Tennessee will now fund students, not systems
BY JUSTIN OWEN
Last week, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned for the year. In one of their final actions, legislators passed Gov. Bill Lee’s Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act, or TISA. The proposal completely overhauls our state’s education funding formula for the first time in three decades. I was honored to be part of the effort, having chaired one of the subcommittees created to study the issue and offer recommendations, and having testified in support of the bill on behalf of our advocacy partner Beacon Impact.
TISA replaces what was possibly the nation’s most convoluted funding formula with a student-based approach. In short, going forward, Tennessee will begin to fund students, not systems. This alone is a huge improvement over the way we’ve funded education in Tennessee for generations. It means more money will make its way into the classroom where it belongs, something that’s sorely needed. Our research shows that just 53% of education funding makes it into the classroom now, far less than the national average.
There are other key benefits to a student-based funding formula. Here are three in particular:
It will bring increased transparency for taxpayers and parents. By simplifying the formula, parents can better understand how much we spend on their child, why their child generated that amount, and what that money is spent on. Beacon has in past years attempted to make education spending understandable, pulling all the available data together from dozens of Excel spreadsheets. It takes us—a think tank with full-time employees—months to do this. Now it will virtually be at everyone’s fingertips.
This increased transparency alone will lead to greater accountability, the second benefit of a student-based formula. By tying results to dollars spent, we can more easily draw a line when it comes to the effective use of those dollars. TISA also adds outcomes-based funding to the mix, rewarding districts that boost student achievement, incentivizing them to invest tax dollars in the right way to get results.
It will give school-level leadership greater flexibility. On average, individual principals across the state currently have control over just 8% of their budgets. The rest is already claimed by the time the money gets to the school level. Local leaders can use the flexibility provided by TISA to innovate and structure an education that reflects the needs and opportunities of their own students. We can then see what works and what doesn’t; just like federalism makes states the laboratories of democracy, a student-funding approach allows individual schools and districts to be laboratories of education.
We applaud Gov. Lee for championing funding students and not systems. Every single public school student in Tennessee will benefit from this much-needed reform.