements.

The idea is that the BEP Review Committee will highlight issues that need attention and help the state avoid additional funding lawsuits.

The reality is that the BEP Review Committee reports go ignored by the legislature and most Governors until a lawsuit is filed. Twice since the original “Small Schools” suit that initially brought about the BEP the state has been sued over funding equity. Twice, the state has lost those equity lawsuits.

Governor Haslam’s administration has said that education funding is now a priority — but that wasn’t the case last year and he didn’t seem to be making any real moves this year until a lawsuit was filed.

Only seven districts are party to the current suit while others continue to debate joining in.

In Metro Nashville, some on the Board have openly suggested a more collaborative approach. I would suggest that after giving Bill Haslam four years to get serious about school funding, the time for collaboration is over. Haslam has created a duplicative BEP Task Force that has the stated goal of rearranging the slices of a pie that’s too small.

When asked about the latest threat of a suit before it became a reality, Haslam said he was committed to doing “something” about school funding, but he just didn’t know what yet.

This $30 million is a tiny olive branch, but far from a serious move toward funding schools properly. And, with legislators like House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick saying Tennessee’s schools are currently properly funded, it’s unclear how much support truly improving the funding situation will have. In fact, at today’s legislative hearing on school vouchers, McCormick took a swipe at school boards, suggesting they should focus on educating kids instead of filing lawsuits.

I would also note that for those on the MNPS Board who want to collaborate with Haslam that he has been supportive of voucher schemes that will devastate public schools, especially MNPS. Haslam’s support of dangerous voucher schemes and lack of any serious effort to improve school funding combined with his legislative leaders taking verbal swipes at school boards means he’s deserving of a serious confrontation — not a collaborative spirit.

You don’t wait around for someone who has never shown an interest in making an effort to see if they suddenly will do something good. You don’t take the coin they toss in the way of some insurance money as evidence they are finally serious about giving you what you deserve.

The bottom line is this: The BEP is broken. 

Bill Haslam has made no meaningful effort to fix it. Until a lawsuit was filed, his administration wasn’t even willing to admit there was a problem with funding for teacher insurance.

Tennessee school districts, teachers, and parents should start working together to insist that the legislature and the Governor develop serious, long-term funding solutions for our state’s schools. If the BEP problem is not fixed by legislative action, the legislature and Governor may be forced to fix it by the courts. It’s long past time for the serious work of making the BEP work for all of Tennessee.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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