NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Residents are being invited to have a say in how education is funded in Tennessee. The state Department of Education is hosting several town hall meetings to hear from parents, educators and other stakeholders as part of the process for reviewing its funding strategy.
“I think we’ve been talking about it as a state for a really long time and we want to move to not just talking about all the things that we wish were different, but actually having a more productive conversation about what we can build together as a state,” said Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn. “When we look at all of the changes that have happened in education, as a result of the pandemic, we look at the health of our economy, and we look at the critical importance of what we need to provide to children, we want to make sure that we’re having those productive and action oriented conversations.”
The state’s current school funding framework is known as the Basic Education Program (BEP) and the department said it has not been meaningfully updated in more than 30 years.
“We are in litigation around our current funding formula and so we’ve really framed this as we’re gonna let that play out in its own space,” Dr. Schwinn said. “This still gives us the opportunity in the window to figure out what it is we do want.”
The Tennessee Education Association represents tens of thousands of teachers and leaders said the organization supports any discussion about education funding.
“Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for our per pupil investment,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “I know that Governor Lee has stated publicly that he wants to make Tennessee the best place of which to teach and learn. And quite frankly, 46th in the nation in per pupil investment is not going to get us there.”
We asked Dr. Schwinn whether additional money towards education would be included in reviewing the state’s funding strategy.
“I think everything’s on the table,” Schwinn responded. “I do think it’s really important to say that we can’t change a funding formula and have winners and losers. So all of our districts have to have at least what they have now.”
According to Brown, the BEP gets reviewed annually by a committee and there have been proposed legislation over the years to adjust the formula but she hopes this effort makes more meaningful change.
“TEA has long advocated for increases in funding for nurses and counselors, so lowering the ratio in our state. Right now, we only fund one nurse for every 3000 students. We talk about that piece of the funding formula all the time,” said Brown. “What’s different about this is it looks like they want to go in and do a complete overhaul. And again, I think if you’re not talking about increasing the amount of funding, it doesn’t matter how you overhaul the the formula itself.”
The department said the goal was to focus its funding more on a student-based strategy, which Brown finds concerning.
“I have had educators from across the state reach out to TEA wanting to know, ‘wait, is this a backdoor approach to vouchers where we’re going to give kids a backpack full of cash and let them move around? Is this pay for student test scores?'” Brown said. “There are some questions that are raised with the language being used to describe this process, because quite frankly, we have a funding formula that, when you look at it, looks to be student-centered, because you’re generating funds based on the number of students enrolled in your district.”
We asked Dr. Schwinn to explain what the department means by it’s goal to have a ‘student-based’ funding strategy. She said most states currently operate on a resourse-based strategy and they want to focus more on what each student needs rather than their school system.
“[Currently] We’ll look at what are the big things that need to be funded. We see how many kids are in a district and different types of kids are in a district and we fund for that need. So for example, you might say, for every 500 students in a school, there is a principal that is then funded. But we want to make sure that we’re actually looking at what the student need is, not what the system need is,” Schwinn explained. “You might have a student over here who needs additional supports because they have a disability, they speak a language other than English, they’re in a rural community. And so we know that’s more expensive for transportation. And over here, a student might have completely different needs, they’re economically disadvantaged, they also speak a language other than English, whatever that that might be.”
The department is now having several town hall meetings across the state to gather input from the public, but Brown said there was concern about the state’s approach to hearing from members of various communities.
“I am pleased that there are townhall meetings being held. I know that there has been some level of frustration not only among educators, but parents and community members as well, about the short notice on some of these meetings and some of the inconvenient locations,” Brown said, adding that she encourages everyone to speak up about the need for more investment towards education. “Quite frankly, we are awash in cash in this state, we continue to collect billions of dollars in excess revenue, and it is time for our lawmakers to put the money where their mouth is. And if they say that this is a priority, that making Tennessee the best place in which to teach and learn. And if we are committed to overcoming disruptive learning caused by the pandemic, if we are committed to making sure that every student is prepared to pursue their dreams following their high school career that they they have the opportunities to do that. And that costs money.”
CLICK HERE for more information on the upcoming town hall meetings and how to watch the live streams.