This piece was first published by The Tennessean.
Tennessee has a track record of making student-centered improvements in public education. Over the last 15 years, we’ve raised expectations for what students need to know, supported great teaching, prioritized early grades literacy, led the nation in our response to pandemic-related learning loss, and made it easier for more students to complete a postsecondary credential or degree that better prepares them for a job.
However, the way we fund K-12 education in Tennessee has not changed to match these higher expectations for students and loftier aspirations for public education. As data from Education Week’s Quality Counts report shows, Tennessee’s strong growth in student academic achievement over the last decade puts us solidly at the national average – a significant improvement from where we were just a dozen years ago – but we are funding students at a level that is among the lowest in the nation.
It is not just how much we invest that is the challenge. Times have changed since 1992 when the Tennessee’s current BEP funding formula was created, and the needs and challenges of students in 2022 require a different, more innovative, and more student-centered approach.
The opportunity to improve
Tennessee needs a new way of funding schools that better reflects our high academic expectations, ensures that students who need additional support actually get more state and local resources, and provides more transparency about education spending.
We believe the new K-12 education funding formula proposed by Governor Lee accomplishes these goals and has the potential to significantly improve outcomes for millions of Tennessee students.
The proposed Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) formula would increase recurring K-12 education funding by $1 billion and creates a strong, student-weighted funding approach that directs more resources to students with unique learning needs, students who are economically disadvantaged, and students living in communities that are rural or have concentrated poverty.
The plan also seeks to heighten college and career readiness, close the state’s long-existing academic achievement gaps, and update the way we determine how much a local community must invest in education.
More resources targeted at student need
Why does this proposal matter, and why does it matter now? Simply put, the majority of Tennessee students are not yet meeting the state’s high standards in English and math. And research shows that additional investment targeted specifically to support students with the highest needs can improve their academic and life outcomes.
Here are some examples of what TISA can do.
First, many Tennessee students have unique learning needs that require greater resources, resources that often aren’t accounted for in our current and outdated model.
The new TISA funding formula sets a base amount of funding for each student –$6,860 to be exact – and then provides additional funds (or weights) to educate students who are economically disadvantaged, have unique learning needs, are just learning English, live in rural communities with sparse populations, or in urban and rural areas with concentrated poverty.
Currently, low-income students generate about $1,000 in state and local funding. Under TISA, low-income students who attend a Title I eligible school would generate double that amount.
Second, while the current funding formula provides school counselors, it is at workloads too high to truly support all students, and it does not encourage innovative and proven approaches like embedding college and career advisors in every high school. The TISA proposal zeroes in and rewards college and career readiness and preparing students for the workforce.
And finally, while our public charter schools in Tennessee generally serve more students of color and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds than their traditional school peers, the current, outdated funding formula does not address the facilities needs of those schools or reflect the actual needs of the students that charter schools serve.
The new formula will help to provide a more sustainable source of funding so that great public charter schools – many of which are serving our highest-needs students in Nashville and Memphis – can continue to provide a strong option for families.
The time is now
We have a unique moment in time for Tennessee to take up the challenge of modernizing the way we fund education and increasing our investments in students to help them reach higher levels of academic and life success. We believe the time is now, and we are committed to working closely with the Tennessee General Assembly to advance Governor Lee’s proposal in the weeks ahead and see it put into law.
Tennessee has a history of stepping up and tackling tough challenges whenever we have the opportunity to help more students succeed. We have that moment in front of us once again.
David Mansouri is president and CEO of SCORE, a Tennessee native, and a graduate of Tennessee public schools.