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Holtsman, Creative Commons

Stumped about Tennessee’s school funding formula? There’s now a calculator for that

Even to policy nerds, Tennessee’s formula for funding its schools is complex — a labyrinth of components so intricate that it has spawned lawsuits and left career bureaucrats frequently scratching their heads.

Now, 25 years after the inception of the formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP, the state comptroller’s office wants to help.

Comptroller Justin P. Wilson on Tuesday unveiled a BEP calculator now available to anyone.

“It’s in the best interest of all Tennesseans that the BEP be verifiable, transparent and understandable,” said Wilson, who demonstrated the new tool to House Education Committee members. “This is truly a landmark achievement, and I believe it will be very useful to legislators, educators, stakeholders and citizens.”

The calculator can be used to determine how much each school district should receive of the state’s $4.4 billion in BEP funding.

That’s never been easy code for most people to crack. The formula takes into account more than 30 factors, all with different weights.

“It’s for a basic education, but it’s not a basic calculation,” said Russell Moore, director of the comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability.

Using Microsoft Excel, the tool shows how allocations shift by changing factors such as student enrollment or teacher salary. An interactive map also provides funding facts for each district — for example, that the state allocated $5,023 per pupil to its largest district, Shelby County Schools, compared to $3,490 for Nashville, or $5,663 per pupil for Carter County.

Moore stressed that the BEP is a funding formula, not a spending plan. So although the calculator might show that Shelby County Schools receives money for 1,920 K-3 teachers, the district might actually have more, depending on how district leaders choose to spend the allocation.

The comptroller’s office used the tool to discover that the State Department of Education was about $362,000 off in its funding calculations this school year — or about .00825 percent.

Not bad, Wilson said.

Even so, the comptroller emphasized that the calculator only determines funding levels. It can’t answer questions about the adequacy of funding — issues at the heart of occasional lawsuits against the state.

“We’re not saying if the BEP is good or bad,” Wilson said. “We’re not saying if we’re funding (schools with) too much money or not enough.”

You can access the BEP calculator on OREA’s website.