Despite bottom-ten K-12 funding, the state’s budget process tries to keep revenue from reaching our classrooms
Fighting for funding begins with debunking an estimate.
State officials and lawmakers often cite state rankings to highlight Tennessee schools as “the fastest improving in the nation.”
There is one state ranking lawmakers and state officials never cite: Tennessee is 45th in the nation for funding per student. It is the state’s only major education ranking in the bottom 10 states.
“Our education outcomes are at or better than the national average. It’s clear public schools are doing their part,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “State government is not doing their part to provide adequate funding. This is the year we need to change that equation and take a stand for the funding we deserve.”
Tennessee’s funding per student is so low the only bordering state investing less is Mississippi.
Tennessee is so far behind it would take $1.2 billion annually to reach the Southeast average. The good news is Tennessee has the revenue available to make a $1.2 billion investment in a few years without raising taxes. The bad news is the state follows a budget process that chronically underestimates revenue growth, thus withholding billions from classrooms.
For educators and parents, the revenue projections are where we need to fight.
For five years actual revenue growth was more than double state estimates, leaving $3 billion in surplus while public schools remain under-funded. While state K-12 funding did increase by $700 million over those years, had the state doubled K-12 investment to $1.4 billion, a substantial surplus would still have remained while also moving Tennessee schools out of the bottom 10 in funding.
Make no mistake, bottom-10 funding hurts students.
“It’s good our state is financially strong, but it is immoral to have massive surpluses while education needs go unmet,” said Brown. “Tennessee can be fiscally sound and make substantial investments in education. The low revenue estimates must stop. It hurts students and it starves our schools.”
There is already a problem with this year’s estimates. The State Funding Board, a panel of constitutional officers and the state finance director, recently approved a growth rate of between 2.7% and 3.1%, well below even the most pessimistic predictions by economists hired by the state.
It is the lowest rate since 2014, when the board predicted little to no growth. This led then-Gov. Haslam to eliminate a promised $50 million state teacher raise. Actual revenue grew 5% in 2014-2015, leading to a $552 million surplus while teachers got nothing.
The board also had to increase its growth estimate for 2019-2020, predicting a general fund surplus of $430 - $500 million. Even this upward revision may be far too low. First-quarter general fund growth was 8.1%, more than double the revised estimate, which could generate a surplus up to $900 million. Teachers got $72 million for salaries in this budget. It could have been $272 million.
“When teachers have to dig into their own pockets for classroom supplies and hold second and third jobs to make ends meet, seeing these kinds of surpluses makes me see red,” Brown said. “Knowing so many student needs go unmet just because someone lowballs a number for six straight years is unconscionable. We’ve seen this before and it’s time to fight.”
Small changes to the growth estimate can have a huge impact, with 1% generating $230 million. Had the funding board used state economists’ predictions and factored growth of the current year, a revenue growth rate of between 3.75% and 4.25% would be more realistic.
The funding board underestimated growth by 3% on average for five years. Tennessee schools missed out on billions in needed and deserved funding during that time.
It’s clear the funding board is trying again to set pessimistic growth estimates that will rob classrooms of investment. The General Assembly can adjust growth estimates, and the governor can revise them too. It is a question of will, or what kind of political pressure can be brought to bear by supporters of public education.
“We’re not pessimistic about our students, nor about the job teachers do,” said Brown. “We will, however, be more than pessimistic about the governor and lawmakers if they prefer to put money into reserves and fancy state buildings in Nashville rather than invest in our classrooms and students. We’ll be fighting mad.”
Remember, we’re only ahead of Mississippi in school funding. Tennessee is better than that.