“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist


Watching the conversations around the Governor’s proposed reforming of Tennessee’s school funding formula(BEP) over the past several months has been like watching a production of Oliver Twist, with local LEAs and advocacy groups playing the role of Oliver, holding out their empty bowls to the Governor, “Please sir, I want some more.”

Like Oliver, they have been left to fend for themselves due to an underfunded BEP.  And for the record, that’s not hyperbole it’s established fact based on The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations releasing a report titled “K-12 Education Funding and Services.”

“Although the changes made in 1992 and since have resulted in substantial increases in funding to support the BEP, meeting local needs and the requirements imposed by the state and federal governments often requires more resources than the BEP funding formula alone provides. Consequently, state and local funding in fiscal year 2017-18 totaled $2.1 billion over and above what was required by the BEP formula, including a total of $1.7 billion in local revenue.”

So, yes, it was time for a revamping of the BEP, or at a minimum fully funding it. This was the week that Governor Lee was supposed to ladle out the gruel.

Throughout the process, Commissioner Schwinn and Governor Lee promised a new formula that would be more transparent, simpler, and fund the individual student as opposed to blocks of students with shared needs. What was released yesterday, fails to deliver in all three areas.

The new legislation is so simple that the bill comes with a requirement that everybody involved in school budgets from locally elected officials down to district employees must take a course on school finance and pass a final exam by June of 2024. Per the bill,

The series must include, at a minimum, an in-depth explanation of the TISA and the TISA guide, instruction on how to budget to increase student achievement, instruction on how to connect student achievement with investments in education, instruction on how to hold decision-makers accountable for funding decisions, and a training assessment that each participant must take and pass at the end of the series.

This passage is farcical. What research supports which individual investments lead to wholesale improvement? What evidence does the TNDOE offer that demonstrates their ability tio recognize what investments lead to greater student outcomes?

Hopefully, Schwinn and her DOE will be taking the class because to date they’ve shown no indication that they know how to budget to increase student achievement. I can’t wait to see how they connect funding to student achievement considering that Schwinn and posee have slung so much at the wall in an effort to see what sticks, that it’s virtually impossible to attach student success to any one element. Though look for tutoring to be portrayed as playing a significant role in student outcomes, at the expense of actual teachers.

This professional development requirement also presents yet another prime opportunity for a friend of Schwinn to receive a financial windfall. Think how much it’ll cost for the state to fund the initial training, and then remember we are talking about positions that turn over on a pretty regular basis, so there will perpetually be a new class requiring training. Somebody is getting a yacht and maybe a vacation home in Tahoe out of this provision.

While much of the press has centered on the overall financial numbers increasing for districts, Per Chalkbeat,

Gov. Bill Lee has unveiled his proposal for overhauling K-12 funding in Tennessee, including a base of $6.6 billion to provide per-pupil funding to educate nearly 1 million public school students and $1.8 billion in extra support for students needing the most help.

It remains unclear how much of the advertised billion-dollar investment is new dollars, and how much of it is existing funding just rolled into the new formula.

While the general public received little information on what individual student funding might look like, legislators were presented a different slide show, one that provided some examples,

Sam Stockard does a good job of laying this out in the Tennessee Lookout,

Under Lee’s proposal, dubbed Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, the more problems a student faces, the higher the funding. Students also could gain funding for showing success such as learning to read on grade level by the third grade and performing well on the ACT or industry tests in high school.

The money targeted to each student through more than 140 districts covers a range of situations.

For example, a student from an economically disadvantaged family living in a sparsely populated area and attending a small school district and with “unique” learning needs could have a funding total of $15,592. In contrast, a student who learns to read well by second grade and grapples only with a learning problem such as dyslexia could be targeted to receive a total of $8,732.

Funds would go through their school systems, and those projected totals were to be released Thursday.

But to be clear, while students earn weights for “unique learning needs” from 20% to 150%, we don’t know what needs qualify for what weights. A gifted child could qulaify for 40% while an English learner could qualify for 20, or the other way around, I would argue that a child diagnosed with dyslexia should qualify for at least a level 7 weight, but should just “showing characteristics of”also earn that level? I don’t know, but the potential here is to encourage misdiagnoses in order to secure more funding, and I would caution against that.

