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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League of Women Voters Calls for Action on School Funding

In an action alert email, the League of Women Voters encouraged members and supporters to push Gov. Bill Lee and the General Assembly to make significant new investments in public education.

Here’s the text of that email:

Tennessee continues to neglect its public schools.  The state consistently ranks as one of the bottom five for public school funding. During the current legislative session, numerous bills have been introduced by members from both sides of the aisle to provide additional funds for some of our public schools’ urgent needs. Among those needs are adequately funding school counselors, social workers, school nurses, and staff to support state-mandated intervention programs.  None of these bills have passed yet.

This is the time to invest in our schools and our children. With a current budget surplus exceeding $2 billion this year and cash reserves exceeding $7 billion, this is the moment for Tennessee to support quality education in  every county.

The League of Women Voters of Tennessee was extremely disappointed that Governor Lee did not address the state’s inadequate funding formula of public schools in his annual budget.  However, it is not too late for the legislature to make meaningful investments in our students through their actions in setting next year’s state budget.

Please write or call the governor and your legislators and urge them to support our students and our schools.

Governor Bill Lee,  bill.lee@tn.gov and copy his assistant, caroleanne.orsborn@tn.gov

Find your senator and representative at https://wapp.capitol.tn.gov/Apps/fmlv3/lookup.aspx.
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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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An Unattainable Burden

The current state of Tennessee’s school funding formula (the BEP) places an “unattainable burden” on local school districts, according to Katie Cour of the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF).

The Foundation released a policy brief highlighting the shortcomings of the BEP this week.

Here’s more from the Tennessean:

The Nashville Public Education Foundation is renewing the long-time argument of many school districts, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, that the state’s Basic Education Program, or the BEP funding formula, is not adequate.

“Bottom line, the BEP consistently underestimates what it takes to run schools and places an unattainable burden on local districts to pick up the difference,” said Katie Cour, president and CEO of the Nashville Public Education Foundation, in a statement.

“Too often people feel relieved when they hear the state has ‘fully funded the BEP,’ but this statement is essentially meaningless. Tennessee is grossly underfunding schools that serve one million students each year – more than 82,000 just in Nashville,” she said.

Cour’s argument is supported by findings from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) which found that the state underfunds schools by $1.7 billion:

“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.”

Additionally, a study by the Education Law Center found that Tennessee schools are funded at $1 billion less than they should be based on not keeping up with inflation since 2008:

In fact, the Education Law Center has released a report noting that from 2008 to 2018, school funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in Tennessee actually decreased by $1,065 per pupil. To put it another way, had school spending kept up with inflation, our schools would see an additional $1 billion in state investment.

The push for more funds comes as the state experiences a record surplus in addition to funds coming in from the American Rescue Plan.

So far, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders have shown little interest in actually using this unique moment to make meaningful investments in the state’s schools.

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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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The Takedown with Amy Frogge

Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some key facts about education funding in Tennessee in a series of tweets.

Here they are:

Here are some shocking facts about education funding in Tennessee: 1. TN has chronically underfunded public education. We rank 46th nationally (bottom 5 states) in education spending. We spend less than any of our neighbors, including KY, NC, GA, AL AR, and even MS. 1/

2. According to the states’s own estimates, the BEP (TN’s education funding formula) is underfunded by $1.7 billion per year. If you hear politicians say “the BEP is fully funded,” they’re lying. 2/

3. The BEP, which generates $7400 per student in state funding, is starvation funding. No school district can run on that amount. Local school districts must make up the difference- sometimes funding up to 60% of the costs. 3/

4. According to the TN Dept. of Revenue, TN’s surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion w/6 more months to go. The Sycamore institute just released an analysis demonstrating that TN will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue this cycle. 4/

5. For the month of January 2021 ALONE, the state generated a $380.1 million surplus! 5/

6. TN has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Underfunding education is a clear choice. 6/

Not only does the state refuse to invest in our schools and teachers, but the legislature continues to pass unfunded mandates that already strapped local school districts must shoulder. 7/

Here’s what YOU can do to help: Share this information, and please reach out to your representatives! The Governor’s budget can be amended before the end of the legislative session, and we have a golden opportunity to make a difference! 8/

Originally tweeted by Amy Frogge (@AmyFrogge) on February 22, 2021.

Frogge is dead on, of course. Here are some sources supporting her claims:

To be clear, when legislative leaders tell folks back home they “fully funded the BEP,” they are simply saying they put the minimum required funding into the formula. What they aren’t saying is that this formula still has a $1.7 billion hole plus a $1 billion inflationary gap. It’s like saying you made the minimum payment on your credit card bill while ignoring the 40 plus years it will take to pay off the balance if you only pay the minimum each month.

