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Skeptics wonder if new K-12 funding ‘weights’ will hinder students with disabilities, aid vouchers

“This is a huge piece of legislation that will affect every child in this state and (our) future children,” state Rep. John Ray Clemmons (in a file photo) a Nashville attorney and Democrat, told his colleagues. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
“This is a huge piece of legislation that will affect every child in this state and (our) future children,” state Rep. John Ray Clemmons (in a file photo) a Nashville attorney and Democrat, told his colleagues. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

What do you get when you ask 99 legislators to add $1 billion to a new school funding formula, and divide it among 95 counties, 141 school districts, 70,000 educators, and a million K-12 students with unique characteristics and learning needs?

A plea for divine intervention.

”Dear Lord,” state Rep. Tandy Darby, a produce salesman and Republican from Greenfield, implored as he opened a recent House education committee meeting with a prayer. “Give us the wisdom, dear Lord, to advance this state where we know it needs to be, and just forgive us where we failed you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

Sectarian prayers at a government meeting notwithstanding, the General Assembly’s daunting task this session is more than a math problem.

Not only are they asking state taxpayers to add $1 billion in annual funding to K-12 public schools.

They also are replacing the  opens in a new windowBasic Education Program (BEP), the state’s uneven 30-year-old funding formula for K-12 public schools, with an untried new formula, the  opens in a new windowTennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA).

Those new dollars and changes, being delivered at Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s request, will affect every public-school student and teacher, as well as every taxpayer and community across Tennessee for years and maybe decades to come.

“This is one we can’t get wrong. A million students in Tennessee are depending on us to get this right,” state Rep. Scott Cepicky, a mortgage broker and Republican from Culleoka, told his colleagues earlier this month.

The legislation has made its way through the House and Senate education committees with a lot of discussion but minimal revisions.

The House and Senate finance committees are scheduled to take up the legislation this week. A final vote by both chambers is expected by the end of the month.

”There are a lot of questions still to be answered,” Cepicky said last week.

Those include:

  • Will the new “student-centered” TISA funding formula effectively “monetize” students?
  • Will it encourage or cause schools and districts to over-identify students with “unique learning needs”?
  • Will it clear a path for more charter schools and, eventually, private school vouchers?
  • Will it eventually and inevitably shift the K-12 funding burden from state to local governments?

“This is a huge piece of legislation that will affect every child in this state and (our) future children,” state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville attorney and Democrat, told his colleagues. “I don’t understand what the rush is. We don’t have to do this in a matter of weeks.”

“Are we passing a perfect piece of legislation?” replied state Sen. Mike Bell, a sales manager for a trucking firm and a Republican in Riceville. “No. But I believe we will see results in the investment we are making, and we can come back and fix whatever issues arise.”

Court ordered

The General Assembly established the BEP in 1992 to satisfy a court ruling.

In the late 1980s, 77 small, rural school districts sued the state, saying its funding of K-12 schools was inadequate and inequitable.

The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed and  opens in a new windowruled that the state had failed to provide “substantially equal educations for all students.”

The BEP has been modified over the years, but most school districts remain unsatisfied.

In 2015, Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, filed a lawsuit claiming that the state’s funding pie for public schools wasn’t big enough, and it wasn’t apportioned fairly.

The BEP “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” the lawsuit claims, especially for “a disproportionately high number of students who are minorities, have disabilities, and live in extreme poverty.”

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the suit in 2017, and 87 smaller districts joined in 2020.

A trial in the case has been  opens in a new windowdelayed several times, including last fall after Gov. Lee declared his intention to establish a new funding formula.

“K-12 funding is complicated, it’s bureaucratic,” Lee said last year. “Everyone recognizes that our BEP formula is one that few understand (and) many do not like.”

How complicated is the BEP?

Rep. Mark White
Rep. Mark White

“I’ve been a chairman in the education committee for nine years, and I still cannot explain (the BEP) to you,” state Rep. Mark White, a former private school principal from Memphis, told his colleagues earlier this month.

The BEP contains 120 items in 46 separate funding components with varying values and ratios that cover just about everything from teachers and administrators to maintenance and transportation.

TISA purports to simplify school funding by divvying it up into  opens in a new windowfour big “buckets”.

