Tennessee has one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the United States. While that may be a positive in some ways, it can mean less overall revenue available for public investments. However, just because our tax burden is relatively low doesn’t mean we can’t make smart choices. Policymakers could dedicate significant portions of that revenue to high return public goods – like our schools.
Instead, they just don’t.
According to a newly-released report from Education Week, Tennessee spends just 2.9% of all taxable resources on public education. That’s the lowest rate of any state in the nation.
In fact, the report notes that Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of investment in public schools. The Quality Counts report produced by Education Week also gives an overall grade on school funding based on inputs such as equity, percent of resources spent, total funding, and percent of students who receive funding at or above the national median average. Tennessee’s grade? A D+. While we receive an A for funding equity, we get an F just about everywhere else.
And, don’t get too excited about that A in equity. We are merely equitably distributing a terribly small piece of pie.
Tennessee policymakers, who recently adjourned their legislative session, could have paid for at least a third of the school funding shortfall with JUST the April surplus. Of course, that would assume these lawmakers are serious when they say they want to fully fund schools.
To be clear, making even a $600 million down payment on the necessary investments in schools would leave the state with a surplus approaching $1.4 billion and three months left in the budget year.
Tennessee has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. We have a budget surplus that is of historic proportions. We could fully fund our public schools and still have hundreds of billions of dollars leftover. This, then, is not a decision about “keeping taxes low” or about fiscal responsibility. It is, instead, a decision about denying the best possible education to our state’s children.
A budget is, at its core, a policy document. Our public policy in Tennessee is clear: Public schools are not a public good worth funding. This has been true for years and Gov. Lee is merely continuing this sad tradition.
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