Comprehensive Review

A state organization tasked with providing research on the operations of state and local government has released a report suggesting Tennessee’s school funding formula, the BEP, needs at least $1.7 billion to adequately fund public education in the state. TACIR — The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations — released “K-12 Education Funding and Services.” Here are some notes:

*   Report shows local governments spend at least $1.7 billion over BEP requirements.


 *   “Comparisons of BEP-funded to actual positions show that school systems often need to hire more staff than provided for by the formula” (Page 18)


 *   “In fiscal year 2018-19, the BEP funding formula generated a total of 62,888 licensed instructional positions, but school systems employed a total of 69,633 with state and local revenue.”

“Although the changes made in 1992 and since have resulted in substantial increases in funding to support the BEP, meeting local needs and the requirements imposed by the state and federal governments often requires more resources than the BEP funding formula alone provides. Consequently, state and local funding in fiscal year 2017-18 totaled $2.1 billion over and above what was required by the BEP formula, including a total of $1.7 billion in local revenue.”

“Given the ever evolving needs of communities in Tennessee and the likelihood that the BEP funding formula could better account for these needs, the Commission recommends that a comprehensive review of the components be made by the BEPRC or other designated state and local officials and other stakeholders to ensure that the BEP funding formula supports a commonly accepted basic level of education for Tennessee students.”

The TACIR report, showing a gap of nearly 7000 teachers, comes on the heels of a Tennessee Department of Education report indicating a “teacher gap” of 9000.

Additionally, the $1.7 billion identified by TACIR is slightly more than the $1.5 billion targeted by a group of legislators seeking to bring the BEP up to a level of adequacy.

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Tinkering Around the Edges

State Senator Jeff Yarbro offers thoughts on Gov. Lee’s education budget.


“The governor‘s budget is not enough to even do a 4 percent increase for teacher pay. It’s tinkering around the edges in a year that we have one of the biggest budget surpluses in our history and we have the capacity to actually improve the structural education deficit problem. We think the reasonable step is getting to $1.5 billion (for public schools). That’s not that audacious of a goal. That gets us to about average in the Southeast. Right now our per pupil student funding is lower than every state in the Southeast except Mississippi.”


“What’s broken about the BEP is not the division. The pie is not big enough in the first place. The BEP assumes that we need fewer teachers then are actually in our schools. If you walk down the hallway at any school in Tennessee and see six teachers, the BEP says you only need five teachers to teach those kids and you only need the money to pay for four of their salaries.”

Yarbro and other legislative Democrats are proposing a $1.5 billion increase in education funding.

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Johnson on the Reality of the Education Budget

In this video, State Rep. Gloria Johnson presses Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn on the reality of the education budget.

https://www.facebook.com/TheTNHoller/videos/1037237439986475/UzpfSTEwNzkzMjU0ODA6MjU2MDUyMjk5NDA1Nzc5Nw/

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Fundamentally Broken

Democratic legislators today unveiled a proposal to add $1.5 billion to the BEP — the state’s funding formula for public schools. Chalkbeat has more:


Democratic lawmakers called Wednesday for $1.5 billion more for public schools and an overhaul of an education funding formula that they called “fundamentally broken.”


Tennessee’s investment of $9,225 per student trails most states in the South and its level of school funding remains the elephant in the room for state government. A trial is expected this year in a 5-year-old lawsuit filed by school districts in Memphis and Nashville over the adequacy of state funding for students and schools. If successful, the case could mean sweeping changes for how much Tennessee spends on K-12 education.


For instance, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a recent analysis presented to the BEP Review Committee.

Back in 2014, I wrote that the BEP formula was broken:


As I mentioned, the BEP includes an instructional component which provides districts funding for teacher salaries. The current instructional component sets a salary number of $40,447. The state then funds this component at 70%, leaving districts to pay 30% of the salary cost for that teacher.


There are a few problems with this. First, nearly every district in the state hires more teachers than the BEP formula generates. This is because students don’t arrive in neatly packaged groups of 20 or 25, and because districts choose to enhance their curriculum with AP courses, foreign language, physical education, and other programs. This add-ons are not fully contemplated by the BEP.


Next, the state sets the instructional component for teacher salary at $40,447. The average salary actually paid to Tennessee teachers is $50,355.  That’s slightly below the Southeastern average and lower than six of the eight states bordering Tennessee. In short, an average salary any lower would not even approach competitiveness with our neighbors.

While those are 2014 numbers, the disparity between the BEP salary allocation and the actual cost of a teacher still exists. It means the state is picking up far less than the 70% of instructional costs contemplated by the BEP. In fact, one possible path forward would be to fund teacher salaries through the BEP at a rate equal to the average actual cost of a teacher. That’s actually what Shelby County proposed back in 2014. The cost? $500 million.

