Battle lines drawn over governor’s education funding review

By: - November 10, 2021 5:02 am
East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Gov. Bill Lee and supporters call his statewide review of Tennessee’s K-12 funding formula an effort to target money to fit each student’s needs.

Critics, in contrast, say it is an effort to fast track and funnel state dollars to private schools if the Tennessee Supreme Court approves the governor’s education savings account program. At least one legislator believes it is the most “dangerous” thing ever to happen to public education in Tennessee.

Lee embarked on a Tennessee listening tour a month ago for a complete review of the Basic Education Program, and the Department of Education appointed 18 subcommittees to provide input for a new funding formula.

All sides agree the model is due for an overhaul. How it is done is the question, they say.

In the first week of the review, more than 500 people showed interest in participating in the review and setting up a new funding proposal. 

The Basic Education Program was put together some 30 years ago in response to a lawsuit by small school districts across the state claiming they were getting shortchanged. 

Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, defends herself against questions about possible "Schwinnanigans."(Photo: John Partipilo)
Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, pictured at right with Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Since then, the state’s largest school districts, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, filed suit against the state contending they need more funds to meet the needs of a large number of low-income children. The lawsuit, which was joined by other large districts, is to be argued in early 2022.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who has been attending listening tour meetings across the state, says she is excited by the number of people interested in exploring “a student-centered investment strategy.”

The governor says the next funding formula should emphasize students, not school systems, and “empower” parents to get involved in their children’s education and outcomes, while ensuring students are ready to excel in college or technical schools.

Lee acknowledges the BEP is a complicated funding formula, but he also wants to push forward as quickly as possible and bring legislation to the General Assembly in the 2022 session.

The governor points out state leaders have been talking about changing the formula for years, saying it is inadequate. 

Making progress has been difficult, though. Former Gov. Bill Haslam put together a panel to reformulate the model but didn’t make any substantive changes.

Even Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville, who is set to leave the Legislature after the 2022 session, says he’s not so sure about the effort, even though he applauds Lee for digging into the formula.

“The BEP is so complicated I don’t even know where we start,” Bell says. “I know we’ve had Professor (Bill) Fox down here a couple of times from UT trying to explain how BEP works. He may be the only person in the state of Tennessee who understands it.”

Still, coming up with a simplified funding program would be better, Bell says, adding that could be the governor’s goal.

Student enrollment is the main component of the BEP formula, which has four categories and 46 specific areas, including student-teacher ratios and textbook funds. The number of administrators could be one point of contention in this debate.

Gov. Lee is chomping at the bit to move on it.

Republican Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville says he’s not sure about Lee’s effort to reformulate the BEP. “The BEP is so complicated I don’t even know where we start,” said Bell.

“I don’t think we need to spend years developing that formula,” Lee says. 

Tennessee can use better programs across the nation and look at states that have reformed their models, he says.

“Now’s the time to do it from my perspective,” he adds.

The governor dismisses the notion he is taking up this task as the Tennessee Supreme Court prepares to hear the lawsuit over his voucher program, which has been found unconstitutional in two lower courts. The BEP review is “independent” of that battle, he says.

Democratic lawmakers aren’t so sure. 

They fought the governor’s efforts to create the education savings account program enabling low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County districts to use state dollars to enroll in private schools, and they say the BEP review is a ruse to bolster voucher funds.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a former teacher from Knoxville, argues the state is “underfunding” public schools by $1.7 billion annually. But instead of guaranteeing more funds for K-12, she says the Lee Administration is planning to place a higher dollar amount on each student, and that money would follow a child to a charter or private school.

“That’s what this is about. If anybody’s saying it’s not, they’re not being honest,” Johnson says.

Under the ESA program, about $7,300 in state funds would go with each student to a private school that signs up for the state program. The state already has $25 million in its budget to pay for vouchers for up to 5,000 students.

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons takes a similar view as Johnson but goes a step further, questioning the motives based on Gov. Lee’s record on public education, even though the state has increased K-12 funding nearly every year Lee has been in office.

“I view this as the single biggest threat to our public education system since forever,” Clemmons says.

