Tying School Funding to In-Person Learning: A Tale from Tennessee

Even as Tennessee’s COVID-19 numbers continue to surge, some leading lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee are considering using the state’s funding formula (BEP) to create incentives for districts to return to in-person learning sooner rather than later.

The Tennessee Lookout reports on House Education Committee Chair Mark White’s remarks regarding the creation of a “carrot-and-stick” system designed to push districts to send students back to school buildings.

“I think there will be some type of carrot-and-stick incentive to get students back in the classroom as quick as you can or at least a hybrid form of that if you’re not successful,” White said.

It’s not clear how such an incentive plan would work in practice. However, it could be as simple as providing additional BEP dollars to districts who make a commitment to in-person learning and actually bring students back to classrooms.

While some lawmakers are discussing legislation that would allow districts to maintain current BEP funding levels (a sort of hold harmless in light of students lost to alternative programs during the pandemic), there has not been serious discussion of BEP funding improvements.

A bipartisan state task force recently noted that Tennessee schools suffer from a $1.7 billion funding deficit due to the inadequacy of the BEP. In fact, a state court is scheduled to take up the issue of school funding in October of this year.

Tennessee’s schools have historically been underfunded, and currently sit at 45th in the nation in overall school funding. A national group that rates states on funding effort when compared with funding ability gives Tennessee an “F” in funding effort.

White has chaired the education committee for several years now and Lee is now entering his third budget cycle as Governor. Neither has made any serious effort to improve investment in our state’s public schools. Instead, both have relentlessly focused on a privatization agenda including pushing voucher schemes.

While Lee is seeking a new voucher program thanks to funding provided by the federal CARES Act, there is zero indication he will be pushing for the long-term, systemic changes to the BEP that would correct years of underfunding.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Originally published at http://tnedreport.com on January 11, 2021.

Writer and policy advocate living in Nashville, TN

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