Next, making up the 9000 teacher deficit — the gap between what the BEP generates and the number of teachers ACTUALLY hired by districts. That cost? Around $500 million.

Tennessee has both less teachers than we need AND we pay them less than we should. Addressing those two issues costs about $1 billion.

The other $500 million? Funding for counselors, nurses, and other critical support staff for schools.

Tennessee has the money — with years of record surpluses boosting the state’s coffers. Will the General Assembly elect to spend that money on an investment in our schools?

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$1.5 Billion

That’s how much Tennessee is under-funding public schools. Senators Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Raumesh Akbari of Memphis take on the issue of school funding in a recent OpEd in the Tennessean. Here’s some of their argument:

The “fully funded” story line falls apart every time a teacher digs into their own bank account to purchase essential school supplies for their students. The claim unravels when teachers work second or even third jobs just to make ends meet. When we see children and teachers stacked into mobile trailers, describing schools as fully funded amounts to gaslighting. 

Here’s the truth: The state needs to put at least $1.5 billion more into public education each year just to meet the bare minimum. And even that investment may not be enough to get out of the bottom 10 states for school funding. 

Here’s MORE from Yarbro and Akbari

Their article follows a report from the Department of Education indicating that Tennessee is severely underfunding teaching positions in our state — to the tune of at least $500 million.

The article notes that Tennessee has had significant revenue surpluses in recent years. This means the state CAN fund public schools at an adequate level without raising state taxes. In fact, proper state funding of schools would mean local governments could keep taxes low. It would also relieve the burden that hits poorer districts the hardest.

Here are some likely responses:

  • The state just can’t promise that level of funding year after year
  • We need to try new experiments like expanding charters and moving forward with vouchers
  • Districts simply can’t absorb ALL that money at once
  • Our tax policy is critical to our business climate, so that comes first
  • We’re already getting results, why do we need more money?
  • We can’t just throw money at schools (we’d rather throw it at Amazon)

And here’s the reality: Tennessee consistently receives an “F” in both school funding and funding effort. We’re not even trying.

Yes, we have the money. Yes, our schools deserve it. Yes, WE CAN FUND SCHOOLS!

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Exacerbate

Dr. Bill Smith writes in the Johnson City Press that the General Assembly’s recent education policies will only exacerbate inequality.


Crowe, a 28-year veteran of the General Assembly and member of the Senate Education Committee, and his colleagues have grotesquely underfunded the BEP in recent years, and the money diverted to vouchers will exacerbate this shortcoming. Tennessee is 45th nationally in per-pupil funding and well below the Southeastern average. Expanding the voucher program will compromise funding for public education even more, and local schools will surely feel the impact.


In a May 1 article, The Tennessean reported that last year’s voucher law could cost $330 million by 2024, money that could be used instead to improve education across the state. Further, if we’ve learned anything over the years about school funding and the achievement gap, it’s that the children who most need our embrace are the ones who suffer most when educational funding is inadequate.

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9000

Tucked inside this Chalkbeat story on Hamilton County dropping its lawsuit over state funding of public schools is a note about just how inadequate the formula (the BEP) is.


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

When looking at an average actual salary for Tennessee teachers of around $52,000, this means that local districts are responsible for $468 million in teacher salary expenses before benefits are included. That’s an unfunded mandate that easily exceeds half a billion dollars.

No one is suggesting we hire less teachers. In fact, many districts report needing additional teachers and other staff — such as nurses and counselors — to adequately serve their students.

However, this number does show that our state systematically underfunds public schools in a way not addressed by the current funding formula. It’s likely that when you combine the unfunded salary and benefits of teachers and the needs for programs like RTI2 with the proper staffing levels for nurses and counselors, you’d see a number exceeding $1 billion.

Let’s be clear: The state’s own Department of Education has provided information to the committee responsible for reviewing the state funding formula that indicates we’re at least $500 million behind where we should be in terms of current funding.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers don’t include any significant boost in pay for existing teachers.

In short: Tennessee is not properly funding schools.

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TEA on 2020 School Funding

The Tennessee Education Association is out with an analysis of how revenue estimates from the State Funding Board impact money available for our public schools. Here’s more:


Tennessee is so far behind it would take $1.2 billion annually to reach the Southeast average. The good news is Tennessee has the revenue available to make a $1.2 billion investment in a few years without raising taxes. The bad news is the state follows a budget process that chronically underestimates revenue growth, thus withholding billions from classrooms. 


For five years actual revenue growth was more than double state estimates, leaving $3 billion in surplus while public schools remain under-funded. While state K-12 funding did increase by $700 million over those years, had the state doubled K-12 investment to $1.4 billion, a substantial surplus would still have remained while also moving Tennessee schools out of the bottom 10 in funding. 