MORE>

There’s also been a decade of deliberately misleading rhetoric around funding schools.

Anyway, Frogge is right. Tennessee has a huge surplus of cash. It is completely reasonable to demand that money be invested in our schools.

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Investment

Today, Democratic lawmakers at the General Assembly unveiled a series of bills designed to help increase investment in Tennessee’s public schools and address some long-standing deficiencies in the BEP formula.

The state’s bipartisan TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs – has said the formula comes up short by $1.7 billion.

Now, the state has a huge budget surplus and while Gov. Bill Lee has stubbornly refused to invest it in schools, Democrats are calling for those investments. Specifically, dramatic improvements relative to teacher compensation, increases in the number of school nurses and counselors, and other changes designed to make the most of this funding opportunity.

Here’s more from the Democrats on their plans:

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Over a Billion

The surplus for the current fiscal year is now over $1 billion with six more months to go, according to figures released by the Tennessee Department of Revenue. This announcement comes as the Sycamore Institute recently released an analysis demonstrating that lawmakers will have at least $3.1 billion in “excess” or unplanned revenue with which to budget in the current cycle.

The figures for January indicated revenue coming in at $380 million above projections. This prompted TEA President Beth Brown to point out that the January surplus alone is three times what Gov. Lee has proposed investing in teacher pay this year.

https://twitter.com/TEA_teachers/status/1360380933648572416?s=20

Lee has shown no indication he plans to make any bold or meaningful investment in public schools, instead preferring to maintain the status quo of an underfunded school system.

The last decade has seen Tennessee’s Republican leadership consistently demonstrate that public schools are not a funding priority.

In fact, the Education Law Center has released a report noting that from 2008 to 2018, school funding in inflation-adjusted dollars in Tennessee actually decreased by $1,065 per pupil. To put it another way, had school spending kept up with inflation, our schools would see an additional $1 billion in state investment.

This figure would come close to filling the $1.7 billion gap in the current BEP funding formula.

As Brown notes, with the surplus this year and projected revenue for the FY 2022 budget, Tennessee could easily fill that gap.

I want to point this out ONE MORE TIME: We can add at least $2 billion to our investment in schools and do so without raising anyone’s taxes. In fact, doing so would likely help keep local property taxes down for some time to come.

So, the question remains: Does Gov. Bill Lee want to invest in Tennessee’s public schools? Does the Tennessee General Assembly want to use this special opportunity to right the wrongs of the last decade of underfunding? Do our policymakers want us to remain 46th in school funding or do they want the reality to match their rhetoric? Will they show that students matter and that our communities deserve excellent schools?

This is like pushing the “easy button.” No new taxes, a big investment in schools, making Tennessee a place where public education is a top priority – all without raising taxes one cent.

If the current leadership won’t fund public schools under these conditions, they never will.

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Underwhelming

Gov. Bill Lee delivered his State of the State address tonight and surprising exactly no one, he failed to make bold new investments in public education in spite of a record surplus in excess of $3 billion.

Instead, Lee proposed continuing to “fully fund” the wholly inadequate BEP formula to the tune of an additional $71 million and add $120 million to the teacher compensation component of the BEP. That’s essentially a 4% increase in the BEP allocation NOT a 4% raise in actual teacher compensation.

To be clear, the state needs $1.7 billion to adequately fund the BEP and Lee is proposing adding $71 million. If you add the teacher compensation element to this, you get $191 million. Or, roughly 10 percent of what is actually needed.

Here’s what Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown had to say regarding Lee’s proposal:

Gov. Lee’s proposed increases for public education is not enough to meet current needs and falls far short of what was possible with record state revenue surpluses and collections. Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation on funding per pupil, only ahead of Mississippi and well behind Alabama, Arkansas, and every other southern state. Nothing the governor outlined in his budget changes this intolerable fact. 

Long before the pandemic hit our state, our public schools were already suffering under a plague of chronic underfunding. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children for Gov. Lee to continue this pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.     

TEA understands the budget as outlined may not be the same at final passage. As record surpluses continue, TEA will work to see the current budget for K-12 increased.

A significant increase in public education funding could address many challenges plaguing our schools, including not having enough fulltime nurses and counselors, unstaffed libraries with outdated resources, inequities and gaps in technology, and a diminishing talent pool of qualified educators due to low salaries and long hours.  

The Lee administration has an extra $3 billion to budget. There has never been a better time to make the necessary investment for Tennessee students, educators and schools.

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