Will Tennessee Do the Right Thing?

Can policymakers summon the will to make school meals free for all kids?

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons is frustrated. Angry, even.

He’s been trying for years to get his fellow lawmakers to fund a plan to make school meals free for all kids.

This year, a Republican lawmaker joined the fight – sponsoring a bill similar to one Clemmons has carried in the past. Still, the bill was met with stiff resistance by legislators.

The national trend is toward schools providing meals for free for all kids.

The Tennessee trend is in favor of hundreds of millions of public dollars to fund a stadium for a private business owner and $1.6 billion for a corporate tax break.

Rather than fund school lunches, lawmakers and Gov. Lee seek annually to find new schemes that would use taxpayer money to fund unaccountable private schools.

For the past decade, the state has run budget surpluses in the range of $1-3 billion.

Rather than fund school lunches or boost teacher pay or invest in Medicaid expansion, or end the grocery tax, lawmakers have found a dizzying array of ways to reduce revenue by lowering or eliminating taxes paid by the wealthy or corporations.

The problem is so acute that Tennessee is in real danger of running a significant budget deficit in the 2025 fiscal year.

If Bill Lee ran his HVAC business this way, they’d be filing for bankruptcy.


School Board Candidate Opposes Arming Teachers

Bill Lee vs. TSU

A Solid F

Tennessee continues to fail when it comes to school funding

In spite of a new school funding formula AND Gov. Bill Lee’s promise to make Tennessee one of the top places to teach in America, the state continues to lag near the bottom in the nation in both per pupil spending AND teacher salary.

A new report reveals that average teacher pay in the state ranks Tennessee 44th in the nation – and among the lowest in the Southeast. Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia all pay their teachers more than Tennessee does.

National Education Association report on school funding

When it comes to per pupil spending, Tennessee is also in familiar territory: Near the bottom.

National Education Association report on school funding

This is just like . . . every other year.


Of course, Lee and his allies are fond of claiming everything is fine – that they’re doing a great job of funding schools. A few years back, I examined that claim up close and that takedown still applies:

Here’s some perspective from that 2021 article:

So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.

When it comes to school funding, Tennessee stands at a solid “F” and our policymakers seem to be just fine with that.

Biden Budget a Boon for Schools

Education advocates praise President’s investments in public school programs

The Network for Public Education (NPE) is praising President Biden’s proposed budget as a win for public schools.

NPE’s executive director, Carol Burris, said of the budget, “This budget is the mirror opposite of budget proposals by the present House leadership that slash funding to children served by critical programs like Title I while proposing an increase to the already bloated Federal Charter School Programs (CSP).”

The group noted the proposal includes $450 million of new money for key programs benefiting kids in schools across the country.

calculator and notepad placed over stack of usa dollars
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More Tennessee News

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Tennessee’s Dead Horse

It’s the lack of investment in public education

After years of running budget surpluses, Tennessee this year has a bit of a budget crunch. For the first time in a decade, revenue numbers are coming below projections.

This is all happening while state leaders are pitching a $1.6 billion corporate tax break.

I’ve been writing about Tennessee policymakers missing the mark on investment in education for years now as well.

Beating a dead horse, some might say.

Over at The Education Report, I wrote recently about missed opportunities in that decade of surplus revenue.

As recently as 2021, the state had a $3.1 billion revenue surplus.

The next year? $2 billion.

But these years of surplus were not met with attendant investment in public education.

Tennessee did not boost starting teacher pay to $60,000 or provide free meals to all kids at school.

Now, we’re in a time of less revenue collection and an apparent commitment to grant a corporate tax break well in excess of $1 billion.

What gets left behind, then?

School funding.

The same dead horse.

Photo by Josephine Amalie Paysen on Unsplash

Speaking Out on State’s New A-F Grades for Schools

New policy punishes schools for poverty, state’s lack of funding

In yet another push to privatize the state’s system of public schools, the Lee Administration this week released its A-F letter grades for schools. Each public school in the state was assigned a grade of A-F based on criteria that heavily emphasizes the results of state testing.

Schools receiving D and F grades may be subject to audits or called before a state committee to discuss corrective action.

Of course, that corrective action is not likely to include an investment of state funds. Tennessee continues to be in the bottom 10 in the country in school funding and underfunds schools by nearly $2 billion annually.

While the policy was passed in 2016, it is going into effect this year – just ahead of Lee’s push for a program of universal school vouchers.

As the scores were released, opponents of the effort spoke out.

Senate Democratic Leader Raumesh Akbari and the Tennessee Education Association both raised concerns about the implications of the policy.

“These letter grades don’t help students, and they don’t provide clear and concise information that is useful to parents,” said TEA President Tanya Coats.

“These flawed letter grades will never define a school, their students and families, or their teachers and staff. What these letter grades do show is the consequences of bottom 10 in the nation student funding and a failure by the state to move resources to the students who need them most.”

I wrote several years ago about the correlation between the state’s TCAP testing scores and poverty rates.

The A-F scores tell us which schools may need more help – and they tell us that we’ve not done a great job of adequately funding public education. They also tell us that the state allows poverty to persist – in spite of having billions of dollars in various reserve funds.

Oh, and since the grades are based on the results of state tests, it’s worth noting that Tennessee’s track record of testing is abysmal.

Lamar Laments School Funding Games

Democratic leader calls on state to invest more in schools

As a Republican effort to reject federal education funding moves forward, the legislature’s Democratic leaders are speaking out.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair London Lamar of Memphis says the GOP’s actions are “reckless and irresponsible” and instead is calling on state lawmakers to invest more funds in public schools.

“Our students need more support in the classroom, not less. Our students need more access to tutoring, counselors and mental health specialists, not less. Our students need regular meals and wrap-around support to be the best learners they can be.

