Rhetoric vs. Reality: Bill Lee School Funding Edition

As the Tennessee General Assembly passed Gov. Bill Lee’s budget today which included maintaining the woefully inadequate status quo for school funding, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) offered the following statement expressing their disappointment:

“The budget passed by the General Assembly is disappointing when we have a historic opportunity to get Tennessee out of the bottom five in education funding. With a record revenue surplus and hundreds of millions unappropriated, this was the time to stop underfunding our schools.

There were bills to provide for more nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers that our students need today and moving forward to meet their mental and academic challenges cause by the pandemic and the problems of chronic underfunding. Instead, we saw a trust fund set up that will cover barely a fraction of the needs years down the road.    

It’s unconscionable for state leaders to not include significant increases for K-12 funding, especially at a time when the state has racked up $1.42 billion in surplus year-to-date. The money is there to make a significant increase to K-12 funding, but Gov. Lee and the General Assembly have instead chosen to continue stuffing mattresses full of cash. 

Elected officials love to claim that Tennessee students, educators and public schools are top priorities, but their action on the state budget tells a different story. As the old saying goes, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is.”

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Education Coalition Calls on Governor to Boost Funding for Schools

Just one day after Gov. Bill Lee introduced his budget amendment that included no new funds for K-12 education, a coalition of education advocates from across the state called on Lee and the General Assembly to improve the amendment and boost funding for public schools. The move follows a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on Tuesday that said Lee’s budget for education comes up “woefully short.”

Here’s more from the Tennessee Public Education Coalition (TPEC):

Members of TPEC are deeply disappointed in Governor Lee’s failure to meet even the minimum funding needs of Tennessee’s schools, teachers, and students. Tennessee has long failed to adequately invest in its children. Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education funding, and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reports that Tennessee’s K-12 funding formula underfunds public schools by $1.7 billion per year. 

Tennessee’s coffers are awash in excess revenue, and our schools’ needs are immense. Tennessee’s surplus for the current fiscal year, with over five months to go, is over $1.3 billion, with lawmakers expected to have at least $3.1 billion in excess revenue to budget in the current cycle. Tennessee also has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Our children need excellent schools, and our teachers need adequate pay. Public schools need more resources- social workers, school nurses, counselors, and adequate support staff. With tax revenues exceeding state expenses by more than $2 billion per year and more than $7 billion cash reserves, there is no longer any excuse for failing to invest in our children.

Here are some comments from members of TPEC on the education budget:

Jerri Green, public school parent, Memphis:

“We love our school, our teachers and the other staff, but we hate that they underpaid and overworked. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars each year on basic supplies. This would not be necessary if the state supported our schools adequately. Governor Lee, please increase funding for our public schools.”

Peg Watkins, state & local education advocate for more than 30 years, speaking on behalf of the League of Women voters of Tennessee, Memphis:

“Underfunding our schools is not new. The BEP Review Committee has been pointing to these failures for years while Tennessee runs yearly surpluses. This year we are on track to run a $2 billion surplus. We call on the legislature to properly fund our schools.”

Candace Bannister, retired teacher, Knoxville:

“Gov. Lee is right that our school children have unmet mental health needs.  Unfortunately, his budget provides none of the additional resources our schools need to hire enough school counselors, social workers, nurses and mental health professionals.  We call on Gov. Lee to increase BEP funding for in-school mental health staff to meet the needs of our children.”

Amy Frogge– Former Nashville school board representative and Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children:

“The lack of adequate school funding is especially hard on rural schools. In low-income, rural counties, students suffer from inadequate facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of opportunities that parents in more prosperous counties take for granted: art, music, and advanced classes, career and technical training, and after-school activities like sports and clubs. I saw this myself recently when I visited a Morgan County high school, which had no money for art and music classes. Students there also wanted to run track and play softball and soccer, but the school had no money for sports fields or a track. I urge Governor Lee to increase school funding so all children have opportunities for after school activities.”

