School Finance

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
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.

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.”


More than 1,000 Memphis school employees will get raise to $15 per hour

PHOTO: Katie Kull

About 1,200 Memphis school employees will see their wages increase to $15 per hour under a budget plan announced Tuesday evening.

The raises would would cost about $2.4 million, according to Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance.

The plan for Shelby County Schools, the city’s fifth largest employer, comes as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Memphis in 1968 to promote living wages.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson read from King’s speech to sanitation workers 50 years and two days ago as they were on strike for fair wages:

“Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life or our nation. They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation … And it is criminal to have people working on a full time basis and a full time job getting part time income.”

Hopson also cited a “striking” report that showed an increase in the percent of impoverished children in Shelby County. That report from the University of Memphis was commissioned by the National Civil Rights Museum to analyze poverty trends since King’s death.

“We think it’s very important because so many of our employees are actually parents of students in our district,” Hopson said.

The superintendent of Tennessee’s largest district frequently cites what he calls “suffocating poverty” for many of the students in Memphis public schools as a barrier to academic success.

Most of the employees currently making below $15 per hour are warehouse workers, teaching assistants, office assistants, and cafeteria workers, said Johnson.

The threshold of $15 per hour is what many advocates have pushed to increase the federal minimum wage. The living wage in Memphis, or amount that would enable families of one adult and one child to support themselves, is $21.90, according to a “living wage calculator” produced by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

Board members applauded the move Tuesday but urged Hopson to make sure those the district contracts out services to also pay their workers that same minimum wage.

“This is a bold step for us to move forward as a district,” said board chairwoman Shante Avant.

after parkland

Tennessee governor proposes $30 million for student safety plan

Gov. Bill Haslam is proposing spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, both in schools and on school buses.

Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday proposed spending an extra $30 million to improve student safety in Tennessee, joining the growing list of governors pushing similar actions after last month’s shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

But unlike other states focusing exclusively on safety inside of schools, Haslam wants some money to keep students safe on school buses too — a nod to several fatal accidents in recent years, including a 2016 crash that killed six elementary school students in Chattanooga.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and secure environment,” Haslam said in presenting his safety proposal in an amendment to his proposed budget.

The Republican governor only had about $84 million in mostly one-time funding to work with for extra needs this spring, and school safety received top priority. Haslam proposed $27 million for safety in schools and $3 million to help districts purchase new buses equipped with seat belts.

But exactly how the school safety money will be spent depends on recommendations from Haslam’s task force on the issue, which is expected to wind up its work on Thursday after three weeks of meetings. Possibilities include more law enforcement officers and mental health services in schools, as well as extra technology to secure school campuses better.

“We don’t have an exact description of how those dollars are going to be used. We just know it’s going to be a priority,” Haslam told reporters.

The governor acknowledged that $30 million is a modest investment given the scope of the need, and said he is open to a special legislative session on school safety. “I think it’s a critical enough issue,” he said, adding that he did not expect that to happen. (State lawmakers cannot begin campaigning for re-election this fall until completing their legislative work.)

Education spending already is increased in Haslam’s $37.5 billion spending plan unveiled in January, allocating an extra $212 million for K-12 schools and including $55 million for teacher pay raises. But Haslam promised to revisit the numbers — and specifically the issue of school safety — after a shooter killed 14 students and three faculty members on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida, triggering protests from students across America and calls for heightened security and stricter gun laws.

Haslam had been expected to roll out a school safety plan this spring, but his inclusion of bus safety was a surprise to many. Following fatal crashes in Hamilton and Knox counties in recent years, proposals to retrofit school buses with seat belts have repeatedly collapsed in the legislature under the weight the financial cost.

The new $3 million investment would help districts begin buying new buses with seat belts but would not address existing fleets.

“Is it the final solution on school bus seat belts? No, but it does [make a start],” Haslam said.

The governor presented his school spending plan on the same day that the House Civil Justice Committee advanced a controversial bill that would give districts the option of arming some trained teachers with handguns. The bill, which Haslam opposes, has amassed at least 45 co-sponsors in the House and now goes to the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.

“I just don’t think most teachers want to be armed,” Haslam told reporters, “and I don’t think most school boards are going to authorize them to be armed, and I don’t think most people are going to want to go through the training.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.