As Tennessee's education pushes more school choice, parents are left wondering why the state is proposing a massive overhaul.
Apparently, Tennessee education hasn’t gotten the memo. School choice is the rage and parents throughout the state want it. Tired of the public-school education system, parents who approve of the reform want the ability to take their children, as well as their tax funds, to whatever school – private, public, charter, homeschool – they deem best for their children. So, why is Tennessee Governor Bill Lee proposing a mass overhaul to the state’s K-12 funding to the turn of $9 billion?
Governor Lee has been a strong proponent of school choice for parents. Lee has done more in that regard than any Tennessee governor in the state’s proud history by championing programs that support family school choice. So, his $9 billion proposals in support of Tennessee’s public education system have drawn confusion from both sides of the ledger.
“I think it’s important to address that,” Lee said to the AP News. “This public-school funding is not connected to choice issues. They’re two entirely different things and we need to make sure people understand that.” Lee’s administration first unveiled the Tennessee education funding overhaul this past October and then promptly went to work with town halls across the state grabbing important feedback from parents and teachers alike.
When Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn passed on an update to Governor Lee, she mentioned that the town halls produced concerns about school vouchers, although she didn’t get into any specifics. Still, that hasn’t calmed concerns. Officials across the state remain skeptical of Lee’s motives. Lee attempted to quell concerns by saying, “While I’m an advocate for school choice, I’m a strong advocate for public education and we need to fund our schools appropriately.”
So then, what exactly is Governor Lee’s proposal all about? How is he backing school choice and the growing voices who want it while also propping up the state’s public education system? Well, while Lee is a true advocate for Tennessee education school choice and parent rights, he also understands that the state’s public education needs a major retooling for the many families whose school choice isn’t an option.
What Governor Lee is proposing in his Tennessee education overhaul is a $6.6 billion base for per-pupil funding for the almost one million public school children. He is asking for additional support of $1.8 billion for students who require the most help. Adding to that amount, Lee is requesting another $376 million for programs meant to improve K-4 literacy. Those funds will also go toward strengthening technical and career education for the state’s older grades. Finally, Lee wants to set aside another $100 million as a reward for those schools whose students show success in learning to read as well as college and career readiness.
If Lee’s proposal is approved by the General Assembly, it would replace the antiquated 30-year-old Tennessee funding formula called the Basic Education Program (BEP). This new proposal is a student-based funding model while the state’s current BEP is pretty much a resource-based system that leans on enrollment numbers. Currently, the state’s BEP ranks 44th nationally with its education funding of $5.3 billion.
Governor Lee’s proposed Tennessee education base of $6.6 billion would allow for a per-pupil base of $6,860. After that, there would be additional monies available per pupil allowing for more support for students in certain groups. An extra 25% would be given to economically disadvantaged students. Those living in areas of concentrated poverty would get an additional 5%. Rural areas and small school district students would also get an additional 5%. Those with special learning needs would get an additional amount of 15% to 150%. This would be determined by 10 different categories and would allow for the cost of services. Finally, charter school students would see an additional 4%.
Lee’s Tennessee education funding will be “stackable.” This means that students could get extra funding for different needs. For example, a student who is getting funds for being economically disadvantaged will also be able to get funds for living in a rural area. If this student is also learning to speak English as their second language, they can get funds for that as well.
This proposal will also reward school districts that show growth. Additional per-pupil funds will be given out to districts whose enrollment shows a growth of more than 2% from the previous year’s numbers. If a district shows growth for three consecutive years, it will receive Tennessee education funding to help pay for infrastructure and building needs.
So, what happens with Tennessee’s school choice desire? Will this possible influx of funds into Tennessee’s education system change anything? While parents are concerned about public school facilities, their main beef stems more from the curriculum in public schools. The change most parents are wishing to see is the removal of critical race theory that has found a home across many school districts. They want to see a change to gender identity and how and when it is being discussed in classrooms. Will $9 billion be the answer?
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