Rev. Laura Becker, parent and pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga:

“And any public school parent can tell you that teachers are always begging for school supplies, such as Kleenex, paper, Clorox wipes, pencils, and more. Our church annually collects these items for our neighborhood school, because the state doesn’t provide adequate funding for them, and it is unjust to expect every family to be able to provide them. They really shouldn’t have to beg for basics in a state as prosperous as Tennessee. While adding no additional funds for public schools, Governor Lee is proposing $114 million in tax cuts. It is unconscionable to cut taxes while the needs of our school children go unmet. We call on the governor to adequately fund our public schools.”

Paula Treece– A public school parent, PTA leader and former school board member, Johnson City:

“The state has repeatedly failed to fund the numerous mandates it has placed on local school districts, forcing local taxpayers to bear a greater burden than necessary. Not only should the state fully fund all school mandates that it imposes, but it should also allow local school boards to decide how best to utilize the resources.”

The coalition joins groups like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee who have also recently called on Gov. Lee and the General Assembly to make additional investments in schools.

In his own words . . .

In a press release announcing the budget amendment, Lee listed tax cuts first and in a budget amendment that includes no new money for public schools, the release indicated:

This amendment reflects the Governor’s priorities . . .

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Woefully Short

The Tennessee Education responded to Gov. Bill Lee’s budget amendment today calling the announcement and Lee’s overall education investment “woefully short” of what the state needs to fund schools.

Lee unveiled the budget amendment with no appreciable increase in K-12 spending, merely a rehash of previous announcements regarding holding districts harmless in the BEP formula and an investment in mental health that had been planned in 2020.

Lee’s statement says:

This amendment reflects the Governor’s priorities and includes record investments in broadband, economic development, safety and law enforcement, increasing reserves, and education.

The amendment itself actually does not include record investments in education and it’s interesting that on the list of supposed priorities here, education is mentioned last.

Here’s the TEA response:

“With the state bringing in record surplus month after month, there is no excuse to not make significant increases to public education funding. The governor’s budget amendment is woefully short on meaningful K-12 investment.

Without sufficient state investment, school districts cannot afford the nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers our students need. Without sufficient state investment, underpaid teachers will continue to spend hundreds of their own dollars on classroom resources.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) outlined the chronic problems with the BEP, indicating that “fully funding” the state formula would require an additional $1.7 billion in state funding. The current administration proposal is a little more than $200 million.

It is time for the state to do better. The money is there to get Tennessee out of the bottom 5 in state funding. There is no need to raise taxes, only a need to prioritize Tennessee students and public education.”

The budget amendment continues a trend of Lee talking about funding schools while failing to make actual investments in schools.

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Penny’s Power Grab

Legislation that would give Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn broad authority to fire a school system’s superintendent and remove the school board is advancing in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Chalkbeat has more:

A bill outlining reasons the state may take over a local school district cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday. 

Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Maury County, said his proposal aims to strengthen Tennessee law by providing a clear process for when the state education commissioner should take control of a district, which could include firing the superintendent and replacing elected school board members.

It’s no surprise that Gov. Bill Lee, who has long expressed distrust of local school boards, is behind this measure.

Cepicky’s comments in support of the bill, however, indicate he is disconnected from the reality of how schools operate in Tennessee.

“I’m here arguing for students, folks — the students that are trapped in failing school systems,” he said. “Most of our school systems are doing the best they can … but there are districts out here that are failing these kids year after year after year, and we’ve got to address that moving forward.”

It’s interesting that Cepicky serves on the education committees of the House, even chairing the Education Instruction subcommittee and yet he has made exactly zero moves to improve the state’s failing school funding formula.

If Cepicky would like to talk about who has been failing Tennessee’s students year after year after year, he need only look around at the legislature and note that the body’s majority party has done precious little to improve the situation.

Tennessee ranks 46th in school funding and consistently receives an “F” in both funding level and funding effort in national rankings. The legislature’s own advisory commission suggests the school funding formula (BEP) is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

Still, Cepicky cheerily carries the water for a governor who has so far refused to demonstrate any sort of commitment to investing our state’s resources into schools in a meaningful way.