“There’s no future success story for students, families or our economy if Tennessee continues down this dangerous, anti-student path.”

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

Advocates Speak Out on School Funding Cuts

Strong resistance to Sexton’s federal funding rejection scheme emerges

Even as a legislative working group examines the possibility of Tennessee rejecting federal funds for public schools, a group of advocates is speaking out about the harms of this first-in-the-nation scheme.

Rev. Matt Steinhauer, Interim Pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Franklin, said, “As a Christian pastor and father of 3 children, one of whom is intellectually disabled who attended and graduated from TN public schools, I firmly believe that all Tennessee children, no matter where they live in the state, the color of their skin, or their ability level, are valuable and they deserve leaders who will ensure students have everything they need to thrive at school and succeed in the classroom and beyond. This is why I cannot begin to comprehend why there is currently a panel of elected leaders meeting to consider rejecting over $1 billion in annual funding annually to Tennessee children in our public schools.”

The Southern Christian Coalition says Sexton’s plan would ultimately harm the “least of these.”

“As a mother, grandmother, and Christian pastor, I believe that Tennessee children and families are valuable and deserve leaders who will ensure students have everything they need to succeed in the classroom and prepare for their futures,” stated Rev. Dr. Donna Whitney, Pastoral Assistant at Metropolitian Interdenominational Church in Nashville. “This plan from Governor Lee and Tennessee’s Supermajority Legislature would take money out of our community schools, and instead prioritize their political agendas and schemes by denying children who they don’t want to serve, including high risk students across the state.”


Hillsdale’s Distorted Vision

On the Importance of Investing in Teachers

crop man getting dollars from wallet
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For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Terrible Task Force

Legislative leaders move forward with attempt to refuse federal education funding

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally have appointed a Joint Legislative Task Force to explore the possibility of Tennessee refusing the nearly $2 billion the state receives in federal education funding each year.

More from The Tennessee Journal:

The 10-member panel will also report on the feasibility of the state rejecting federal funds and recommend a strategy to reject certain federal funds or eliminate unwanted restrictions placed on the state due to the receipt of such federal funds if it is feasible to do so.

Sexton has previously suggested using the state’s significant revenue surplus to replace federal dollars for schools.

It’s worth noting here that a bipartisan task force found that the state underfunds schools by around $1.7 billion a year.

This means that rather than use surplus dollars to make up the current funding shortfall, Sexton is suggesting using the surplus to maintain the inadequate status quo.

Not surprisingly, the move was met with resistance by advocates for public education:

Rev. C. Don Jones, Pastor of the Andersonville United Methodist Church, said of the proposal:

“Tennessee public schools are primarily locally funded. Extra funds from the Federal government administered by the State government help schools in our rural areas that are cash strapped. I do not understand why the Speaker, the Governor, or the present Supermajority of the General Assembly chose to harm these communities.

“As a pastor in a rural community, I see the Speaker’s proposal as irresponsible to the citizens of Tennessee.”

Senate Democratic Leader Raumesh Akbari of Memphis said the federal funding is a key tool in leveling the playing field for students in economically disadvantaged areas of the state.

“Federal education funding for states is essential to ensure educational equity and opportunity for all American students. It serves as a vital pillar of our nation’s commitment to providing a quality education regardless of a student’s geographical location or socioeconomic background.”

In a tweet, Rep. Bo Mitchell said:

This could the most idiotic discussion I’ve seen in the Tennessee General Assembly probably since not expanding Medicaid and costing our state over a billion dollars a year. If you have a child with an IEP then this will drastically harm your child!

The task force has not yet announced its first meeting.

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

Cash Rains Down on Tennessee While Schools Left to Starve

State set for surplus in excess of $2 billion

While Gov. Bill Lee “dreams” of being able to pay starting teachers $50,000 eventually and while the state’s schools languish in the bottom 10 in the nation in overall funding, the state continues to rake in extra cash.

Lots and lots of extra cash.

The numbers this year show a surplus exceeding $2 billion.

Tennessee also had a surplus of more than $2 billion LAST YEAR.

In fact, we keep having extra revenue and policymakers keep NOT investing it in schools.

What should we do with the money?

House Speaker Cameron Sexton thinks we should use our surplus to replace $2 billion in federal education funding.

To be clear, doing so would not change the total dollar amount going to schools – we’d still be in the bottom 10 in the nation in school funding.

Of course, we could use the money to raise teacher pay, invest in infrastructure, and support early literacy.

The state could also afford to make school meals free for all kids.

Alas, instead of actually taking the yearly surpluses and investing more in schools, Tennessee policymakers seem content to leave us at the bottom:

When it comes to school funding, Tennessee lags far behind our neighbors in Kentucky.

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown points out the significance of this disparity in a recent email to educators. In it, she notes:

“It’s not about how the funds are divided, it’s about how many state dollars are put into education,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “To get to the Kentucky level of school funding, Tennessee needs $3 billion added to the state education budget.”

Our state’s schools have a range of needs and our state has a pile of cash. Seems like an easy fix – just use the cash to fund the schools.

So far, though, policymakers and Gov. Lee seem reluctant to do that.

Instead, our education policy is focused on funneling public funds to private schools and extreme charter networks.

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

A Modest Proposal

$1.9 Billion in new education spending

Over at The Education Report I take a look at Tennessee’s giant revenue surplus and offer a proposal on how that money could be invested to benefit public schools and all of Tennessee.

Here are the basics:

20% raise for all teachers – $625 million

Free school breakfast and lunch for all students – $714 million

Investment in Pre-k – 3rd grade reading – $500 million

We can afford it, our students and communities deserve it.

READ more>

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Hillsdale Gets Access to TN Tax Dollars

On Teacher Pay in Tennessee

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