It’s time to adjust the way we fund education in Tennessee
Entering the third year of the pandemic, one would hope public schools would have learned to adjust to the new normal and remain open for in-person learning. After all, schools received billions of dollars from the federal government to do just that. Even President Biden said, “I believe schools should remain open. They have what they need.” However, the third-largest school district in the country, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), just closed its doors to students in early January. The Chicago Teachers Union made the call to cancel school, citing safety concerns. CPS received nearly $2.8 billion in federal relief dollars to safely reopen schools, though it seems those dollars have not gone to help students get back to the classroom. Despite independent schools figuring out how to be open for students to learn safely in person, billions of dollars given to public education haven’t given public school students the same results.
Parents of CPS students say they “feel abandoned” by the union-forced school closures, worried continued closures will further harm students academically. Though billions of tax dollars have gone to CPS to reopen, Chicago students have been shut out of learning. Without options to attend a non-public school, the public school system is failing these students. In Tennessee, where the legislative session has just begun, a bill has been introduced to offer students another educational option if their public school closes. It is yet to be seen what will happen to this Tennessee bill, but in Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey went a step further, taking a preemptive measure by creating a program that provides up to $7,000 to students if their public school closes their doors. This program is funded from federal relief dollars, but instead of being funneled to the public school district, funds are being directed to families so they can choose—not the district—on how their children learn.
Arizona was easily able to find out what it would cost to provide other educational options to students because of the state’s education funding formula. Unlike Tennessee or Illinois, Arizona uses a student-based formula, where each student is funded a base amount in addition to more funding for higher need students. Because of student-based funding, both the public and elected officials know the costs of educating a child in the state. But for Tennessee and Illinois, such calculations are not as simple. This is because they use a resource-based funding formula that estimates how many resources need to be funded for all of a district’s students. These types of formulas disregard the individuality of a student and are far less transparent in how dollars are spent.
That is why Governor Bill Lee called for a review of the formula, in the hopes of improving transparency, flexibility, and fairness. The Basic Education Program (BEP), has been the state’s education funding formula for thirty years and its complexity has led many to not understand how education is funded or even how much goes to public education. The Comptroller’s Office, responsible for verifying the formula, even calls it “exceedingly complex.” The Governor has discussed moving Tennessee to a student-based formula, similar to those used in 75 percent of states, to address an individual student’s needs and fund them accordingly. In response to a new funding formula, one lawmaker specifically acknowledged that there needs to be a change in education funding, but not just increasing funds, saying, “I’m a strong believer that money doesn’t fix education … Money only works if you spend it correctly.”
We have seen with the billions of federal tax dollars flooding public schools, money itself does not solve the issues in education. By making Tennessee education funding more flexible and fair by making students the focus of funding, Tennessee students will be better served in their educational journey. In addition to serving students better, a student-based education formula provides increased transparency and accountability, offering the public and policymakers insights into if schools and districts are being responsible stewards of Tennessee tax dollars.