As district leaders across the state prepare for a new school year while submitting multiyear plans for spending federal education recovery resources, Tennesseans will soon get their best look yet at the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on student learning. Emerging indicators on academic achievement and attendance indicate the road to recovery will be long and that students who faced the starkest opportunity gaps during the pandemic will need greater support to accelerate their learning.

Federal recovery resources from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), with an average of about $3,800 per pupil going to school districts in Tennessee, can go a long way to leverage the ingenuity and tenacity of educators to better serve students. I hope we see strong adoption of proven practices like high-dosage tutoring, better implementation of extended learning like summer school and vacation academies, and innovative practices for precious in-person learning time. While the results may not be seen right away, I remain hopeful they will be seen when we reassess ESSER spending in a few years.

Despite a decade of student achievement improvement in Tennessee, there are inequities in our education system that predate the pandemic. As of 2019:

  1. Literacy Gaps: White students are more than twice as likely to achieve reading proficiency by third grade than Black students.
  2. Students Unprepared For College/Career: Economically disadvantaged students were about half as likely to achieve Ready Graduate status (a measure incorporating advance coursework and college and career readiness assessments) versus the state average.
  3. Diverse Learners Hard Hit With Inequitable Opportunity: English Learners and students with disabilities had college-going rates 27 percentage points below the state average.

In order for Tennessee to be among the best in the nation for education, we must address these gaps in opportunities and outcomes. Ensuring every student has the opportunity to receive an excellent public K-12 education means state leaders must invest resources beyond the one-time federal stimulus.

One way to assess Tennessee’s performance is via Education Week’s Quality Counts reports, which consider student achievement and school finance, among other factors.

  • Tennessee received an overall grade of C- , with a C in K-12 Achievement and a D+ in School Finance in 2020. This places Tennessee 39th in the nation in education.
  • The June 2021 Quality Counts report focused on school finance; Tennessee received an overall D+. Within this score, Tennessee earned an A for how it allocated education funding between districts serving higher and lower need student populations and an F on funding levels.

While policymakers, researchers, and educators often discuss the relationship between student outcomes and education resources, recent research shows that more resources can raise student performance — particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Recent studies on decades of school finance reforms highlight changes and connections between resources and student outcomes, providing an outline of what education finance systems should aspire to:

  • Sustained Funding: School finance reforms in 1970 and 1980 led to a 10 percent increase in per pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school, one-third of a year of additional education, 7 percent higher wages, and a 3.2 percentage point reduction in adult poverty.
  • Narrowed Opportunity Gaps: Post-1990 school finance reforms led to increased spending as well as increased test scores and narrowed achievement gaps.
  • Not All State Reforms Support Equitable Opportunity: A review of school finance reforms across 26 states found that while, on average, state reforms led to more spending in low-income districts vs. high-income districts, “10 states increased spending, two decreased spending, and 14 saw no change in spending” in low-income districts.

As we enter a window of unprecedented additional education resources, the state should answer two longer-term questions:

  • What is the vision for student learning and the outcomes we want for Tennessee students?
  • How can our education finance system help us meet those goals?

These answers should center on the needs of students who benefit most from an excellent and equitable education and will be essential if Tennessee is to continue on a path of improvement. Even more so if it elevates the needs of students who stand to benefit most from an excellent education.

Peter Tang is SCORE’s director of research.