FILE - Commissioner Penny Schwinn Classroom

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn speaks with a student during a school visit Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, at Westwood Elementary School in Manchester, Tenn. 

(The Center Square) – When Gov. Bill Lee called for a review of Tennessee's Basic Education Program (BEP) last week, it came after years of complaints about the public education funding formula.

The program, created in 1992 after the previous funding system was challenged by many of the state’s school systems, has been the subject of its own lawsuit for six years, according to Chalkbeat Tennessee

The case is scheduled to go before a three-judge panel in February. The lawsuit started with the Shelby County Schools, added Nashville a few years later and now has added a coalition of smaller schools called the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education.

If the review process plays out as Lee hopes, a new funding formula could begin to be discussed in the Tennessee Legislature when a new session begins in January, before the BEP funding lawsuit reaches court.

In his message last week, Lee focused on individual student and parent decisions and funding. Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn described a collaborative process to reach an end goal.

“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 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has mapped out a student-centered funding act proposal that gives a weighted funding amount to each student, based on needs, that would follow that student to whichever school he or she attends.

Lee and the Legislature passed a voucher pilot program in 2019 that would allow low-income students in Nashville and Memphis to take $7,100 with them in what was called the Education Savings Account (ESA) Program. After it passed, however, it was thrown out in court before an appeal was heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court over the summer. There has not been a ruling in the case.

Many Tennessee Democrats believe the real issue is the overall funding of Tennessee’s schools.

Tennessee plans to spend $5.6 billion in state funds on public K-12 education this year. At an average of $11,328 per student in 2020-21, the state ranked 45th in public school funding, according to the National Education Association, and the state received a grade of F in the Education Law Center’s Making the Grade 2020 report.

“What [Lee] talked about today sounds more like changing the way we cut the pie,” state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, tweeted. “But the main education funding problem in Tennessee is that the pie just isn’t big enough. And it hasn’t been for years.

“If Lee only wants to change how we slice the pie, we’ll have new winners and new losers, and then we’ll find ourselves in the exact same position. Underfunded schools, frustrated teachers, students falling through the cracks. Folks, we’d have to add more than $1.5 billion to the education funding pie to even get close to the Southeast average.

“And if you think this is all about public schools, look sharp! If the term “student centered funding” comes from ALEC, pay close attention to what this is really about – it’s not about our public school kids at all.”

According to a release from Lee’s office, a new funding strategy will: prioritize students over systems; empower parents to engage in their child’s education; incentivize student outcomes; ensure all students, regardless of location or learning needs, are served at a high-level; reflect Tennesseans’ values; and create flexible funding that prepares students for postsecondary success.

“Our public schools are woefully underfunded by nearly $2 billion a year,” said state Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “Case in point: We're even chasing Alabama on school funding.

“This review has an opportunity to make a meaningful update to the distribution formula, but tackling the bigger problem of underfunding is key to making sure these reforms are successful.”

Lee said he expected K-12 school funding to rise again in next year’s state 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.