Budget Preview

With state revenues rebounding, will Tennessee see more education spending?

Gov. Bill Haslam leads a budget hearing in 2015.

When education chief Candice McQueen makes her first budget pitch to Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday, she’ll offer a glimpse into how the state is responding to growing calls for change in the way it funds schools.

Education makes up one of the largest slices of Tennessee’s spending, getting 41 cents of every tax dollar the state takes in. But district leaders say that the formula used to fund schools underestimates the cost of educating students. This year, some of them began making their case in two high-profile lawsuits.

Those suits are likely to take years to wind through the courts. But change could happen as soon as next year, as state revenues are rebounding and Haslam says his conversations with educators about the state’s school funding formula are influencing his thinking.

“We will definitely have part of our budget proposal address how we fund education,” he said Tuesday.

The final spending plan for the 2016-17 fiscal year won’t be decided until next spring, when Haslam and legislators will hash out a final budget that reflects department proposals. Still, McQueen’s presentation will highlight the State Department of Education’s priorities moving forward and offer a starting point for discussions.

Here are some of the questions that Wednesday’s budget hearing could begin to answer:

Will McQueen ask for more money to address concerns about the BEP?

Part of McQueen’s job is to propose how much schools should receive in addition to what the state provides through its Basic Education Program formula, known as the BEP.

That formula, which is meant to ensure all Tennessee students receive a “basic” level of education no matter where they live, allots money based on many factors, such as recommended class sizes and typical administrator pay. While the state has spent more on education because of a growing student population, it hasn’t altered the formula since 2007, even as inflation, a growing charter school sector, and new mandates to improve low-performing schools have added to local costs.

McQueen can’t change the BEP formula without legislative action, but she could ask for additional spending on specific items, which the state has done in the past for teacher pay.

In some ways, McQueen is under pressure to keep costs down: Haslam has repeatedly said that he won’t consider increasing school funding beyond what the formula requires — and he wouldn’t be able to change the formula without the legislature’s help, either. He also has asked all departments to cut 3.5 percent from their budgets.

But the call for cuts is likely just an exercise, given the state’s relatively flush status at the moment. In 2015, he ultimately put forward a budget with less significant cuts than he had requested. And pressure from the lawsuits and conversations with district officials might make Haslam more willing to supplement the BEP next year — paving the way for McQueen to ask for more money for basic school needs.

Will teachers get a raise?

Teacher pay is perhaps the component of the BEP that has gotten the most attention. It varies drastically across the state, with some districts having pay far below the national average. Last year, Haslam allocated about $98 million to raise teacher salaries — an increase of about 4 percent.

The governor has said teacher pay remains a top priority. Even if more money for educators isn’t in McQueen’s proposal, Haslam might add it to the budget anyway, like he did last year.

“I’ve said all along we want to be the fastest improving state in the country in teacher salaries, and we’re hoping to address that in this year’s budget,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll have to see how that all plays out.”

What that looks like for individual educators remains to be seen. Last year’s 4 percent increase statewide did not equate to a 4 percent raise for all teachers. The amount of the salary increases depended on each district’s spending plan, and some teachers didn’t see raises at all.

Will the state commit financially to making testing more transparent?

As one of her first acts as commissioner, McQueen organized a testing task force to address mounting concerns about standardized testing, which parents and educators across the state say is excessive and unfair. One of the panel’s recommendations was to release questions from the state’s end-of-year test to increase transparency. That costs money, though, since it means those questions can’t be reused. When the report was released, officials said they had not yet determined the potential cost.

Will there be additional money for literacy?

McQueen has pledged to turnaround the state’s flagging reading scores with an expansive initiative that includes increasing the number of literacy coaches in schools and a new standardized test for younger students. When she announced the program this summer, she said the department would help schools make do with existing resources. But in a year with extra state revenue, she might ask for money that could bolster the initiative.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”