$1.5 Billion Investment Needed for Public School Students, Democratic Leaders Say
‘Broken BEP’ not fully funding teacher pay, essential education staff
NASHVILLE — Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly are dispelling the notion that public schools are “fully funded” and pushing for a $1.5 billion state investment to enhance teacher pay and increase the number of state-funded educators, nurses and social workers.
“Tennessee is 45th in the nation when it comes to public education funding for students. We’re next to last in the Southeast and we’re only beating Mississippi,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville. “This comes at time when the majority party is pushing even more aggressive privatization experiments with our public school tax dollars despite the fact that everyone inside public schools is pointing to systemic underfunding.”
Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) says the state funding mechanism for public schools, also known as the Basic Education Program, has created a “structural funding deficit” and new support is needed for the state to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a quality education to Tennessee’s one million public school students.
“The BEP funding formula is fundamentally broken and no longer reflects the realities facing our public school system. We spend a lot of time talking about how to divide the pie between small towns and bigger cities, between rural areas and suburbs, but the reality is there’s just not enough pie,” Yarbro said. “Local governments not only have to pay their share of the broken BEP, but they also have to make up the structural deficit that’s built into this outdated formula, which fails to account for current state policy and what’s best for our kids.
“Tennesseans deserve the governor and legislature to do better by their families,” Yarbro said.
Lawmakers said changes to the state’s funding structure are needed to protect past investments in student achievement and prevent further teacher departures, in addition to attracting new educators to the state. Democratic lawmakers will introduce legislation to focus on three general areas:
- boost teacher pay;
- increase the number of nurses and social workers in schools; and
- update student-to-staff ratios.
Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), a retired special education teacher with more than two decades of classroom experience, says lawmakers who claim Tennessee’s schools are “fully funded” are out of touch or ignoring the realities facing parents and teachers.
“Teachers all over the state, many of whom are working multiple jobs just to get by, are digging deep into their own pockets to provide students with essential school supplies,” Johnson said. “Districts are piling students into temporary schools and portable trailers, but they’re using them for years. Student achievement is stagnate or backsliding and now one out of three teachers say they’d leave education for a better paying job. This is not what ‘fully funded’ schools look like.”
Teachers are making less today than teachers earned 20 years ago and policymakers have not adapted fast enough to provide educators with the levels of staff support — like nurses and social workers — that they need to ensure students are ready and prepared to learn in every classroom experience, according to Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis.
“Our public schools have been underfunded and neglected for many years and taxpayers should be appalled,” Parkinson said. “Tennessee does not have failing public schools, we have a state government that has failed our schools, students, parents and educators by not providing the proper resources needed for them to win.”
Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis says this investment in public school students has the potential to “transform Tennessee” through workforce development, reductions in crime and poverty and boosted economic outcomes.
“It’s important that we get this right for the future of our state. We cannot continue to exist in a fantasy land where we say education is fully funded when we know that it’s not,” Akbari said. “Investing in students is investing in Tennessee’s future. When teachers have the resources they need to ensure every student graduates prepared to succeed, we’ll be recruiting companies to Tennessee, not because we have a low-pay workforce, but because we have a highly educated workforce.”