Clemmons agrees the funding formula needs to be modernized. The question is whether the aim is to improve the outcome for students or redirect the money to meet some lawmakers’ ideological goals, such as education vouchers, he says. 

The plan to come up with a new formula after a 90-day listening tour and pass it in the Legislature next year backs up his argument that a “scheme” is already cooked, he says.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, calls Gov. Lee’s review of BEP funding “the single biggest threat to our public education system since forever.”(Photo: John Partipilo)

Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Yarbro, contends the state knows how to fix the BEP. The bigger point is whether the governor is willing to invest more money in K-12 to push Tennessee out of the bottom of the nation in spending, he notes.

“Reforming BEP is a project 10 years overdue. But it’s not clear at all what the governor’s up to,” Yarbro says.

He is not confident the listening tour is a “genuine effort” to take suggestions from principals, school system directors, teachers and others involved in education. In addition, the selection of some of “more ideological” committee members suggests the process could be an “end run to expand vouchers” and take other steps that could devastate school districts, Yarbro says.

Lee shrugs off the criticism, saying it is part of the effort to gather comments.

In governor’s corner

Justin Owen, president and chief executive officer of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is a strong proponent of education savings accounts. 

The Beacon Center represents parents who want to participate in the ESA program in the court case, but even though he has a role in the voucher case, Owen was selected to serve as chairman of the Fiscal Responsibility Subcommittee.

Owen calls those criticisms by Democratic lawmakers “unfounded” and says the ESA program is a separate issue from the BEP. 

“If the ESA program is allowed to proceed, it will do so whether or not any changes are made to our funding formula. And any expansion of ESAs will require the Legislature to debate and vote on that expansion separate from any debate and vote on a change in the funding formula,” Owen says in a statement.

The state needs a “student-centered” formula rather than a “system-based” model, Owen says, one that provides transparency so parents, taxpayers, educators and policymakers can see how the state spends money on education and what sorts of outcomes should be expected.

We need flexibility for schools and educators so that they are able to do their jobs effectively. And we need to make sure as much money as possible makes its way into the classroom so that the ultimate beneficiaries of that funding - students - are well served.

– Justin Owen, Beacon Center of Tennessee

The Beacon Center of Tennessee produced a report in August showing a little more than half of the $11 billion the state spends on K-12 education annually makes it into classrooms. About half of that comes from state coffers and the rest from the federal government.

Funding is up some 30% over the last nine years, but student enrollment has grown by only 5%, and much of the money is eaten up by administrative costs, according to the report.

“We need flexibility for schools and educators so that they are able to do their jobs effectively. And we need to make sure as much money as possible makes its way into the classroom so that the ultimate beneficiaries of that funding – students – are well served,” Owen says.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who would sponsor any legislation from the governor, says the criticism by Democrats is “preposterous.” He notes the 18 subcommittees with members from across the state, set up a “transparent, open invitation” for the public to weigh in on education funding.

“We know that BEP is very complicated. It needs to be modified. It needs to be reformed, and so we’re gonna do that, and I applaud the administration for doing it,” says Johnsons, a Franklin Republican.

The Senate Majority leader stops short, though, when asked whether it is realistic to approve a new funding formula during the 2022 session.

“If it’s not, then we’ll take more time. We’re not gonna rush anything. We’re not gonna be irresponsible about it,” he says.

To be sure, the subcommittees take in a wide variety of people involved in education, including legislators, school board members, school system directors and teachers and some students.

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd serves on one subcommittee, and an urban systems subcommittee includes Shelby County Schools Director Joris Ray and state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis.

Chris Henson, chief financial officer of Metro Nashville Public Schools, serves on that panel as well.

“Matching funding to the needs of the students is something we have been doing at MNPS for several years to create a more equitable public school system here in Nashville,” Henson says in a statement released by the state. “Students in urban areas especially often experience significant challenges outside of school that require additional resources to address if they are going to be successful in learning and in life. Moving towards a student-based budgeting model has the potential to close historic resource gaps that have existed for far too long in public education.”


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.