By TEA President Beth Brown — Did you know that the Tennessee General Assembly has a constitutional responsibility to fund public education? Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee State Constitution reads, “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.” The General Assembly shall provide. Shall. A small yet significant word.
Did you know that, since the 1980s, both rural and urban school districts have sued the state over funding inadequacies? In 1993, in Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that, “The constitution imposes upon the General Assembly the obligation to maintain and support a system of free public schools that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students.” Here we find another significant phrase: “substantially equal educational opportunities to all students.” As an English teacher, I am struck by the power of this language, and, quite honestly, am feeling the need to give some members of the General Assembly a vocabulary lesson.
Substantially: to a great or significant extent, considerably, significantly, greatly.
Equal: being the same in quantity, size, degree, or value; identical; uniform; equivalent; comparable; commensurate.
All: the whole quantity of a particular group, every single one of, everybody.
So, according to both the state constitution and case law, every single student in Tennessee should have equitable access to educational opportunities.
Did you know that this isn’t happening in Tennessee?
We have seen increases in educational funding over the last several years, but the proud claim that Tennessee is “fully funding the BEP” rings hollow to this educator’s ears. The BEP, or Basic Education Program, funds about 70% of what it takes to run a school system. Moreover, the monies that have been sent for education raises over the past several years have been gobbled up by unfunded mandates and the need to provide students with services and personnel not funded by the BEP, such as school nurses, school counselors, and instructional coaches. According to a 2019 report from the Tennessee Office of Research and Educational Accountability, educators in my district have seen a 0.3% raise since 2015. I get it. District leaders are having to make difficult decisions about how to fund our schools, and I’m not blaming them. But I am blaming the state. I see my students suffering when experienced and talented educators are leaving our district (or the profession entirely) to earn salaries that will better enable them to provide for their own families. I know how harmful that is to my students, though, because experience matters, and constant churn and instability in a school staff hurts student achievement.
It’s time for Tennessee to fulfill its constitutional obligation. It’s time that all students in Tennessee have equitable educational opportunities.
Did you know that you have an opportunity to let your voice be heard? Join me at the Rally for Our Schools on March 16, as we tell the General Assembly that it’s time to give Tennessee’s public schools the funding we deserve.