If only Cepicky chaired a key education subcommittee or sat on another education committee or maybe if he were a member of the majority party or a representative trusted to carry key pieces of the governor’s agenda, maybe then he could actually make a difference where it mattered.

Instead, he’ll have to be content to lament the failing schools allowed to beg for cash from a position of zero power or influence.

Oh, and since Cepicky is so concerned about failing schools, one can only assume he opposes Lee’s efforts to extend the reach and control of the Achievement School District.

I’ll be waiting for Cepicky’s statement on the matter.

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Lee Continues Predictable Privatization Push

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is no fan of public schools as he makes clear time and again. Whether it is advancing voucher schemes, creating charter school slush funds, or refusing to invest in our underfunded public schools, Lee is working tirelessly to undermine public education in our state.

Now, Lee is seeking to reward charter schools in Memphis and trap more schools in the failed Achievement School District.

Chalkbeat has more:

When Tennessee started taking over low-performing schools and matching most with charter operators in 2012, the plan was to return the schools to their home districts when they improved in an estimated five years.

Now Gov. Bill Lee is proposing other options for schools that have remained in the state’s turnaround program for nearly 10 years — most notably to let some of the higher-performing ones move from one state-run district to another.

Under legislation introduced this week, Lee proposed letting some charter schools bypass their original district when leaving Tennessee’s Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. Instead, they could apply to move directly to the state’s new charter school commission, which the governor helped to create.

It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. In fact, warnings about Lee’s aggressive stance about privatization came early. In 2018, I noted:

Even though as early as 2016, Bill Lee was extolling the virtues of school voucher schemes and even though he’s a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children and even though he has appointed not one, but two voucher vultures to high level posts in his Administration, it is somehow treated as “news” that Bill Lee plans to move forward with a voucher scheme agenda in 2019.

In addition to the failure of the ASD to do, well, anything there’s also ample evidence of the failure of charter schools. Never mind the facts, though, Lee is committed to privatizing at all costs.

In 2019, I noted that charter schools in Tennessee and elsewhere are the “God That Failed” – taking money while yielding little in the way of results. Then, I suggested that in spite of all the evidence, Tennessee would continue down this path:

In other words, poverty matters. And, making the investments to combat it matters, too.


In other words, money matters. Districts with concentrated poverty face two challenges: Students with significant economic needs AND the inability of the district to generate the revenue necessary to adequately invest in schools.

But, by all means, let’s continue to worship at the feet of the Charter God hoping that our faith in “free markets” will be enough to move the needle for the kids who most need the opportunities provided by public education.

Plus, there was this great video demonstrating what must be the typical conversation around the Lee Administration’s privatization war room:

Remember when education advocates warned that Lee’s charter commission would grow, expand, and take over more schools and we were told that we were just being silly? Well, here’s how that seems to be turning out:

If the ASD bill passes, the commission’s role will expand, and its portfolio of charter schools is likely to grow. (The entity currently oversees three schools in Nashville and one in Memphis.) For now, the commission’s authority is limited as an appellate authorizer of charter organizations deemed to be high quality but rejected by local school boards.

What’s also interesting is the propensity of Tennessee policymakers to do a lot of talking that results in little action that helps students:

Tennessee leaders have been talking for years about how to exit ASD schools that haven’t met early improvement goals acknowledged now as too lofty. But because the transition involves everything from people and property to finances and governance, the state has found it almost as hard to transition schools out of the ASD as it was to take them over.

It’s as if there is no one leading anything other than the charge privatize public schools at all costs. ASD running into problems? Here’s an idea: Let’s let it continue to plague poor communities with little regard to actual results.

Will Gov. Lee creates confusion by attacking Confucius, our schools have real needs. Needs he seems content to ignore. This is not an accident, it’s an intentional act designed to decimate public schools. At this point, with a state experiencing a huge surplus (likely over $2 billion this year alone), refusing to fund public schools is a policy choice. It’s a choice that keeps being made over and over again. Sadly, it’s a choice that is made while some so-called public school supporters stand by and also indicate support for Lee.

