Tennessee’s New School Funding Formula: A Promising Opportunity for Education Equity
For 30 years, Tennessee’s public school funding formula, the Basic Education Program (BEP), remained virtually unchanged in its design and impact, and is noted by experts as one of the most opaque and complicated in the country. Beyond its complexity, the BEP is also considered among the most inadequate and underfunded state funding formulas, ranked most recently as 44th in the nation in per-pupil expenditures, a shortcoming disproportionately affecting low-income students and those of color.
However, the landmark passage of the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) during the General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session marks a critical turning point for public schools, with Governor Bill Lee reserving a historic additional $750 million in recurring funds in the FY23 state budget that will support the new student-weighted formula. TISA’s passage embodies the culmination of more than two years of advocacy by The Education Trust in Tennessee and many of our partners in the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education. Our research, analysis, and engagement led to collective action and helped drive public and political will to actualize meaningful school funding policy reform.
For education stakeholders in Southern policy and political contexts, the advocacy and engagement cycle influencing TISA provides a possible blueprint with important lessons on where we’ve been, where we stand, and the opportunities ahead.
Where We’ve Been: Coalition-Building and Making Education Dollars Make Sense
When Ed Trust opened an office in Tennessee in January 2020 – on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic – elected officials, education advocates, civil rights leaders, and practitioners alike recognized the need for drastic changes in how the BEP funds public schools. Despite a historic surplus and sizable state rainy day fund, reforming the antiquated school funding formula seemed out of reach to most Tennesseans. The state’s per-student funding expenditures – averaging $11,197, as of 2021 – are over $4,000 lower than the national average, and Tennessee’s share of its GDP dedicated to K-12 education lags behind national peers. Our two largest school districts, Memphis and Nashville, have been engaged in a lawsuit against the state since 2015 over the BEP’s inadequate funding levels. They were later joined by 84 smaller districts.
Tennessee’s history of insufficient funding, paired with equity gaps and unfinished learning exacerbated by COVID-19, pushed advocates like us, and partners of the Southern Education Foundation, into action. We established the Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education – now standing nearly 80 organizations strong, with hundreds of individual members – with a robust shared policy agenda that prioritizes improving school funding and resource equity. In March 2021, we launched the seven-part Dollars & Sense Learning Series, featuring national experts and curated readings on how school funding works, recommendations for improvement, and uplifting best practices from other states. Simultaneously, we facilitated the Tennessee School Finance Institute, a nine-month intensive program designed to equip advocates, organizers, and nonprofit leaders with the competencies to engage on key funding issues. Beginning last summer, we convened focus groups and polled over 1,000 Tennesseans on education issues through our TN25: Mapping Our Future Together campaign, culminating in a final report shared with policymakers and stakeholders that underscored the urgency of addressing funding gaps and increasing state education spending.
Through learning and engagement opportunities, Ed Trust TN and our Alliance partners expanded public understanding, deepened advocacy capacity, and sounded a clarion call to action for improving K-12 funding. Last October, the policy window opened as Governor Lee and Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn announced a statewide review of the BEP.
Where We Stand: The Politics of Policymaking and TISA’s Road to Passage
The Lee Administration’s statewide BEP engagement began last fall with 16 public town halls and 18 committees that examined a variety of funding topics. In response, we released a series of one-pagers, a glossary, and an advocacy guide posing key equity considerations. Alliance partners actively engaged, and also co-hosted a Nashville town hall bringing educators, students, and community leaders into conversation with Commissioner Schwinn and Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) officials to advocate for key funding priorities.
This January, the General Assembly gaveled into business, ushering in more opportunities for direct advocacy and legislator education. TDOE released a draft formula and our team submitted public comments and released our first TISA Analysis, engaging with aligned partners, legislators, and stakeholders. The Alliance also hosted a Day on the Hill in March as TISA bill language debuted, bringing advocates into contact with key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at an important juncture.
As TISA made its way through Republican-controlled committees and rounds of amendments, Ed Trust TN and Alliance partners disseminated updated resources, including a TISA evaluation tool and FAQ, to uplift key equity priorities in a conservative landscape and address outstanding questions. In April, Ed Trust TN and more than 40 Alliance partners authored a letter of support for TISA’s $6,860 base, $750 million earmarked in the state budget, stackable weights based on diverse student needs, and increased transparency and accountability. In our legislative session’s final days, TISA passed with bipartisan support – 63-24-1 in the House, 26-5 in the Senate – and was signed into law on May 2.
What Lies Ahead: Rulemaking, Implementation, and Opportunities for Change
With TISA signed, Tennessee advocates are now gearing up for the rulemaking and implementation phases. TDOE published draft TISA rules on June 6, kickstarting public comment and the State Board of Education review process. Ed Trust TN and the Alliance concurrently launched a rulemaking hub, including helpful tools to keep advocates informed of funding developments and advocacy actions taken throughout the process.
TDOE will host advisory groups, rulemaking hearings, and public comment periods as rulemaking continues. The Education Trust in Tennessee and our Alliance partners will continue to root our advocacy in research, actionable data, and best practices for the benefit of students of color, from low-income households, and other marginalized communities. As culture wars rage nationwide and debates regarding controversial school voucher and ESA programs loom over education conversations in Tennessee, we must keep our public schools and their needs front and center. TISA is a prime opportunity to set an example in the South by championing education investments of historic proportions – let’s do so in a way that drives equity and improves outcomes. We can’t let this momentous opportunity pass us by.