Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn speaks to reporters at the state Capitol on Aug. 6, 2020.

(The Center Square) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Friday the state will review its K-12 education funding model, the Basic Education Program (BEP), looking for ways to improve the way the state spends its education money.

The state budgeted $5.6 billion for K-12 education in fiscal year 2022. A Sycamore Institute study on education spending showed K-12 education was funded 95% by the state’s sales tax.

Lee did not offer specifics of what the end plan will look like, but he said the review would be “collaborative, created by input we receive over the next couple of months.”

“It will be focused on more of a student-based funding strategy than a system-based funding strategy understanding the individual needs of students so that parents can see how dollars are invested for their student’s individual needs,” Lee said.

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard arguments this summer regarding the constitutionality of Lee's education savings account (ESA) pilot program, which was passed in 2019 by the Tennessee Legislature. The program would allow low income students in Nashville and Memphis to get $7,100 scholarships to use at nonpublic schools.

"Tennessee has a pile of money to allocate from the influx of federal funds, a $2 billion surplus, and annual revenues possibly rising by at least $3 billion,” said Brian Straessle, director of external affairs at the Tennessee public policy center the Sycamore Institute, which is examining the state’s funding model. If their goal is to overhaul K-12 funding without shortchanging anybody, it’s hard to imagine better circumstances."

Tennessee ranked 45th in the nation in per-pupil spending at $11,328 in 2020-21, a National Education Association report said. The Education Law Center gave Tennessee a grade of F in its Making the Grade 2020 school funding report.

“The Tennessee Education Association supports Gov. Lee's intent to engage educators, parents and community members in a critical evaluation of the state's education funding formula," said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association. "However, the central problem is not the BEP, but the inadequate level of state funding. ... It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.

“Any review of the BEP funding formula must include more than recommendations on how to change the formula," Brown said. "Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve."

The NEA report also said Tennessee’s average teacher and instructional salaries ranked 41st in the nation, at $51,862 and $54,577, respectively.

“The real problem here isn't the complicated formula to split up the BEP funds,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said. “The problem is the uncomplicated decision to invest fewer dollars in education than basically every other state. We've reviewed, task forced, and blue ribbon commissioned the BEP to death over the last two decades. There's no shortage of solutions, so much as there's a shortage of will to follow the recommendations we've received.

“While we're all for adjusting the components and calculations to address inequities and outdated assumptions, the real question is our timeline for investing an additional almost $2 billion each year in schools – so that we might catch up to our neighbors and might get out of the bottom ten list for per pupil funding.”

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said she believes reviewing the BEP formula will be the most important thing the state will do in education policy for years to come, and she encouraged public input at a website created by the state.

“Tennessee’s students are the future of our state, and we've got to be sure our public schools are well-equipped to prepare each and every one of them for lifelong success," Schwinn said in a statement. "Consistent with our focus to continuously improve the academic achievement of all Tennessee students, we are excited to open public conversations and discuss an investment strategy that aligns with those goals and values.”

Lee would not put a timeline completing the review, but he said he hoped the plan would be ready for the state's next regular legislative session in January. 

Lee said school funding has increase during as his term as governor and he expects that trend to continue in the state's next budget.

Staff Reporter

Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.