I would also caution Stockard against using qualifiers like “only” when addressing learning problems. It should also be pointed out that if either of the above-mentioned children attends a charter school, they’ll receive an extra 4%, or $274 dollars, There is a tendency to think that just because a child attends a small school district they won’t have the opportunity to attend a charter school. Based on recent actions, and proposed legislation, that is likely to be proven as a false premise over the next 5 years.

I may be the only one, but assigning a dollar figure to individual students makes me very uneasy. It reeks of trying to use numbers to define individuals, an extension of what we already do with testing. Many school districts already engage in student-based funding for individual schools – an example would be MNPS – but I would argue that the jury is still out on the benefits of the practice. In the case of MNPS, it has not resulted in an overarching increase in student outcomes.

In their presentations to both legislators and the public, Lee and Schwinn chose to focus on what LEAs would be receiving, the actual legislation is much more focused on what Tennessee’s Boris and Natasha would be receiving – power and control.

For example, per the bill,

49-3-112. Accountability requirements.

(a) Each local board of education shall produce an accountability report that: (1) Establishes goals for student achievement in the current school year and explains how the goals can be met within the LEA’s budget; (2) Describes how the LEA’s budget and expenditures for prior school years enabled the LEA to make progress toward the student achievement goals established for the prior school years; provided, however, that this subdivision (a)(2) does not apply to the report submitted for the 2023-2024 school year. (b) The report required in this section must be presented to the public for comment before the report is submitted to the department. The report required by this section must be submitted to the department by November 1, 2023, and each November.

In other words, a district must justify its budget to the TNDOE and a commissioner that can’t even keep her own department fully staffed. All of this extra reporting and procedures is not going to be free, who bears the additional cost?

But it gets better. Back to the bill,

(c) An LEA that operates or authorizes a public school that receives a D or F letter grade pursuant to § 49-1-228 may be required to appear for a hearing before an ad hoc joint committee of the general assembly to report on the public school’s performance and how the LEA’s spending decisions may have affected the ability of the LEA’s public schools to achieve certain performance goals. The speakers of the senate and house of representatives shall each appoint members to serve on the joint ad hoc committee from the members of the general assembly serving on the education or finance committees of the senate and house of representatives. At the conclusion of a hearing conducted pursuant to this subsection (c), the joint ad hoc committee may direct the department to impose one (1) of the following corrective actions:

(1) Require the LEA or public charter school to develop, submit to the department for approval, and implement a corrective action plan consistent with a corrective action plan template developed by the department. The department shall report to the committee regarding the LEA’s or public charter school’s implementation of the corrective action plan; or

(2) Appoint an inspector general selected by the comptroller of the treasury to oversee the LEA’s or public charter school’s academic programming and spending. The department shall report to the committee regarding the outcomes of the inspector general’s oversight. The department shall promulgate rules to effectuate this subdivision (c)(2) in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act, compiled in title 4, chapter 5.(d) The department shall apportion the costs of implementing a corrective action imposed pursuant to subdivision (c)(2) between the department and the LEA on a case-by-case basis, subject to the approval of the joint ad hoc committee.

The desire for the state to takeover MNPS and SCS has long been the worst kept secret in town. This bill will provide the vehicle to take such action.

Never mind that the General Assembly passed legislation over half a decade ago that called for the creation of the A-F grading system, it’s never been implemented. as pointed out last year on the Senate floor. Now it’s suddenly going to be implemented and its first year out of the box it’ll have potentially dire consequences for districts.

That should be a source of concern for everyone.

The entire bill is riddled with potential added costs to districts,. Another example would be teacher pay. The bill reads,

A portion of any annual increase in the base funding amount may be restricted by act of the general assembly for the sole purpose of providing salary increases to existing educators. If a portion of an annual increase in the base funding amount is restricted pursuant to this subsection (e), then an LEA or public charter school must use the portion restricted to provide salary increases to existing educators. The state board shall increase the minimum salary on the state salary schedule, as appropriate, based on the amount of funds restricted for salary increases, if any.