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We Need a Bigger Pie

The League of Women Voters (LWV) is calling on Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to take bold action on school funding. The group notes that the state historically underfunds schools and suggests that now is the time to change that reality. In fact, the push from the LWV comes as the state is experiencing an unprecedented revenue surplus.

Here’s more from LWV from a media release:

Chronically underfunded school districts throughout the  state have been especially challenged during the pandemic. However, the inadequacies and  the gross underfunding predate this stressful year. Tennessee currently funds its public school  system at a level that consistently places it in the bottom five most poorly funded states in the  United States, per the National Education Association.

“This goes beyond how you slice the pie to provide varying amounts of funding to the diverse  counties of our state – the pie itself is simply not big enough,” said Debby Gould, president elect of LWVTN. “The League’s position on education is that the state’s coverage,  implementation, and funding of the Basic Education Program should be adequate to assure a  high standard of public education.” 

Under the current formulation, the BEP allows for a per-student budgeted amount  that is $3,655 lower than the nationwide average, and lower than most southeastern states.  Because the BEP formula underfunds our public schools, it puts a heavy burden on communities  to supply the local funds necessary to provide an acceptable standard of public education for  students. 

Each year, a BEP Review Committee analyzes the formula and its results for the preceding year,  making official recommendations to the state for improvement. The committee’s latest report  recommends increasing the BEP teacher salary component to match what districts actually  have to spend. It also recommends increasing the numbers of school nurses and counselors to  meet nationally-recognized standards and increasing the number of interventionists to fulfill  requirements of a state-mandated program designed to keep students from falling behind, or  catch them up more quickly when they do. At the very minimum, Governor Lee and the General  Assembly should incorporate all BEP Review Committee recommendations and provide  recurring funding for them. This action would be a significant step toward adequately funded  public schools for all Tennessee children.

MORE on the inadequacy of the current BEP:

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Another $200 Million

The Tennessee Department of Revenue has released February numbers and it seems our state has nearly $200 million more than was budgeted – in February alone. This continues a trend of the state’s revenue far-exceeding budgeted estimates.

Here’s more from the Department’s press release:

Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that Tennessee tax revenues exceeded budgeted estimates in February. February revenues totaled $1.13 billion, which is $112.7 million more than the state received in February 2020 and $190.9 million more than the budgeted estimate. The growth rate for February was 11.06 percent.

Despite the continued positive revenue news, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders appear committed to a status quo budget for schools.

As I noted over at The Education Report:

It’s clear the BEP is inadequate. The state’s own bipartisan commission that studies issues like school funding says the formula is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

The Education Law Center notes that our state’s school funding has yet to recover from the 2008 recession. Had we kept up with prior funding levels and inflation, we’d have an additional $1 billion invested in schools right now.

So, Tennessee has billions and billions of dollars to spend and a school funding system that ranks 46th in the country and has landed lawmakers in court. Why isn’t there some big push to make an investment in schools?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Gov. Lee and those in legislative leadership don’t actually believe in public schools.

At a minimum, lawmakers should use the significant surplus of cash to fill the $1.7 billion hole in the BEP identified by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs (TACIR). They can do this without raising anyone’s taxes and they can do it while still investing in other priorities AND contributing significantly to the state’s rainy day fund.

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Bill Lee vs. Tennessee Schools

Gov. Bill Lee apparently isn’t all that excited about the billions of dollars in money coming into Tennessee by way of the American Rescue Plan. Here’s a recent tweet from Lee expressing his dismay with the proposal that means money in the pockets of many Tennesseans and will send $2.6 billion to our state just for education.

I guess Lee feels like it is a punishment for a state like Tennessee, which ranks 46th in education funding, to receive $2.6 billion to help our schools. Will he stand at the state line and stop the money from coming into our severely underfunded schools?

