Education: Tennessee’s Under-Funded Mandate

The State of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such postsecondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines. –Tenn. Const. Art. XI, § 12

Back in the dark days of 2013, I wrote a series of posts (1, 2, 3) that delved into the issue of education funding.

The posts were written in a time where the County Commission was trying to beat down the new Unified School Board, to keep their budget tight so the County wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fund their part of education.

The debate featured a lot of red herrings, trojan horses, and outright lies…most foisted upon the School Board by folks who aren’t there anymore, but who, ironically, are or were involved in trying to build up a municipal school district now…through tax increases (Yes, I’m talking about you Mayor Bunker and your former City Manager Chris Thomas).

Through those posts, I sought to show regular folks just how the money comes in, what the money goes for, and that much of the debate about the money was just plain out of line.

Now there’s a new debate about funding brewing, in school board meetings across the state. This time, the State of Tennessee itself is in the crosshairs, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

Basic Education Program

Teachers just wanna teach
Teachers just wanna teach
The State funds its portion of the education pie through a program called the Basic Education Program.

This program uses a formula to determine how much financial support a system should get based on a lot of things, including: number of students, salaries, and cost of doing business (which varies from area to area). The number of students, rightly I might add, is the primary driver of how much money a district gets from the state.

This formula not only determines how much money the State will pitch in, but also the ‘maintenance of effort’ that local governments must provide to stay good with the law. Unfortunately, the State’s portion of the BEP has been underfunded (to the tune of $500m this year alone) since its most recent revision in 2007.

Finally, some school districts are starting to cry foul, as the State demands more with essentially less funding.

Its way past time this happened.

Demanding their Due

scsLast week, the Shelby County Board of Education voted unanimously to join Knox and Hamilton Counties in a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee for underfunding the BEP. Shelby County Schools loses about $103m/yr. because of the BEP shortfall. That’s about 9% of Shelby County Schools proposed budget.

The MNPS (Nashville) School Board is set to vote on joining a potential lawsuit in the coming days.

This post from Bluff City Education gets into the nuts and bolts of the issue…I won’t repeat it here, but its a good read for those of you looking to get into the history of the problem.

The basic crux of it is this: The state has a duty to fund public schools in a certain way, as set forth by the State Legislature. But neither the Governor’s office (who sets the budget), nor the legislature (who amends and approves the budget) has adequately funded education based on the law.

They have, however, lowered taxes on the wealthiest Tennesseans by about $120m/yr in 2012 (source).

While tax collections have exceeded expectations by about $300m this fiscal year, generally tax collections have missed the mark in the past two to three years, which has led to more cuts of state departments after being cut drastically in 2011-12.

On top of that, the state has sought to increase standards for schools, and in many cases, while underfunding schools, taken over low performers for not doing more with less, which is just another example of the Dickensian approach the State has taken on schools.

Moving the Bar

Last year, Governor Haslam appointed a Task Force to examine the BEP. The idea was, that if you can’t fund the thing, then move the bar so it looks like you’re funding the thing.

In the minutes from the second meeting of the task force Governor Haslam’s Chief of Staff, Mark Cate notes that the focus of the group is not to make the ‘pie bigger’, but to adjust how the pie is cut.

Those minutes also erroneously note that the BEP is fully funded, which is false, and has been since 2007.

The point seems to have been to change the way the BEP was calculated to ensure districts couldn’t sue a ‘low tax’ administration who’s hell bent on lowering taxes, even though their obligations and standards are increasing.

But the proof is in the pudding. Since BEP 2.0 was passed, both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that the formula isn’t fully funded…despite the new money the governor wants to put into education, which is little more than a drop in the bucket.

Schools Struggling…even the ASD

asdThis comes as schools across the state are struggling to meet state standards that seek to use funding as both carrot and stick…with the threat of a state takeover if they don’t get it done.

This, in effect, is putting the weight of society’s legacy ills (low wages, scant opportunity, low educational attainment, and heavy tax burdens for the working poor) on the back of the schools, making them both educators and social workers while not giving them the tools to even do one of these things.

At the same time, the ASD is looming, ready to sweep in and privatize schools and hand them off to companies that are friendly with the Governor so they can profit off of a public good.

If the aim were really to better education in struggling schools, it would seem the State would work to give those schools the resources to be both educators and social workers…but they’re not.

Now, the ASD itself is under fire. Three years into its existence, the ASD argues they’re still a work in progress. But legacy public schools wouldn’t have been given the amount of time the ASD has had for many of its schools…and Shelby County’s i-Zone schools, many of which are out-perorming ASD schools pose a real threat the the ASD model in the state’s most target rich environment. Combine that with a growing sentiment of ‘get off my lawn’ from the community, and the ASD is heading into dark days…and still not fully meeting expectations, which would get any other school shuttered.

Conclusion: Sleight of Hand and Twist of Fate

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
The honest to God truth is the past five years in education policy have been predicated on a wish that the wizard turns out to be as wonderful as we thought he might be. But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the power to get what you want doesn’t lie in some all powerful external thing…it lies with us.

We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Its not the first bill of goods, and it likely won’t be the last.

But the promise we’ve been promised isn’t happening and won’t happen until we acknowledge that there’s more to education than warehousing kids, or threatening school districts. Unions aren’t the problem…and they may not be the solution either. The problem is simple: We’re not fulfilling the broad range of promises our elected officials have made to the public, and we haven’t been doing that for a very long time. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that inaction.

And its on us too. We’ve seen all kinds of things happen, and we’ve, by and large, bought in to the distractions based on faulty preconceived notions. Instead of calling bullshit when bullshit needed to be called, we’ve bought the bullshit.

Now its time to dig out of a half-decade (or more) of bullshit, and start looking at the system (our society) as a system, rather than trying to ‘fix’ one part or the other while ignoring how that part fits with the other ones.

Because that’s been our strategy for the majority of my life. And maybe that’s been the strategy all along. But if we’re serious (and I’m not convinced we are) we need to stop just focusing on the ugly mole, and start focusing on the cancer that lies underneath it…

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