There is already a problem with this year’s estimates. The State Funding Board, a panel of constitutional officers and the state finance director, recently approved a growth rate of between 2.7% and 3.1%, well below even the most pessimistic predictions by economists hired by the state. 
It is the lowest rate since 2014, when the board predicted little to no growth. This led then-Gov. Haslam to eliminate a promised $50 million state teacher raise. Actual revenue grew 5% in 2014-2015, leading to a $552 million surplus while teachers got nothing. 


The board also had to increase its growth estimate for 2019-2020, predicting a general fund surplus of $430 – $500 million. Even this upward revision may be far too low. First-quarter general fund growth was 8.1%, more than double the revised estimate, which could generate a surplus up to $900 million. Teachers got $72 million for salaries in this budget. It could have been $272 million.

Governor Bill Lee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and House GOP Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison have all suggested this will be the year Tennessee makes a big investment in teacher pay. Will these leaders use low-ball funding board revenue estimates to nix this raise? Or, will they look at historic data suggesting the money is there and use that information to push for a significant boost in pay for teachers and investment in schools?

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Spare Change

Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson wants you to spend your spare change on Tennessee’s public schools. Watson touts the Volunteer Public Education Trust Fund in a recent piece distributed around the state. Here’s more:

For all those who clamor for more financial investment in K-12 public education, there is a perfect investment opportunity for you – the Volunteer Public Education Trust.

Watson then goes on to highlight the many potential benefits of investment in this fund.

Let’s be clear: A state that is 45th in the nation in school funding is now asking people to just donate their extra cash to a fund to help boost schools.

Watson sounds like he’s not among “all those who clamor” for more investment in our schools. But, hey, if YOU are, go for it.

Watson fails to mention that Tennessee has banked over $3 billion in surpluses over the past five years. Was that money invested in public schools? No! Instead, the inheritance tax and Hall investment tax were phased out.

In fact, a recent analysis indicates that while state revenue is up by an 7% over the past 10 years when adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries are down by 2.6% over the same time period.

This lack of commitment to directing available dollars to public schools is why Tennessee earned an “F” for effort in a recent comparison of state spending on education.

Now, instead of committing to use state funds to fill a $500 million hole in school funding, Watson is suggesting collecting spare change from donors in order to meet the needs of our state’s schoolchildren.


The Volunteer Public Education Trust is now ready for contributions from individuals, businesses and corporations that will transform the way we fund public education in Tennessee.

Here’s another way to transform the way we fund public education in Tennessee: Start funding education in Tennessee.

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BEP Black Magic

An article in yesterday’s Chattanooga Times-Free Press indicates that some legislators have no idea how the state’s education funding formula works or even what words actually mean.

The article notes that state Senator Todd Gardenhire and state Representative Mike Carter are frustrated by the state budget process, where funds are passed to increase salaries for educators through the Basic Education Plan (BEP). The lawmakers apparently fail to understand that every single system in the state hires teachers beyond the BEP and that the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates on to local districts.

Specifically, Gardenhire and Carter want a clear definition of the word “teacher” so that only “teachers” receive state raise money and so that the legislators can continue underfunding schools while cutting taxes for big corporations and wealthy individuals. Seems the two of them could use a math class.

Here’s more from the article:

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, have long called for one official definition of what a “teacher” is that school districts and the state can stick to, and they have again been raising the issue with Hamilton County’s school leaders and lawmakers.

Are these ALL “teachers?”

Regular classroom teachers, special education teachers, vocational education, music or art teachers, school counselors, guidance counselors, social workers, librarians, principals, assistant principals, and even supervisors such as instructional coaches, teacher supervisors and staff who complete special education assessments for students all fall into the same category.

Gardenhire and Carter apparently would like it if there were differentiations among instructional staff so they could continue allocating paltry sums to fund schools while allowing at least some employees to receive a state-funded raise.

One County Commissioner narrowed the issue quite well:

Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, asked the state representatives at the Nov. 7 legislative delegation meeting who has been getting raises who shouldn’t have been, but his question went unanswered.


“Who are we angry [about] that is getting a raise that we don’t think should be getting a raise?” Sharpe said.

Carter made clear he hasn’t spent time seeking to understand the BEP nor has he made any serious effort to improve it:

“We are promising teachers something that we are not delivering. The BEP is all black magic. No one actually understands it, no one wants to,” Carter told the Times Free Press.

Of course, the state publishes a BEP handbook and also has a BEP Review Committee which meets regularly and explores the formula in order to recommend improvements.

One way to solve the dilemma expressed by Gardenhire and Carter? Actually fund the BEP at an adequate level. The state’s Comptroller of the Treasury estimates the BEP is underfunded by some $500 million annually. Fortunately, both Gardenhire and Carter are lawmakers and have the ability to push legislation to actually fund the formula. Unfortunately, neither have made any effort in this area.

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