Tennessee announces new education funding plan

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Thursday unveiled a sweeping new rewrite of how the state funds its multibillion-dollar K-12 education system, saying it provides more money per student and valuable services.

If approved, Tennessee would join nearly 40 other states in implementing a funding plan that sets a fixed amount per student. Currently, the state’s decades-old funding matrix is ​​made up of about 45 different components that help determine the dollar amounts school districts receive. The districts serve nearly one million Tennessean students.

For months, Lee and Schwinn have highlighted the many meetings and town halls held across the state dedicated to gathering feedback from educators and families. And when unveiling his budget, the governor promised an additional $750 million a year to fund the new formula starting in 2023-24. The money would first be available for other one-time uses in education in the coming budget year.

But while many Tennessee education experts have criticized the current system as convoluted and outdated, there have also been concerns about the rush to replace it with another system that could create its own set of problems.

The proposal faces additional headwinds in an election year, when lawmakers are extremely wary of potentially contentious votes in their constituencies, and they are eager not to drag out legislative work in order to to be able to embark on the electoral campaign.

Under legislation introduced Thursday, schools would receive a base amount of $6,860 per student with options to increase that amount based on location and student need within a matrix known as the of “unique learning needs”. For example, schools with students with dyslexia or a disability would receive more funding — as well as students in small districts or where poverty is concentrated, calculated using an algorithm outlined in the legislation.

Schwinn told reporters schools could receive up to $15,600 per student based on the number of “unique learning needs” a student meets.

School officials and lawmakers are expected to get a breakdown of the new funding amounts over the next few days to learn more about how the proposed plan will affect them and their constituents.

Schools will also have the opportunity to receive more state dollars through “student-generated outcomes” incentives, which will reward high scores in reading or demonstrations that students have strong academic preparation. college and career. The plan would allocate $100 million for such incentives. Stipends would also be provided to fast-growing schools.

Schwinn said an additional $125 million in the next budget would be added to increase teacher salaries. And thanks to the proposed formula, the minimum wage, which was $35,000 in January 2019, would increase to $46,000 by 2026.

School districts that receive low grades could be asked to defend themselves in the General Assembly and risk facing remedial action by lawmakers or be appointed an inspector general to oversee school programming and spending.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally told reporters he was concerned about the potential consequences for schools that “continue to be underachieving” and added that he expected “adjustments” be made by the Legislative Assembly.

Lee and Schwinn say the goal is for the GOP-dominated General Assembly to finalize the overhaul of the funding formula by the end of the legislative session. If approved, implementation would begin in the 2023-24 school year. However, many lawmakers have yet to have a chance to consider the new proposal and it’s unclear how many are willing to take on the massive task before adjourning.

“Is there a will to push it through? I’ll tell you there’s a determination to get it right,” said Senator Jon Lundberg, acting chair of the Senate Education Committee.

The review of Tennessee’s education system is at an all-time high as lawmakers and families have called for greater scrutiny of the concepts and discussions being taught in classrooms. During this time, there was also a push to expand charter schools throughout the state.

Just hours before Lee’s administration scrapped the school funding plan, Tennessee’s highest court was again hearing arguments about the legality of the Republican governor’s school voucher law it approved. in 2019. That plan, which only applies to Nashville and Memphis’ Shelby County, remains stuck in court.

Helen D. Jessen