School funding is an important way to unlock better, more equitable school experiences for children in our communities, but it is also one of the most complex and daunting elements of education policy, affecting every classroom, educator and community, with billions of dollars at play.
There have been efforts to improve our current funding formula, the Basic Education Program (BEP) over the past three decades, but the architecture has not changed in spite of the need to remedy its flaws in both its design and impact. We have a pivotal opportunity before us today to take advantage of our state’s strong financial health while addressing the very real issues of adequacy and equity in K-12 funding. We applaud Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn for undertaking a review of the BEP with communities and many stakeholders, and proposing an ambitious reform of our funding formula through the Tennessee Investment in Achievement, or TISA, while also committing to an additional $1 billion in recurring state funding for education.
The members of The TN Alliance for Equity in Education spent the last two years advocating for increased funding for all students in Tennessee, with a special focus on evening the playing field to address the unique needs of different students and communities throughout the state of Tennessee. Alliance members, alongside educators and other advocates, received training through the Dollars and Sense series and School Finance Institute. In addition, they hosted their own webinars and trainings for their networks, and created tailored fact sheets and research to inform their comments at Funding Town Halls, subcommittee discussions, and their feedback via written public comment to the Department of Education.
Throughout this process we remained true to our policy priorities, centering students, and advocating for what we know is necessary to meet their needs. We are encouraged by the ongoing debate about TISA in the Tennessee General Assembly, as well as the amendments proposed in education committees in both the House and the Senate.
Today, the undersigned members of the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education stand in support of the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement formula, which is currently under consideration in the Tennessee General Assembly as HB2143/SB2396. The proposed student-weighted formula is a marked improvement upon the Basic Education Program, and represents an important step forward in advancing equity and centering student needs in K-12 funding. TISA prioritizes student and district characteristics that often require additional funding in order to close gaps in achievement and opportunity. We are encouraged by the current TISA framework, but we also know that there are still ways to improve this formula.
The new formula is grounded in several key equity-centered questions that focus our attention on the most important financial considerations: Who are our students? What individual needs do they have in order to be successful? What will it cost to educate all students well?
Our TISA analysis is based on HB2143/SB2396’s original amendment, Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn’s press conference on Feb. 24, 2022, and recently passed amendments (House Amendment 16859 & Senate Amendment 16479). This analysis is designed to allow stakeholders to see how TISA measures up to our recommendations and provide additional context on each component of the formula.
TISA meets much of our criteria by offering:
- A generous recurring state education budget, paired with a simplified and student-focused way of calculating and distributing money to districts
- A calculation that begins with a base of $6,860 for every student, which is above the national median of approximately $6,000 in base funding per student in similarly structured formulas
- Generous funding supplements, expressed as “weights,” that are calculated to provide additional funding to public schools serving students with specific needs, including students from low-income backgrounds and those living in rural communities, and differentiated weighted funding for the varying needs of groups of English learners and students with disabilities
- “Stackable” weights, where students can qualify for funding for multiple student or community characteristics
- Increased transparency related to the expected local community contribution to schools through annual and accessible publication of the state’s calculation, underlying data, and each county’s measure of local wealth
Importantly, a large majority of K-12 funding (approx. 95%) is proposed to flow through the base and weights, ensuring that this new formula focuses on the financial needs of local schools, provides overall financial stability for school districts, offers greater transparency to school personnel and community members, and provides maximum spending flexibility for districts to meet each student’s unique needs.
We are also pleased to see recent analysis from the Sycamore Institute, which states that TISA is unlikely to increase local districts’ expected tax contributions on a statewide basis. In fact, according to this analysis every community throughout the state would be expected to contribute less local money toward public schools under TISA than they would under the existing mandates of the BEP and related rules.
Our Alliance members will continue to ask questions and make recommendations to improve TISA in the closing weeks of the General Assembly, and during the rulemaking process if TISA is signed into law. We are committed to continuing our ongoing engagement with policymakers to make sure that the diverse voices of our communities across the state are heard, and that their recommendations are considered at each level of decision making.
Ultimately, the best path forward for our nearly one million public school students is to create a state funding model that provides our parents, teachers, and school leaders with the ability to understand and leverage their local budgets and resources. And we believe that all of our efforts in education policy should center on meeting the unique educational needs and potential of every student throughout our state. While there is still much more work to be done, TISA is a significant step in this direction.
Respectfully, the following members of the TN Alliance for Equity in Education: