Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced plans Friday to review the state’s education funding formula, citing the age and complexity of the nearly 30-year-old Basic Education Program.
The formula, which has been used since 1992, is used to determine how much money each school district receives based on 46 criteria. The money for each district is categorized into four sections covering instructional salaries, instructional benefits, classroom and non-classroom uses.
Lee and Schwinn said Friday morning that after about 30 years of funding education through the formula, it’s worth exploring a foundational change to catch up to how schools have changed.
“Our schools are significantly different than they were 30 years ago. Our approach to learning is different than it was 30 years ago,” Lee said. “There have been best practices across the country that have been implemented, that we can learn from, as we modernize and update our funding approach to the future of Tennessee. Students in our K-12 system are our future.”
Schwinn also said the BEP is too complex to be easily followed by taxpayers and that it’s impossible for a parent to know just how much money the state provided for their child to learn. It’s a complicated formula that is often boiled down to an understanding that districts with more students are approved for more resources, which means more money from the BEP.
Going forward, Schwinn said they are hoping to find new strategies that focus on attaching the money to the students individually, which could allow them to adjust funding based on the needs of the students enrolled, rather than numbers. She said they also want to make sure parents know what the state spends on their children.
“It should be transparent, it should be accountable, it should be a record of a return on investment,” Schwinn said.
While Lee said he has heard suggestions, he said the review will be a process that will involve researching new best practices and listening to feedback. He did not commit to a hard timeline.
The announcement received praise from leaders at many education nonprofits, including TennesseeCAN and Tennesseans for Student Success.
TennesseeCAN Executive Director Victor Evans said the academic fallout of the pandemic calls for strong actions like establishing a new funding formula.
“We need a bold approach for the future, and we can’t pay for that approach with an outdated funding system that prioritizes where a child lives over who a child aspires to be,” Evans said in an emailed statement. “So we applaud Governor Lee, Commissioner Schwinn, and our legislative leaders for their leadership at this critical time to explore ways to adjust and modernize school funding for the future and to help quickly close the learning gaps that too many of our students now face.”
Adam Lister, president and CEO of Tennesseans for Student Success, said his organization looks forward to getting involved in the process.
“Tennessee students deserve better than a nearly three-decades-old education funding formula,” he said. “We applaud today’s announcement and view this action as an appropriate step in elevating the conversation around BEP. As this process advances, Tennesseans for Student Success looks forward to challenging those involved to prioritize solutions that serve all Tennessee students.”
Not everyone was convinced that a review of the BEP can fix education funding problems. Senate Democrats pointed to Tennessee’s rank among states in education funding per pupil.
According to EducationData.org, a website that compiles education data from across the United States, Tennessee ranks 45th in spending for education.
“I hope this new initiative adopts the investments in public education that our caucus has called for over the last two years — like teacher pay increases they actually feel, smaller classroom sizes for students who need it and improved whole child services for all students,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Senate Education Committee and Senate Democratic Caucus member.
The Nashville Public Education Foundation described itself as “cautiously optimistic” in a statement released Friday afternoon.
The foundation said it commended the commitment to review the BEP and urged Nashvillians and others to get involved in providing feedback for the state immediately.
“Our legislators are listening, so now is the time to crank the volume on this discussion,” NPEF President and CEO Katie Cour said in the statement. “NPEF has worked tirelessly toward a result like the one announced by Tennessee today. But our efforts are most effective when the entire community, educators, area businesses and policy makers all enthusiastically work together to improve conditions that enable all kids to thrive.”