Setting the Record Straight on TISA
The state’s proposed education funding overhaul, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA), took a step closer to becoming law in April as it passed through multiple committees in bipartisan fashion. While the reason for and the current track of the funding overhaul seems to be straightforward, detractors’ claims are anything but. In a recent op-ed criticizing the proposed formula, a coalition of writers chose not to focus on the failings of the current Basic Education Program funding formula or perceived policy issues of TISA, but instead raised what can only be considered conspiracy theories. The main theme of the op-ed claims that Tennessee moving from the “exceedingly complex” resource-based funding formula to a student-based funding formula is because of school vouchers, model legislation from 2010, and billionaire Bill Gates. Let’s unpack that.
First, TISA and school vouchers are two completely separate issues. TISA involves how public schools are funded, not how parents could use their child’s education dollars. Simply reading the bill would explain this fact: there is nothing in the legislation that touches on public dollars going to private schools. The Tennessean editorial board even wrote that those opposing the bill should decouple their concerns from other policies that aren’t related to TISA. Even if critics don’t believe how the bill is written, there are real life examples of how student-based funding models do not equal school vouchers. New York, Hawaii, and California all have student-based funding formulas, yet educational choice programs are non-existent in these deep blue states. In fact, 75 percent of states and D.C. use a student-based funding model. Do critics believe all of these states have strong educational choice programs that they claim will come to Tennessee if TISA is passed?
Second, the critics state that student-based funding formulas are in part due to model legislation created in 2010, that is, a prefabricated bill crafted by an organization, not a legislator. Again, simply looking into student-based formulas across the country shows this is not the case. Florida’s student-based funding formula was adopted in 1973 and a school district in Canada first began using student-based budgeting in 1977, quickly spreading to American districts. In fact, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools have adopted their own version of student-based budgeting because these formulas better serve students and allow for more school control of dollars. The state changing from a resource-based model to student-based would provide these benefits statewide, more fairly funding students with additional needs and offering more control of education dollars to local school leaders.
Finally, the op-ed insinuates that TISA was introduced because of Bill Gates, through donations from the Gates Foundation. A list of grant recipients from the Gates Foundation shows there has been over $142.6 million given to Tennessee K-12 public school districts and education organizations since 2003. Would these members state they wish for Shelby County and Knox County schools, among others, to not take donations? What makes these statements even more ridiculous is that there are some members of the coalition that wrote the op-ed who work for school districts and institutions of higher education that have taken donations from the Gates Foundation. Do these members believe their work in education is under the control of Bill Gates?
Education funding is the largest single line item in the state budget, and TISA would increase that investment while boosting transparency, accountability, and flexibility. Changing the funding formula will not be a silver bullet that will solve all the problems in public education, but the benefits and simplicity of the formula are far greater than continuing down the current road of a resource-based formula. Those looking to criticize changes to education funding should focus on actual policy differences instead of conspiracies. An education funding formula that is easier to understand and more straightforward would serve the public well. Taxpayers deserve to know how much of their tax dollars go towards public education and how that money is spent.