We’ve Got Questions

The Nashville Public Education Foundation has some questions about a recently released framework for school funding reform.

Here’s what NPEF has to say about the early draft of BEP changes:

Will the base weight in the proposed framework accurately reflect the cost of running schools where all students thrive? We need an increase in funding effort from the state level that matches an aspirational vision for what is possible in public education, and what we want our teachers, students, and families to experience. 

How will weights be defined for student populations requiring additional funds to meet their learning needs? The proposed framework describes the weights as heavy, moderate, or light. What do these terms specifically mean and how will these weights be determined?

Are we also having the right conversation about fiscal capacity? It is critical to address the fiscal responsibility of the state versus that of local districts. As we design a new framework, we need to consider where the funds for the plan will come from in a long-term, sustainable way that does not place too high a burden on local districts and municipalities.

These are some great questions. In the past, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has noted the severe shortcomings of the current funding formula. That is, the formula itself may not be flawed, but the level of funding is inadequate.

In fact, in March of last year, the Tennessean reported:

“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.

The claim of underfunding is substantiated by a report from TACIR that suggests the state is at least $1.7 billion behind where it needs to be in terms of adequate school funding.

The note from NPEF on funding effort as multiple reports place Tennessee near the bottom of the nation both in terms of dollars invested in school and overall funding effort.

question marks on paper crafts
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TEA’s Brown Continues Call for School Funding Boost

As the General Assembly returns and prepares to consider Gov. Lee’s school funding reform proposal, Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown continues a push to boost overall funding for public schools.

In a recent email to TEA members reporting on the committees reviewing the BEP, Brown said:

I am pleased to report there has been significant discussion around the need for increased funding for nurses; counselors, psychologists, and social workers; education support professionals; and assistance principals. In addition, we have discussed the real need for increases in educator salaries and benefits. All of these have been priorities for TEA for years.

But also noted:

Unfortunately, there has also been no indication that any changes to the funding formula will result in additional dollars being added to the state’s education budget. I and other stakeholders have stated repeatedly that unless there is an influx of funding into the education budget it doesn’t matter how we redistribute the funding to local school districts.

Meanwhile, state policy leaders like House Speaker Cameron Sexton have suggested that what is really needed is a proper incentive system for schools.

It seems the Speaker is not all that familiar with how schools actually work. The suggestion he makes here is that teachers and schools lack the proper incentive system. That is, schools fail students because there’s no threat of losing money no matter the outcome. This reflects a fairly depressing view of humanity. Further, it suggests that Sexton believes that teachers are currently “holding back” simply because they don’t fear punishment.

If only a punishment-based incentive system were in force, Tennessee teachers in every school system would rapidly accelerate learning, Sexton seems to be saying.

While policymakers pontificate about proper incentive systems, actual educators are practically begging for cash:

Former teacher Gabe Hart has a column in Tennessee Lookout that expresses his frustration at the current situation as it relates to teacher pay in Tennessee.

Here’s a bit of what he has to say relative to teacher salaries:

In December, in an attempt to recruit more corrections officers, Lee gave new officers a 37% raise which put the starting salary for a TDOC officer at $44,500.  First year teachers in Metro Nashville Public Schools will make $46,000 during their first year, and MNPS is one of the highest paying districts in the state.  First year teachers in Madison County make $38,000. The average first year teacher makes around $40,000 — almost $5,000 less than a first year corrections officer.  

I am fully aware that there are far more teachers in the state than corrections officers, and the funding comparison is apples and oranges.  Where I can push back, though, is that Tennessee has always been ranked between 44th-46th in the country when it comes to education funding

Oh, and did I mention there’s a growing teacher shortage?

As I noted in an earlier post:

Tennessee has tried a lot of education experiments in the last couple of decades. One experiment the state hasn’t tried? Actually investing large amounts of money in schools!

In the past, pleas for more cash would be met with resistance because investing more in schools meant raising taxes. Now, however, the state has a surplus in excess of $3 billion. This means we can fund TONS of improvements in public schools and not raise taxes one cent. Oh, and doing this with state surplus dollars also will help local governments keep property taxes low.

Of course, state Senator John Stevens seems to want to raise local property taxes:

“I’m not just going to give the locals a windfall by absorbing the costs that they’re supposed to pay for without them having some skin in the game,” Stevens said. “Because all the schools want to do is hire more people.”

I would remind Stevens and others that the Tennessee Constitution Article XI, Section 12 says:

The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. 

It kind of seems like supporting and paying for public schools is the job of the General Assembly – it doesn’t mention anything about “costs” locals are “supposed to pay for.”

Maybe that’s why courts have ruled AGAINST the state of Tennessee in multiple school funding lawsuits since the 1990s.

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Money for Roads but Not Schools?

House Speaker Beth Harwell is talking about using the state’s revenue surplus to fund road projects — but has made no mention yet of how the General Assembly might begin to fund the $500 million+ being sought by school systems across the state in a lawsuit over funding adequacy.

According to the Tennessean:

The Nashville Republican noted that state tax collections continue to exceed expectations, estimating the state could receive $400 million more than anticipated. With talk of a potential gas tax increase floating around the state, Harwell said that extra one-time tax money should fund some of the many shelved state road projects.

Certainly, investing in infrastructure is wise. But, so is investing in schools.

And since the state’s BEP Review Committee says Tennessee is about $500 million behind in funding its schools and since school systems are suing demanding adequacy in light of unfunded mandates like Response to Intervention (RTI2), it would make sense to use some of the new money to begin investing in schools.

Of course, Harwell’s #2, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, has already expressed his displeasure with school systems seeking proper funding.

The point is this: There’s money to fund some infrastructure projects AND to begin investing in schools — and it can be started without a tax increase.

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