Currently, many communities and local education agencies in America are being compelled to focus upon the issue of adequate school funding and both the State of Tennessee and Hamilton County are no exception. This can often be a polarizing and perplexing issue as funding structures, student/school necessities and budgetary constraints are just some of the considerations that have to be weighed by policymakers. Nevertheless, empirical evidence, data and research from across the nation is clear, there is a widespread and increasingly deepening failure to adequately fund our schools.
In a report produced by the Education Trust entitled, Funding Gap: An Analysis of School Funding Equity Across the U.S. and Within Each State, Morgan and Amerikaner (2018) contend that, "despite widespread attention to inequitable school funding formulas," and "courts that have declared them unlawful for shortchanging school districts serving large percentages of low-income students,'' schools that serve historically disadvantaged communities, often poor and minority, receive significantly less funding than more affluent districts. Nationally, highest poverty districts received on average 7 percent or nearly $1,000 less in per pupil funding. As it pertains to Tennessee, the highest poverty districts actually received $58 or 1 percent more than the lowest poverty districts, but when adjusted for the additional needs of low-income students, the highest poverty districts received 6 percent less or a shortfall of nearly $500.
Another national report, EdBuild’s 23 billion, is much more sobering because it suggests, “Nationally, predominantly white school districts get $23 billion more than their nonwhite peers, despite serving a similar number of children." It notes that historically education is subject to local control and as part of this concept communities elect officials who are held accountable and whose primary funding mechanism is local property taxes. While the concept of local control is by and large accepted by most, nevertheless the report makes the point that, "the financial reality is that a geographically arranged set of school districts creates uneven distribution of wealth, and the inherent interest of keeping the control of schools close to the community creates an inequitable tax base from which schools can be funded." Another important assertion conveyed is that despite the fact that nearly half of America's students reside in high poverty areas, this has not translated into an equal allocation of funding or elective representation reflective of the racial demographics. The report details that there are nearly 13,000 traditional public school systems in the nation that serve on average roughly 3,500 students respectively. In contrast, while high-poverty districts, often urban in nature, have on average 10,500 students, rural and less diverse districts serve nearly 1,500 students on average. Notwithstanding, important questions that have to be considered is do the number of students a district serves, the extra expenses associated with poverty, and equal political representation reflective of the demographics have a direct impact over school funding and policy decision making?
In the 2018 briefing report, Public Education Funding Inequity in an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights produced several key findings concerning funding inequity. First, despite numerous court rulings and legal precedents, vast funding inequities in state public education systems persist as illustrated by the fact that nearly 50 percent of Title I schools spent less on personnel per-pupil than their non-Title I counterparts. Secondly, low income students and students of color are often relegated to inferior school facilities that lack equitable access to teachers, instructional materials, technology and overall physical maintenance of buildings. Finally, location and economic status are often barriers to student opportunity and access to resources. Some of the recommendations suggested that would help alleviate some of these inequalities are that : (1) The federal government should incentivize states to adopt equitable public school finance systems that provide meaningful educational opportunity, promote student achievement for all students, and close achievement gaps where they exist; (2) incentivize states to ensure adequate funding for students with disabilities; (3) incentivize states to invest in facilities which can help to provide an equitable environment; (4) increase funding to supplement state funding with a goal to provide real opportunity on an equitable basis to all students; (5) promote accountability mechanisms aimed at measuring how funds were spent effectively and achieved positive student outcomes, and helped to close achievement and opportunity gaps. Finally, Congress should make clear that public education is a right, not a privilege, and all students should be provided the skills that are needed in order to be sustainable as we move towards a more technologically advanced and global economy.
Though Tennessee as a whole saw slight gains in overall state spending, a 2017 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities asserts that the last 10 years have been, “A Punishing Decade for School Funding." Citing data produced by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015, a key contention of this study is that 29 states were, "providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008." During the same time period in 19 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period in addition to cuts in other areas such as higher education, health care, and human services.
Alarmingly, local school districts eliminated 351,000 jobs and despite restoring many there are 135,000 less school district jobs than there were before the recession. Another effect of the Great Recession was the steep decline in the value of homes and as a consequence local property tax revenue, which is one of the major funding streams for local governments. As the report highlights, "after the recession hit at the end of 2007, property tax revenue growth nationally averaged only about 1.7 percent above inflation annually through 2016 ? far from enough to make up for declining state support and rising student enrollment."
