State education officials are hearing from parents, teachers and even students as they work toward changing the way public schools are funded in Tennessee.

On Oct. 27, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn attended the first of eight planned town hall sessions over three months across Tennessee to hear the public’s comments on revamping the Basic Education Program (BEP), the funding formula for Tennessee schools. According to the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, the BEP funded public schools to the tune of nearly $4.9 billion for the 2019-20 school year.

“I think you heard today that people, especially parents and our families that came out, really want to ensure that dollars get as close to the student as possible,” Schwinn said. “I think having these conversations about a student-based formula means we are tying dollars to what the child’s needs are.

When you’re talking about student-based funding, it is saying, ‘Based on the needs of this child, the state will allocate this much money.’ That might mean more for students with disabilities, English learners, economically disadvantaged students.”

Earlier in October, Gov. Bill Lee announced plans for a full review of the BEP formula with an eye toward focusing on what he called a student-centered investment strategy. The state has set up a central steering committee that includes House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) and Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin). A number of subcommittees have also been set up to focus on specific areas of school funding.

“Republicans in the General Assembly are committed to building the best public education system in the nation. We have invested more than $2 billion in new education dollars since becoming a supermajority 10 years ago. That money is in addition to fully funding the BEP,” Lamberth said in an email.

“Re-examining how we fund education is the appropriate next step. It will help us determine if there are things in the BEP that are cumbersome or outdated that could be streamlined. Every child — no matter where they live — deserves well-equipped schools capable of preparing them for the best possible chance at a happy, successful future.”

“We are morally obligated to provide great classrooms, excellent teachers in a safe environment while maintaining equal opportunities for our students to excel. We have outstanding schools in Sumner County, but not every child in Tennessee has had the same access to resources like AP courses, classroom technology or broadband Internet,” Lamberth added.

The event was held at Merrol Hyde Magnet School in Hendersonville and included comments from parents, educators and school staff. In all, over 60 people were in attendance. Speakers included people from Sumner, Davidson, Rutherford, Robertson, Montgomery, Cheatham and Williamson counties.

Three areas of focus were the subject of comment by multiple speakers: more overall funding for public schools, allowing education funding to follow the child from one school to another and providing state funding to support staff, such as school counselors and nurses.

Increased overall funding was a point of emphasis for many of those who chose to speak.

“We need to provide equitable education to all of our students,” said Robert Taylor, a parent from Davidson County. “It’s very difficult to educate at a high level when we have some of the lowest funding per student in the country.”

“It’s important that the state take a close look at the districts and how much funding has actually been serving our students,” said Emily Masters, a member of the Davidson County Board of Education. “Many of our districts have been grossly underfunded.”

Vanessa Sheehan, of the Hendersonville League of Women Voters, said Tennessee ranked No. 45 out of the 50 states in funding per student. In 2019-20 Tennessee spent $9,978 per student compared to the national average of $13,597, she said.

“A Berkeley economist and two colleagues two weeks ago won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Their research concluded that students who attend schools with more funding earn more as adults…”

Kent Foreman of Williamson County echoed the need for increased school funding, saying, “The pie is just not big enough… We’re spending $77 per day to imprison people, and $53 per day to our students.”

The second area of focus, allowing state funding to follow the student, was discussed from multiple perspectives. While some in attendance called for voucher programs, others said keeping those funds in the public school system and allowing students to move within a district to a better-performing school or to another district was a better option.

“It brings accountability to the schools… being able to choose where your child is educated,” said Callie Cook, a member of the Freedom Fighting Collective, a Clarksville-based advocacy group.

“Competition makes us all better,” added Frank Napolitano of Hendersonville. “We need to be open to school choice, public funding following the student.”

“When funding follows students, it needs to follow them to public schools,” Masters countered.

“Public dollars should be used for public schools that are accountable to voters, not vouchers,” added parent Evelyn Hoyt.

Schwinn emphasized that allowing funding to “follow the child” did not necessarily refer to a voucher program for private schools, a topic that has become a contentious one in the General Assembly.

“Any conversation about vouchers would be a different piece of legislation. This is a conversation about funding our public schools in a way that will move academic achievement forward,” she said.

Funding for support staff, such as counselors, nurses and even psychologists, would be a radical change to the BEP, which does not currently fund such positions. But a number of speakers insisted that the state should address student needs that go beyond the classroom as part of a new funding formula.

“Schools are expected to be all things for all kids… We need school staff who are well trained and well compensated,” Lorelai Gould, a retired school counselor, said. “Public education is our cornerstone as a society, as a democracy.”

Mary Lynn Caperton, a retired teacher, added, “We have an extreme need for school counselors. Our kids are in need of a lot of support with social skills, coping skills. School counseling is academics, emotional skills and work/employment skills.”

The Department of Education will continue to solicit comments from the public regarding school funding. In addition to the remaining public town halls, Schwinn said Twitter town halls would be held twice monthly and comments can also be emailed to tnedu.funding@tn.gov.

“What I heard across the board is that everyone wants what’s best for kids,” Schwinn said. “What that’s going to look like is part of the development process. We want a bigger pie, not just a redistribution of the pie. Whether comments are emailed, tweeted, they are all going to be considered equally. We need to encourage as many voices as possible.”

Reach Chris Gregory at 615-450-5756 or cgregory@hartsvillevidette.com.

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