Recently, I wrote about Tennessee’s history of not investing in its teachers. Specifically, Tennessee ranks 40th in the nation in overall teacher pay and 40th in growth in teacher pay over time. So, Tennessee teachers are paid low salaries and those salaries don’t improve much as teachers advance in their careers.
Now, I’d like to take a look at why Tennessee teacher pay is low and is not improving.
The simple answer is this: The BEP is broken.
The BEP is the Basic Education Plan which is the state funding formula for public schools. The formula includes a number of components, including funding for teaching and staff positions based on district size as well as allocations for teacher salaries and insurance. It is the mechanism by which the state fulfills its constitutional responsibility to provide a free public education to all Tennessee students.
The BEP is not the sole funding source for public schools. Instead, the BEP generates dollars that are sent to local districts and each district is also asked to pay a share of the cost of providing education to the students there. The formula includes a mechanism which identifies a district’s “ability to pay” and districts receive a percentage of the total anticipated education funding needs based on that ability. Small, rural counties typically receive a much larger percentage of their total education budget from state BEP dollars than do large, urban districts or wealthy suburban districts.
The idea behind the formula is to introduce an element of equity to Tennessee schools. That is, no matter where a child lives, he or she should have access to a high quality education. Sure, wealthier districts will likely always spend more to enhance the basic program, but at a fundamental level, a child in Hancock County should be able to access the same basic educational opportunities as a child in Williamson County.
One key indicator of equity historically has been disparity in teacher pay across districts. Yes, a teacher in Shelby County has a higher cost of living than one in Perry County. But, fundamentally, the gap between salaries should not be such as to deprive rural districts of the opportunity to compete for teaching talent.
Back in 2002, the small school systems that originally banded together to sue the state to create the BEP sued the state again. This time, arguing that because of the widening disparity in teacher pay, education funding in the state was no longer equitable. At that time, the highest-paying districts in the state were paying salaries nearly 46% higher than the lowest-paying districts (based on numbers from the TN Department of Education). The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the small schools and ordered the state to move toward funding fairness. As a result, the state made teacher salary a formal component of the BEP and funded it at a fixed percentage.
In the years following this adjustment, the pay disparity among districts dropped from 46% to 35%. The parties to the equity lawsuit agreed this was progress and from 2004-2009, the disparity hovered in the 35-36% range.
Following the economic recession of 2008-2009, however, investment in the instructional component of the BEP stagnated. This enabled wealthier districts to continue investing in their teachers while poorer districts could not keep up.
In 2014, the salary disparity among districts is just under 42%. Yes, that’s not far from the 46% ruled unconstitutional back in the 2002 case. And, the trend is heading in the wrong direction for equity, having worsened some 7 percentage points since 2008.
Why does this keep happening? The BEP is broken.
As I mentioned, the BEP includes an instructional component which provides districts funding for teacher salaries. The current instructional component sets a salary number of $40,447. The state then funds this component at 70%, leaving districts to pay 30% of the salary cost for that teacher.
There are a few problems with this. 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%.
There’s an easy fix to this and it has been contemplated by at least one large school system in the state. That fix? Moving the BEP instructional component to the state average. Doing so would cost just over $500 million. So, it’s actually NOT that easy. Another goal of those seeking greater equity is moving the BEP instructional match from 70% to 75%, essentially fulfilling the promise of BEP 2.0. Doing so would cost at least $150 million.
Oh, and there’s one other problem with the BEP as it currently functions that impacts equity. The BEP insurance component. The BEP provides funds (45%) for teacher insurance. But, the BEP only funds teacher insurance for 10 months. Teachers receive insurance for 12 months. This creates a gap that MUST be filled by local districts. Wealthier districts are better able to absorb this cost while continuing to offer competitive pay. Poorer districts often keep salaries low in order to make up the money needed to cover the state-mandated insurance match.
Taking the state’s insurance match from the BEP from 10 months to 12 months would cost $64 million. It would also free up funds that could be used to close the salary gap among districts while easing the burden on local taxpayers. While addressing the salary issue will take creativity and some patience, the insurance issue is one that can be fixed with the exertion of some reasonable effort. That is, someone willing to find a way to allocate $64 million to the BEP in a state budget that is over $30 billion. It may mean less money in reserves. It may mean making different choices in terms of budget priorities.
The BEP is broken. It can be fixed. Doing so will require a commitment to investing in teachers and schools. It will require an adjustment in the state’s priorities. But, the broken BEP can be fixed.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport