Making the case for student-centered funding
October is the month where you’ll see non-stop Halloween decorations in stores, lawns, and in the media. Yet the scariest thing in Tennessee isn’t a zombie or a ghost, but the Basic Education Program (BEP), the nearly incomprehensible education funding formula. Since becoming law in 1992, the BEP has been arguably the most complex funding formula in the nation, with 46 separate components in addition to two fiscal capacity calculations. But this Halloween may be the BEP’s last.
On October 8th, Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn jointly announced that the state will be looking to change the education funding formula to something more understandable, equitable, and transparent. Governor Lee said at a press conference, “Everyone recognizes that our BEP formula is one that few understand, or many do not understand, and many do not like.” The complications are nothing new, even Governor Phil Bredesen, when he was in office, likened the BEP formula to the process of a mad scientist in old movies, where they pressed buttons and turned knobs and then an answer would spit out of a machine. An overly complicated process that even a governor finds comical should not be the way Tennesseans fund education.
The current funding formula is troublesome not only for its complexity but also for what it funds. The BEP is what is called a “resource-based” funding model, where funding is given to districts based on resources the formula deems necessary. This type of formula doesn’t respect the individuality of each student and only sees them as a number to reach a certain amount of staff or materials. Tennessee is in the small minority that uses this model, according to research by EdBuild. The majority of states—and what Governor Lee has called for—use student-centered funding, where the formula is based on individual students and their unique needs. Along with a base level of funding for each student, children with additional needs are given extra dollars to help each student in their educational journey. These formulas are not only transparent and easier to understand, but they are also more equitable as they account for the unique needs of each student.
K-12 education is the single largest item in the Tennessee state budget, with billions of dollars going to schools across the state. With such a monumental amount of tax dollars going to K-12 education, it is a shame that Tennesseans have been left in the dark for so long as to how education is actually funded. Though no education model will ever be perfect, student-centered funding is a big piece of the puzzle as we move toward getting education funding to a more open and easily understandable process.
It is long overdue that Tennessee lawmakers take steps to address the antiquated and overly complicated BEP. We commend the governor and policymakers who realize that the current formula for education funding is broken. Lawmakers should return to the capitol in 2022 and look to put the BEP to bed by adopting a formula that funds students, not systems.