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Student enrollment is down in Tennessee, but per-pupil funding should stay the same, says state panel

Cropped view of elementary students walking single file in a school hallway.
Many districts report that fewer students showed up as COVID disrupted education for a second straight school year.
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An influential committee is urging Gov. Bill Lee and the legislature to keep the current level of funding for Tennessee public schools in next year’s budget, even though student enrollment is generally down due to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the committee that annually reviews the state’s education funding formula approved its recommendations for the next fiscal year amid the coronavirus-induced recession.

While more funding toward teacher compensation and technology made the list, the No. 1 priority should be to maintain dollars for shrinking school communities that receive per-pupil funding from the state, said members of the Basic Education Program Review Committee.

They agreed that districts don’t need the threat of looming budget cuts when they already are struggling to cover the increased costs of schooling during a pandemic — from building improvements that enhance health and safety to additional staff to run both in-person and virtual programs.

The recommendations step up budget talks that are already in progress during a critical year as educators try to catch students up while keeping them safe during the public health emergency.

Although statewide enrollment data is still being compiled by the Tennessee education department, many districts have reported that significantly fewer students showed up during the first month of this academic year as COVID-19 disrupted schooling nationwide. In Memphis, for instance, the state’s largest school district experienced a 2% drop, its first enrollment dip since 2017. Nashville’s decline was even worse.

It’s uncertain how much maintaining state funding levels would cost under Tennessee’s so-called BEP formula for education. It’s also unclear if the state would be willing to pay for it when the legislature approves a 2021-22 budget next spring.

“This obviously has to be subject to what the funding looks like and what the General Assembly will agree to and any number of other things,” Nathan James, legislative director for the state Board of Education, told the committee. The 22-member panel includes members of the governor’s cabinet, chairs of the legislature’s education committees, state board leaders, and Tennessee’s comptroller of the treasury.

State tax revenues took a significant hit after the coronavirus emerged in March, but officials have been cautiously optimistic in recent months as growth began to actually outpace last year. Still, experts caution that the economy could tank again this winter when the number of COVID-19 cases is expected to rise.

That makes the committee’s recommendations aspirational — but important — as they’re submitted by next week to the governor, the state board, and both education committees of the legislature, in accordance with state law.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam heeded the panel’s recommendations when building several of his proposed budgets, resulting in hundreds of millions of new dollars toward teacher compensation, as well as first-time state funding for Tennessee’s 6-year-old program for identifying students with learning disabilities. This year in alignment with the committee’s top recommendation, Haslam’s successor championed a plan to boost teacher pay for 2020-21, but that budget item was deleted in June after the economy ground to a halt.

Gov. Lee and other state leaders say they still want to raise educator salaries.

The state now covers $48,330 toward each licensed teacher’s salary, compared with an average statewide salary of $55,630. That means local governments are taking up the slack by more than 15%.

Tennessee has gradually increased funding toward teacher pay since 2015-16, but still trails border states like Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina.

The state is defending its education funding formula in a major court battle that’s scheduled for trial in 2021 after five years of navigating through the legal system.

The litigation pits school districts in Memphis and Nashville against the state over whether Tennessee allocates enough money for K-12 education, especially for urban students. The trial’s outcome could have major implications for how Tennessee public schools are funded.

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