Following a lawsuit filed by rural schools in Tennessee dubbed Small Schools, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the state’s funding of public schools was unconstitutional. They ordered the General Assembly to come up with a more equitable way to distribute education funding. The result was the Basic Education Plan (BEP) which both equalized state funding to schools and injected $1 billion into the state’s schools over six years.
While Rep. Bill Dunn says that money didn’t improve schools, a generation of students in rural schools who experienced expanded educational opportunities likely disagree.
Subsequent lawsuits (Small Schools II and III) resulted in additional changes, including a salary equity fund for rural districts.
Then, in 2007, with bipartisan support, Governor Phil Bredesen secured passage of BEP 2.0 and began with an injection of more than $200 million in new dollars to schools.
2008 brought the Great Recession and prevented further investment in BEP 2.0, but the state’s BEP Review Committee has consistently recommended full funding of the newer formula, which would provide more funds to nearly all districts while leveling the playing field for those educating more “at-risk” students.
Enter Governor Bill Haslam. He appointed his own BEP Task Force independent of the statutorily mandated BEP Review Committee. At the time, I speculated this was because he didn’t like the Review Committee’s recommendations and its insistence that the state was at least $500 million behind where it should be in education funding.
Now, he’s proposing a “BEP Enhancement Act.” This so-called enhancement is sailing through the General Assembly. It is seen as the most likely vehicle to get money to rural districts and in a year when education funds are increasing, why sweat the details?
As I’ve written before, a few districts lose significantly in the move because it eliminates the Cost Differential Factor (CDF).
It also freezes BEP 2.o. Gone are the dreams of full funding of this formula. The law makes permanent the 70% state funding of BEP-generated teaching positions and funds teacher salaries at a rate well below the state average salary.
Back in 2014, I wrote about the broken BEP and the need to improve it and noted:
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.
But, this gets to the reason why salary disparity is growing among districts. The state funds 70% of the BEP instructional component. That means the state sends districts $28,333.90 per BEP-generated teacher. But districts pay an average of $50,355 per teacher they employ. That’s a $22,000 disparity. In other words, instead of paying 70% of a district’s basic instructional costs, the state is paying 56%.
Even with the upward adjustment of state money for teacher salaries, the state won’t be anywhere close to funding 70% of the actual cost of Tennessee teachers. Don’t even think about reaching the 75% goal imagined by BEP 2.0.
Nashville School Board Member Will Pinkston, who worked for Governor Phil Bredesen during the development of BEP 2.0 had this to say of Haslam’s proposed changes:
“With this proposed ‘BEP 1.5,’ Gov. Haslam is taking a huge step backward when it comes to public education funding. In 2007, Gov. Bredesen and the General Assembly made a significant commitment to K-12 schools by proposing and approving a new formula that now is universally recognized for its equitable approach to distributing public education dollars. At the time, Gov. Bredesen cautioned that new revenue generated by a tripling in the tobacco tax would be only a ‘downpayment’ toward fully funding the new formula. Then the Great Recession happened, and then a political transition occurred in the governor’s office. Those of us who care about education funding were hopeful that Gov. Haslam would continue the Bredesen legacy of investing significant new dollars in public education as the economy turned around. Instead, he’s given only lip service to education funding and has, at best, just shifted dollars around to give the appearance of increased funding. The reality is: The legislature, by its own admission, has acknowledged that public education in Tennessee is getting short-shrifted by the state to the tune of at least $500 million. And that means the real number is likely closer to $1 billion or more. By proposing a halt in the implementation of BEP 2.0, the governor is essentially proposing a massive funding cut. If he claims to truly understand the plight of public education funding, he should abandon BEP 1.5 and recommit to fully funding BEP 2.0. To do anything less would be breaking the state’s promise.”
That’s a pretty strong critique. But it’s not difficult to see why education advocates should have concern about the long-term impacts of Haslam’s BEP 1.5 effort.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport