April 27, 2022, Nashville Scene by: Kelsey Beyeler
The newly proposed education funding formula passed the House and Senate floors Wednesday, just one day after passing each chamber’s finance committee.
The details of the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act — a funding formula set to replace the 30-year-old Basic Education Program — were introduced in late February. Ever since, lawmakers have been hashing out the details, adding amendments and clashing on how to best fund Tennessee’s students. Other education stakeholders, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, education nonprofits and parents, have also engaged in the statewide conversation.
Metro Nashville Public Schools district representatives have voiced their concern surrounding TISA — mainly that it doesn’t sufficiently fund Nashville’s students. The issue was addressed to some degree through an amendment that would allow for a cost differential factor, a mechanism that provides extra money to districts with high costs of living — like Davidson County, along with Williamson, Anderson and Shelby counties. While the CDF addresses districts with a higher cost of living, it wouldn’t be delivered through the TISA formula itself but through grants that are “subject to available appropriations.”
“We appreciate lawmakers acknowledging the need to provide additional funding for districts with higher operating costs,” said MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted after the initial amendment was adopted on Tuesday.
Speaking with the Scene last week, Braisted acknowledged other improvements that have been made to the formula throughout the process, like removing charter school students from the weighted formula (charter money is still included as direct funding from the state) and reducing MNPS’ local match burden. While the state provides funding for education, local districts are expected to contribute, or match that state funding. In districts like Davidson County, where a lot of state tax revenue is generated, that local match amount is higher than in smaller districts due to greater fiscal capacity. Under the new formula — and not accounting for any CDF grants that may come — TISA adds an additional $22 million to MNPS. “But that still represents about 2 percent of the billion-dollar investment that the state is proposing to make, and we have 8 percent of the student population,” says Braisted.
Even with the CDF addressed, there are still lingering concerns that Nashvillians and other lawmakers have with the TISA Act. The formula, which allocates money on a per-student basis, gives additional dollars to students with specific learning needs. These weighted factors include English learners, students with disabilities and those who are economically disadvantaged. Many folks, especially in Nashville, want to see a broader definition for which students would be defined as economically disadvantaged in the formula. Others have addressed concerns with transparency of the bill. Critics have questioned where the base amount of $6,860 per student came from. They’ve also expressed concern about the unfinished details that will be left to rule-making, and the speed at which the TISA Act has been introduced and moved through the legislature. Even if it’s adopted this year, the TISA Act won’t go into effect until the 2023-2024 school year, and some are asking, why rush it through now?
“There are not many things that we pass in this legislature that don’t need some sort of tweaking at some point,” said Rep. Patsy Hazlewood (R-Signal Mountain) in Tuesday’s House finance committee meeting. “So I think when we’re looking at a bill that is this large and this encompassing, obviously we’re probably gonna have to come back and make some tweaks and make some changes.”
There’s a lot of debate and discussion surrounding this bill because there’s a lot riding on it. It took 30 years and a statewide lawsuit to get lawmakers to overhaul the BEP, which districts across the county argued did not adequately fund education. (That litigation is currently on hold as the state awaits the fate of the TISA Act.) Some say the BEP wasn’t all that bad in the first place, just underfunded.
In this year’s State of the State address, Gov. Bill Lee announced his plan to add $1 billion to the state education budget, though some of that is conditional on passage of the TISA Act. As it currently stands, Tennessee ranks among the bottom 10 states when it comes to per-pupil funding, and as students still recover from pandemic-driven learning loss — on top of the poor literacy rates that existed before the pandemic — this is money that students desperately need.