Tennessee governor’s education funding plan lands major endorsement

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee speaks with students wearing blue shirts.
Gov. Bill Lee visits in 2019 with elementary school students in Henderson, Tennessee, a rural area that would get additional funding under his proposed K-12 funding formula. (Theresa Montgomery / State of Tennessee)

A statewide alliance of more than 40 civil rights, social justice, and education advocacy groups on Monday announced their support for Gov. Bill Lee’s proposal to revamp how Tennessee funds public education.

The Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education called Lee’s formula, which provides more funding for students with higher needs, a “marked improvement” over the state’s current approach and “an important step forward in advancing equity and centering student needs” in K-12 funding.

More than half of the alliance’s 72 partner organizations signed the endorsement, ranging from the NAACP and the Tennessee Disability Coalition to the Memphis Education Fund, Stand for Children, and the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance.

Their collective support comes as state lawmakers enter the homestretch of their 2022 legislative session and ahead of this week’s key committee votes on Lee’s plan, called Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, or TISA. If the legislature approves the rewrite, Tennessee will join 38 states and the District of Columbia in having some type of student-based funding model.

Tennessee’s current funding system is resource-based and allocates money to school systems to pay for staffing, bus transportation, textbooks, technology, and dozens of other education needs. The state ranks 44th nationally in state and local education funding, according to the Education Law Center, which last year gave the state Fs for its funding level and effort.

Lee wants to add an annual $1 billion in state funding but also wants an education funding formula that Tennesseans can understand better than the current one, which is considered among the nation’s most complicated. The 30-year-old Basic Education Program formula uses student enrollment and 46 components to determine funding levels and another process to set state and local shares.

In late February, the Republican governor released details of his proposal to replace the BEP with a simpler, more transparent approach. It would set a base funding rate of $6,860 per pupil, then distribute additional money per pupil to support students in certain groups such as those who are considered economically disadvantaged, have unique learning needs, or live in communities that are rural or have concentrated poverty.

The bill, based on Lee’s proposal, has been amended several times, including dropping his plan to give an extra per-pupil funding weight for charter school students. The latest version instead would provide direct funding to help charter schools pay facility costs.

Democrats and some Republicans have asked for more time to vet TISA and get answers to their questions, citing the importance of the issue for students and schools, as well as concerns that the changes could have a significant effect on local budgets and taxes. But leaders in the GOP-controlled legislature said recently that they’re satisfied with the bill’s progress and can make changes next year, if needed, before the new funding formula would take effect beginning with the 2023-24 school year.

In its statement, the alliance supported the governor’s proposed new investment, as well as the base of $6,860 for every student, which is above the national median of $6,000 per student.

The group liked that about 95% of the money would flow through either the per-pupil based allocation or additional weights, “ensuring that this new formula focuses on the financial needs of local schools, provides overall financial stability for school districts, offers greater transparency to school personnel and community members, and provides maximum spending flexibility for districts to meet each student’s unique needs.” The alliance also cited a recent analysis from the Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan research group, that said TISA is unlikely to lead to local tax increases.

Leaders with several of the alliance’s partner organizations said their decision to support TISA hinged on their conclusion that it’s ultimately a better formula than the state’s current one.

“People can argue the fine points of TISA forever, but at the end of the day, TISA is a more equitable funding approach and cuts across demographics and circumstance to give each student in our state a better opportunity to succeed than they had under the old formula,” said Jared Bigham, senior adviser on workforce and rural initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Jeff Strand, with the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said the funding weights acknowledge that students have different needs — and that some needs cost more to address.

“We are encouraged by TISA’s generous weights for students with disabilities, as well as its focus on providing funds to fully staff schools, which includes nurses, counselors and social workers,” said Strand.

Gini Pupo-Walker, state director of the Education Trust in Tennessee, said her organization has been mostly pleased with several amendments, including one to involve the State Board of Education in any new system for holding districts accountable for how they spend state funds to improve student achievement.

“This formula isn’t perfect and there’s still work to do, but we feel like the fundamentals are good,” said Pupo-Walker. “We’ve been talking about moving to a student-centered formula for two years, and this checks a lot of boxes.”

The alliance launched in 2021 to continue the work of the former Tennessee Education Equity Coalition by advocating for policies that promote educational equity for underserved students. 

Visit here to read the alliance’s full statement and see the organizations that signed it.

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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