Tennessee's primary funding mechanism for K-12 schools is the Basic Education Program. The state comptroller details that, "The BEP formula is also exceedingly complex, with 46 different components that generate funding and an equalization process that sets state and local shares of funding." During a 2019 webinar,"What is the Basic Education Program and How Does It Work?", the Tennessee School Boards Association elaborated on various aspects of the BEP. According to the presentation, instructional components such as teachers salaries and benefits are funded at 70 percent by the state and 30 percent locally; classroom components such as instructional materials are funded at 75 percent by the state and 25 percent locally; non-classroom components such as transportation and capital overlay are jointly shared at 50 percent. Student attendance, ADM, is one of the primary factors when it comes to measuring teaching and staffing positions that should be funded. This is then used to determine equalization, or a system's ability to pay locally, a system's fiscal capacity and other cost differentiated factors.
One who has written extensively on how the BEP is funded is Andy Spears of the online blog Tennessee Education Report. In one March 2019 article, it was asserted that per pupil spending has essentially been flat for the greater part of the last decade, teacher salary increases don't match the national average, and mandates such as Response to Intervention are underfunded if funded at all. Indeed, the Basic Education Program Review Committee noted that the State was underfunding education by more than $500 million in its 2014 annual report. This was strongly corroborated by the Comptroller Office of Research and Education Accountability which found over $300 million worth of budgetary shortfalls.
This in part served as the catalyst for Hamilton County and surrounding systems to file suit by alleging that the BEP, "failed to estimate accurately a local board of education's cost of insuring its teachers; failed to utilize the actual salary costs a local board of education incurs in employing its teachers; failed to provide the requisite 75 percent of classroom expenses set forth under Tennessee law; used too high a class size ratio in generating the number of BEP-funded instructional positions." The suit also asserts that the state, "failed to provide necessary costs associated with professional development and mentoring of teachers; failed to fund school nurses and technology coordinators; failed to provide adequate funding for teaching materials and supplies; failed to account for the increased use of technology within school systems; failed to account for the cost of inflation as related to a local board of education's technology costs; and failed to fund necessary positions associated with the increased use of technology.*
Striking a similar tone to Hamilton County, Metro Nashville and Shelby County Schools also filed suit against the state. Some of the major points of contention raised was a lack of adequate funding for disadvantaged students, conditions deriving from poverty and ELL related education. In it's legal brief Shelby County said, "Since the amendments to the BEP in 2007, not only has the state failed to implement its own funding statute but also the state has adopted increasingly rigorous academic standards for Tennessee’s students and accountability measures for local boards of education.”
Without question, the evidence is clear that there is a public school funding shortage in the state of Tennessee, and because of these unfunded or underfunded mandates, local education agencies must either find avenues to make up these shortfalls or bear the consequences of informing their respective communities they must do without or more with less. It's also important to remember the primary funding mechanisms for most communities, property taxes, have struggled to return for inflation adjusted pre-Great Recession levels. Other sources of revenue that are common are universal sales taxes, and so-called Sin taxes, those on alcohol, tobacco and other niche items not consumed by the community at large. There are also long-standing problems associated with underserved and impoverished communities that have went unaddressed by policy makers for too long. In the State of Tennessee, only 13 percent of the teachers are minorities. Forty of the 95 counties have a zero percentage of minority teachers. Special needs and minority students are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their peers. Reports indicate that school segregation is approaching 1960 levels. Buildings and infrastructure are rapidly deteriorating. The State has also been predisposed with keeping afloat a sinking Achievement School District, charter school expansion and implementing school vouchers, which all have detrimental effects on the availability of funding for public schools. While it is right to consider a property tax increase with the utmost scrutiny, in the face of mounting facts and evidence it is non-debatable if there is adequate funding of the public schools.
Unity Group of Chattanooga
Sherman E Matthews Jr., Chairman
Eric Atkins, Corresponding Secretary and editor
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Where’s the local relevance? I see several citations to national and state data and an unsupported conclusion that our local schools are underfunded because other systems in other places are. In fact, we’re near the top in the state on money per student, and well above the Georgia average too.
This tells us that waste rather than lack of funding is the issue. Maybe if we spent more in classrooms and less on social engineering, our test scores would be higher.
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Memphis spends $11,221 per student, fourth in the state and 25 percent more than the state average. The district is ranked #104 in all districts in the state. It appears their problem is not a lack of funding.
"What a terrible obstacle is truth when it stands in the way of a hypothesis."