Interestingly enough, pro-privatization group 50CAN published a report outlining how the funds from the American Rescue Plan will benefit public schools. They used Tennessee as an example case to demonstrate the flow of the added cash.

So, our state will see $2.6 billion. Most of that will flow directly to local districts. In this example, we see that Shelby County gets more than half a billion dollars. As the report notes, these funds are expected to be spent by 2023, but can fund programs that last up to 2028. That means there’s a fair amount of flexibility and they can both help establish new programs and make those programs sustainable, at least in the short term.

Never mind all these benefits, though. Gov. Lee has to take to Twitter to attack a plan that will directly benefit our state’s public schools.

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Missing the Mark

Superintendents in Shelby County are raising concerns about recently-passed legislation that would make retention the default option for a significant number of third grade students. One Superintendent even noted the effort “misses the mark” of its intent and instead of being helpful, will actually have a harmful effect on students.

The Daily Memphian has more:

“I have never seen anything that will hurt students as bad as what they are proposing,” Germantown Municipal School District Superintendent Jason Manuel told the suburb’s Board of Education in a recent meeting.

The response from Manuel comes as his district sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee and local lawmakers raising concerns about this issue and the insistence on in-person TNReady testing this year.

Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that TNReady is NOT a literacy test and using it for this purpose is ill-advised.

“The legislation is attempting to address third graders who can’t read at grade level, but the TCAP test doesn’t test to see if students can read at grade level,” Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell said.

Unsurprisingly, the leadership over at SCORE suggests this idea is a really good one – even though actual educators stand in strong opposition to it. Here’s SCORE CEO Dave Mansouri tweeting about how great this really bad idea is:

It’s almost as if Mansouri gets paid to be a cheerleader for the bad ideas of GOP governors instead of actually advancing sound education policy.

Here’s more on the folly of third grade retention:

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

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Voucher Vultures Continue to Lose in Court

Parent advocacy group Public Funds for Public Schools notes that the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by school privatization advocates to allow implementation of Gov. Lee’s voucher scheme while the issue of the constitutionality of the program is sorted out.

Here’s more from a press release:

On February 22, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied a motion by pro-voucher groups to lift a lower court’s permanent injunction barring implementation of Tennessee’s 2019 “education savings account” voucher law. In May 2020, the Davidson County Chancery Court ruled the voucher law is unconstitutional because it violates the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution. In August 2020, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the Chancery Court’s decision. The case is now before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The voucher law, which passed by only one vote in the State Legislature, illegally targeted just two Tennessee counties, Davidson and Shelby, which are home to the Nashville and Memphis public schools. Legislators from the two counties overwhelmingly opposed the voucher law, which would have drained millions of dollars from two school districts that are severely underfunded by the State.

The law was challenged in court by the two counties in Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County v. Tennessee Department of Education, and by public school parents and community members in a companion case called McEwen v. Lee. The McEwen plaintiffs are represented by Public Funds Public Schools, a collaboration of Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as by the ACLU of Tennessee and pro bono by the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.

After the Chancery Court granted summary judgment in Metro Government, the State defendants and the pro-voucher groups that had intervened in the case unsuccessfully asked the Chancery Court to lift its injunction. The defendants were then rebuffed again by the Court of Appeals. Immediately thereafter, the defendants tried yet again, asking the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction over the case and to stay the injunction. The Supreme Court refused both requests.

In an unusual move last month, the intervenors sought a fourth bite at the apple, requesting a “modification” of the injunction that would allow the State to take every step necessary to prepare and implement the voucher program, short of actually delivering the voucher funds. Notably, the State did not join in the intervenors’ motion.

In a one-paragraph order, and without calling for oral argument, the Tennessee Supreme Court summarily denied the intervenors’ motion.

The Supreme Court’s order to let the injunction stand is welcome news for parents and students in the underfunded and under-resourced Shelby County and Nashville public schools. While the appeal is pending, the State continues to be barred from spending any tax dollars on the voucher program.

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