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Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) listens Thursday during a legislative study panel's discussion about the state's system for funding K-12 education in Tennessee.

Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville) listens Thursday during a legislative study panel’s discussion about the state’s system for funding K-12 education in Tennessee.

Despite educators’ frustration, little chance legislature will increase school funding soon

While local officials and educators are increasingly distressed by the level of education funding in Tennessee, the state legislature is not likely to make changes in its funding model in the near future, lawmakers said Thursday.

Even as several superintendents told a House study committee about challenges in adequately funding newly formed school systems in Shelby County — which in Millington include leaks in the roofs and molding buildings — the prospect of increasing state allocations to schools was not discussed by lawmakers studying the Basic Education Program, or BEP, the state’s formula for providing a basic level of education for all Tennessee students.

Instead, most of the study session was devoted to understanding the formula itself, which uses 45 components to determine how state education dollars are generated and distributed to schools.

Improvements, representatives said, may come later — after seeing more work by several panels charged with reviewing the BEP and after a lawsuit over the issue runs its course.

While they hear about and see the need for changes to Tennessee’s education funding system, they’re unsure of what those changes should be.

“The BEP is far from perfect. But I wouldn’t go back to what we had before,” said Rep. John Forgety (R-Athens), chairman of a House education committee, referring to the plan that the legislature approved in 1992 and revised in 2006.

Stephen Smith, assistant commissioner of policy and research for the state Department of Education, walked the representatives through the formula and its components, which are based on factors such as what a typical class size should be, and how much an administrator should be paid.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville) introduced a bill that would require the state to allot more money to local school districts for teacher salaries so that all teachers could make at least $50,000 annually. The bill was on the agenda for Thursday’s discussion, but wasn’t addressed directly by lawmakers. The perceived inadequacy of teacher salaries is a lynchpin of the legal challenges to the state.

Before making any changes, representatives said they need to study further reports from the state’s BEP Review Committee and the BEP Task Force, as well as to know the outcome of litigation against the state by seven school districts, including the Hamilton County Board of Education.

The BEP Review Committee recommends changes to the formula each year. The task force, which Gov. Bill Haslam appointed last year, is charged with investigating how existing funds might be redistributed. For eight consecutive years, the review committee’s recommendations to change the teacher salary component has gone unheeded, though the legislature has changed the formula to account for technology costs.

Smith said he doesn’t believe the state is breaking the law with its current level of funding for teacher salaries, noting a $240 million increase in allocations for compensation since Haslam took office.

“It’s going to take a lot of midnight oil to get this right.”
Rep. Mark White

During the last three decades, school systems have been successful when suing the state over funding issues. Since 1992, the Tennessee Supreme Court has issued three rulings in favor of local districts and ordering that the state address its structure for funding education.

Rep. Kevin Dunlap (D-Rock Island), who is a teacher, said he feels a sense of urgency to develop a structure that provides more equitable and adequate education funding across Tennessee. But, he said, “There’s a lot going on at the moment with the BEP Task Force, the review committee. There’s also litigation going on. I think we need to kind of see where that takes us.”

Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) agreed.

“It’s going to take a lot of midnight oil to get this right. I think the consensus is to see where we’re going before we jump into that.”