Tennessee Education Advocates Make Push for School Funding

A bipartisan commission has said Tennessee is underfunding public schools by $1.7 billion. Meanwhile, the state has a surplus for the current year of over $1.4 billion, and projections are that number will be over $2 billion by the end of the fiscal year. Additionally, state reserve funds are sitting at about $7.5 billion.

Of course, this means that Gov. Bill Lee is planning a big, new investment in a state funding formula that places Tennessee at 46th in the nation in school funding.

Actually, it doesn’t mean that. In fact, Lee recently announced his budget amendment for the 2021–22 fiscal year and it included no appreciable new funding for public schools.

Here’s what the Tennessee Education Association had to say about the proposal:

“With the state bringing in record surplus month after month, there is no excuse to not make significant increases to public education funding. The governor’s budget amendment is woefully short on meaningful K-12 investment.

Without sufficient state investment, school districts cannot afford the nurses, counselors, RTI specialists and social workers our students need. Without sufficient state investment, underpaid teachers will continue to spend hundreds of their own dollars on classroom resources.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) outlined the chronic problems with the BEP, indicating that “fully funding” the state formula would require an additional $1.7 billion in state funding. The current administration proposal is a little more than $200 million.

It is time for the state to do better. The money is there to get Tennessee out of the bottom 5 in state funding. There is no need to raise taxes, only a need to prioritize Tennessee students and public education.”

Lee is apparently not willing to move on the budget issue. Still, a group of education advocates billing itself as the Tennessee Public Education Coalition (TPEC) issued a response to the lackluster budget amendment:

Members of TPEC are deeply disappointed in Governor Lee’s failure to meet even the minimum funding needs of Tennessee’s schools, teachers, and students. Tennessee has long failed to adequately invest in its children. Tennessee ranks 46th nationally in education funding, and the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reports that Tennessee’s K-12 funding formula underfunds public schools by $1.7 billion per year.

Tennessee’s coffers are awash in excess revenue, and our schools’ needs are immense. Tennessee’s surplus for the current fiscal year, with over five months to go, is over $1.3 billion, with lawmakers expected to have at least $3.1 billion in excess revenue to budget in the current cycle. Tennessee also has $7.5 billion in cash reserves. Our children need excellent schools, and our teachers need adequate pay. Public schools need more resources- social workers, school nurses, counselors, and adequate support staff. With tax revenues exceeding state expenses by more than $2 billion per year and more than $7 billion cash reserves, there is no longer any excuse for failing to invest in our children.

Here are some comments from members of TPEC on the education budget:

Jerri Green, public school parent, Memphis:

“We love our school, our teachers and the other staff, but we hate that they underpaid and overworked. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars each year on basic supplies. This would not be necessary if the state supported our schools adequately. Governor Lee, please increase funding for our public schools.”

Peg Watkins, state & local education advocate for more than 30 years, speaking on behalf of the League of Women voters of Tennessee, Memphis:

“Underfunding our schools is not new. The BEP Review Committee has been pointing to these failures for years while Tennessee runs yearly surpluses. This year we are on track to run a $2 billion surplus. We call on the legislature to properly fund our schools.”

Candace Bannister, retired teacher, Knoxville:

“Gov. Lee is right that our school children have unmet mental health needs. Unfortunately, his budget provides none of the additional resources our schools need to hire enough school counselors, social workers, nurses and mental health professionals. We call on Gov. Lee to increase BEP funding for in-school mental health staff to meet the needs of our children.”

Amy Frogge– Former Nashville school board representative and Executive Director of Pastors for Tennessee Children:

“The lack of adequate school funding is especially hard on rural schools. In low-income, rural counties, students suffer from inadequate facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of opportunities that parents in more prosperous counties take for granted: art, music, and advanced classes, career and technical training, and after-school activities like sports and clubs. I saw this myself recently when I visited a Morgan County high school, which had no money for art and music classes. Students there also wanted to run track and play softball and soccer, but the school had no money for sports fields or a track. I urge Governor Lee to increase school funding so all children have opportunities for after school activities.”

Rev. Laura Becker, parent and pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga:

“And any public school parent can tell you that teachers are always begging for school supplies, such as Kleenex, paper, Clorox wipes, pencils, and more. Our church annually collects these items for our neighborhood school, because the state doesn’t provide adequate funding for them, and it is unjust to expect every family to be able to provide them. They really shouldn’t have to beg for basics in a state as prosperous as Tennessee. While adding no additional funds for public schools, Governor Lee is proposing $114 million in tax cuts. It is unconscionable to cut taxes while the needs of our school children go unmet. We call on the governor to adequately fund our public schools.”

Paula Treece– A public school parent, PTA leader and former school board member, Johnson City:

“The state has repeatedly failed to fund the numerous mandates it has placed on local school districts, forcing local taxpayers to bear a greater burden than necessary. Not only should the state fully fund all school mandates that it imposes, but it should also allow local school boards to decide how best to utilize the resources.”

The coalition joins groups like the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee who have also recently called on Gov. Lee and the General Assembly to make additional investments in schools.

It is not yet clear that any members of the majority party at the General Assembly will make any serious moves to improve K-12 funding in this year’s budget cycle.

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN

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