That means if the state sets the teacher-student rate at, say, 15:1 – I’m just making that number up for illustrative purposes – and I’m a district who believe the ratio should be 13:1, and hire accordingly, any raise designated by the General Assembly is either spread thin, or I have to find local funds to cover the difference. Whereas if I’m a district that goes the other way and believes the proper ratio is 17:1, my teachers benefit accordingly. This is different from the current system only in the degree to which it ties local officials’ hands are tied in their ability to make local funding decisions.

This whole proposal reeks of a situation where my neighbor comes to me and says, “TC, I want to give you a thousand dollars.|”

“Great!”, I respond, “What do you need from me?”

Not much. I just need you to fill out this form and get it certified by a specialist. Then I need you to supply a survey of your property. Going forward, you will need to mow your lawn twice weekly in the manner I prescribe or I may withhold a portion of the money.”

“Wait a minute “, I respond, “The cost associated with certifying the form and hiring a surveyor is going to run about $1100. The lawn mowing stipulation will cost an additional $300. So my cost will be $1400.”

“Yea…but I’m giving you a grand. Do you not want the extra money?”

Spending $1300 to get #100 is never a prudent financial move, yet that’s exactly what this bill is asking the citizens of Tennessee to do.

IIn the middle of all this you have various “non-profits” – and I use the term loosely because it’s only a tax designation – throwing their weight behind the bill. Education Trust is on record as offering any non-profit that joins their rapid response team a $10K to help advocate for passage of the bill. So how does the average parent discern the motivation behind an organization’s endorsement?

An example would be the Nashville Public Education Foundation which is out with a statement that applauds the Governor’s proposal for its transparency and simplicity, despite a question that would indicate anything but,

Though overall, NPEF is encouraged by the Governor’s plan, a few aspects of the formula deserve greater clarity for Nashvillians in particular. Specifically, it is unclear how much additional weight English Learners will receive under the new plan. Nashville is home to the state’s largest EL population and research show that these students need a substantially larger investment to support their success.

You see the bill reads,  “Unique learning needs” include, but are not limited to, disabilities, characteristics of dyslexia, giftedness, or limited English proficiency. So English Learners could be weighted anywhere from 20% to 150%. That’s not very transparent nor is it simple, But hey maybe that tepid endorsements by NPEF was enough to meet the bar to collect that $10k subgrant from Education Trust. I want to trust them, but should I? Who knows?

These are just a few of my current concerns.

I’m sure we’ll be spending significant time over the next month talking over the merits of Governor Lee’s proposal. Before we wrap up this session, I’d like to note that the last 15 pages of the 35-page bill are devoted to amendments that will need to be made to existing legislation, a total of 101 sections. In some sections, it’s a simple change to TISA from BEP. Others are much more complex, like this one on charter school funding,

SECTION 70. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 49-13-112(b), is amended by deleting “an amount equal to the per pupil state and local funds received by the department or LEA” and substituting “the total of the state and local student-generated funds for member students in the charter school for the prior year in alignment with the TISA, the average per pupil local funds received by the LEA in the current school year above those required by the TISA for each member student in the charter school in the prior year, the per student state and local funds received by the LEA for all additional member students in the charter school in the current year above the prior year’s membership, and the per student state and local funds received by the LEA for member students in the charter school in the current school year beyond the prior year’s membership”.

Yeah…that’s a little different. The question becomes one of, is there adequate time in which to fully vet the merits of the bill itself, as well as, the impact on existing legislation. That’s not a lotta time for a lotta work. Getting it wrong could result in dire dire consequences for districts, not just in the classroom but outside in communities as well.

We like to say schools are all about students, and thus only have a direct effect on them. Not true, Schools are funded by communities through taxes, and a community’s quality of life is impacted by the quality of schools. In that light, it’s more than reform comes correctly as opposed to quickly.

We owe it to every citizen in Tennessee to get this right.

.If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. I am offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. Your support would be greatly appreciated.

If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated. Not begging, just saying.


Categories: Education

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