  • A base of $6,860 per student. That “covers the essentials each student needs for a K-12 education,” according to the state Department of Education. Cost: $6.6 billion.
  • Weights. Additional funding per student to cover the extra costs “for students with unique learning needs or who may need additional supports.” Cost: $1.8 billion.
  • Direct funding. State grants to cover special statewide programs and initiatives such as K-3 literacy, career and technical education (CTE), post-secondary assessments, such as ACT, and charter school facilities. Cost: About $400 million.
  • Outcomes: Per-student “bonuses” based on performance on third grade reading tests, ACT scores, and CTE credentials earned. Cost: $100 million.
Gov. Bill Lee is asking legislators to overhaul the state's funding formula for K-12 schools.
Gov. Bill Lee is asking legislators to overhaul the state’s funding formula for K-12 schools.

Fundamental change

Lee’s proposed new “student-based” formula does more than simplify funding. It would change the way the state’s public schools are funded in a fundamental way.

Under the BEP, state education funds are allocated to school districts based primarily on the overall number of students enrolled.

For example, the BEP provides funding for one regular teacher for every 20 K-3 students, one counselor for every 500 K-6 students, one special education teacher for every 8 to 91 special education students (based on learning needs), and so on.

It’s a “resource-based” approach to funding schools. More students = more state funding.

Under the TISA, state funding would be allocated per pupil, based on the basic and “unique” learning needs of each child.

But unlike the BEP, the TISA formula adds more funding to the base by calculating “weights” — based on a scale of additional learning challenges.

That’s the second “bucket” in the TISA formula. Each “weight” adds an additional amount of money to a student’s base.

For example, each student who attends school in a small district (1,000 or fewer students) would receive an extra $343 (5 percent) on top of the base $6,860.

So would each student in a sparse district (a county with less than 25 students per square mile).

There are two income-based weights.

Each student in a poor school (a school that receives Title 1 funds) would receive an additional $343.

And each student who is considered “economically disadvantaged” brings an additional $1,715 in funding. Those are students who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or other welfare programs, as well as homeless, foster, runaway, or migrant students.

The BEP includes an additional $866 for each “at-risk” student. TISA would almost double that.

There also are weights for 10 “unique learning needs.” That includes students with disabilities, English learners, gifted students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and students with characteristics of dyslexia.

Those weights would add $1,029 to $10,290 to a student’s base funding, depending on the type and severity of need.

Funding for those students was previously included in the BEP formula, which generates about $7,300 in funding overall per student.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said TISA’s “weighted” formula would likely generate $8,500 to $15,000 per student, with a rare but possible maximum of $34,500 per student.

“This formula generates more funding for students who need more supports,” Schwinn told legislators.

It also raises more questions and concerns, especially regarding students with disabilities.

TISA would add state funding for each K-12 student, based on a range of "unique learning needs."
TISA would add state funding for each K-12 student, based on a range of “unique learning needs.”

Most controversial aspect

The “weighted” bucket is the most complicated and potentially controversial aspect of TISA.

“I hope as we move forward that we be careful that we don’t end up monetizing our students,” David Connor, executive director of the  opens in a new windowTennessee County Services Association, told legislators earlier this month.

“That we be careful about the incentives we are creating to over-identify special education students, for example. People are going to try to game this system to get more funding.”

The  opens in a new window10 categories of “unique learning needs” seem especially vulnerable.

For example, a student with a disability who receives direct services for up to 14 hours a week will bring an additional $5,145 in TISA funding.

A student with a disability who receives direct services for 23 hours or more a week, or who is placed in a self-contained classroom or environment, will bring an additional $8,575.

That extra $3,430 could prove tempting for a school struggling to provide services to all its students.

“The construction of these weights as they are proposed incentivizes schools to choose a more restrictive environment for their students with disabilities,” Jeff Strand, coordinator of government and external affairs for the  opens in a new windowTennessee Disability Coalition, wrote in a letter to legislators and state education officials.

Strand says the TDC generally supports TISA.

“TISA certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s far better for kids with disabilities than the BEP or other bad reform options the state could have chosen,” Strand said.

The problem, he explained, is that TISA would categorize special education students by the number of service hours they receive and the setting in which they receive them, same as the BEP.

That “creates incentives for schools to over-identify and ‘over-place’ students with disabilities,” