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K-12 Funding in Tennessee

March 8, 2010

I’ve been having a bit of a back and forth with Bruce Baker on his school finance blog, so I thought I’d post some excerpts as a precursor to a lengthier analysis of Tennessee’s K-12 funding structure coming (hopefully) later this week.  First, the bits of his post that started the discussion:

It’s not just that some of these states have mildly problematic policies from a critical academic perspective. Rather, these three states in particular have compiled a record of education policies – both on the fiscal input end and on the outcome, standards and accountability end which are outright disgraceful.

The only thing going for Tennessee’s education system – beyond its data quality – is the fact that funding is relatively equitable within the state (compared to many states). But, that’s only because everyone has next to nothing! Tennessee currently maintains the least well-funded, overall, education system in the nation after correcting for costs associated with a) poverty, b) economies of scale and sparsity and c) regional competitive wage variation.

And not only is Tennessee dead last in overall funding, but it is also dead last in the rigor of its testing standards, when compared against NAEP proficiency standards. So, can the data really be that good if the standards are so low? if the proficiency rates on state assessments are so high even though the state ranks near the bottom on NAEP proficiency?

So, Tennessee spends little and expects little, but measures it well! In addition, Tennessee’s low spending appears to be largely a function of lack of effort, not lack of wealth. Tennessee is 4th lowest in the nation on the percent of gross state product spent on schools. Further Tennessee has the largest income gap between children not in the public schools and children in the public schools.

Well, well.  Someone has jumped on us, not only for the usual (i.e. our really low standards), but also because of our funding.  Could it be that BEP 2.0 is not all that it’s cracked up to be?

Here was my original response:

You’re absolutely right that, up to now, Tennessee has had very low standards and that, though equitable, our funding is pretty low. HOWEVER, I think the main reason that we’re ranked so highly in the RTTT competition is the state level reforms we’ve taken, and the game plan we’ve proposed (even though I’ve complained about it to some extent). It’s not just that we have tons of data. It’s that we’re proposing to use that data to evaluate teachers. It’s not just that we have charters; it’s that we’re putting together a charter school incubator to make sure that any new charters that open are of extremely high quality. Charter schools in Tennessee aren’t just a “come and get it” proposition. Nashville’s Mayor, the Governor, and others are working hard to make sure that only high quality charters make it in. Memphis just put together a teacher effectiveness initiative that won highly coveted Gates Foundation money. Nashville is doing something similar. Hamilton County had the highly successful Benwood initiative. Knox County had TAP. We may have a bit of history against us, but Tennessee has shown a remarkable willingness to embrace reform in recent years and *especially* in the months leading up to the RTTT application.

Most commentators who talk about Tennessee assume that the only reason we’re in the mix is because of our data; I think it’s a lot more than that. We have a commitment to reform that’s been building in recent years demonstrated throughout the state. We have our Governor, *all* the candidates who are running for Governor this year, and the mayors of our biggest cities on board. There’s a lot more there than you think.

And Bruce Baker’s reply to my comment:

I have difficulty believing there is a true commitment to reform without any sign of investment in the public school system. Money certainly is not the only thing, but sufficient and equitable resources are a necessary underlying condition for legitimate reform. As long as Tennessee sits at the bottom of the pack in that regard – as well as sitting very low in the percent of gross state product spent on k-12 education, I remain doubtful of the state’s commitment.

My response:

Money isn’t everything. New Jersey has POURED money into Newark, and where has that gotten them? Nowhere. The high schools in Newark, Shabazz, Barringer, and Weequahic among them, are still turning out simply AWFUL HSPA scores.

Simply saying, “Bah — they don’t spend any money, so I’m writing them off” is ridiculous. In some cases, there may not be the money to spend. Per capita income in Tennessee is pretty low, and though I’m assuming that your spending analysis corrects for that (at some level), spending priorities weighted towards economic development (so as to raise per capita income and state revenues) could eventually benefit the educational system as well. The fact also remains that Tennessee is going after money right now. That’s what the Gates Foundation grant is about. That’s what the RTTT application is about. That’s what Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s “Education First” fund is about. Just because spending hasn’t been top-tier *in the past* doesn’t mean you can write off Tennessee for the future. Otherwise, you’re in a vicious cycle. If the criteria for giving out money is how much money you’ve already spent, then the high-spending states keep getting more, and the low-spending states never get the opportunity to inject increased resources into the system.


For all my (noble?) defense of Tennessee, the fact remains that Baker is, to large extent, right.  We might have a zazzy “2.0” system of funding, but given a broader context, we are way behind compared to other states (even adjusting for income/cost of living disparities) when it comes to funding our schools.  I hope that things are as I’ve described.  I hope the Gates money in Memphis and the RTTT money (if it comes) signal a new way of thinking about education in Tennessee.  I can’t help but remember, though, at the committee meetings when the First to the Top legislation was being considered, a lot of hand-wringing and speechifying about “unfunded mandates” and “continuing liabilities.”  The folks up on the hill don’t seem disposed to spend more money on education, even if many non-elected Tennesseans do (MTSU poll):

For example, more than half of Tennesseans think the state is spending too little on elementary and secondary education (65 percent)

There’s a lot of momentum for change in Tennessee right now, let’s just hope we don’t lose our gumption in the long run.

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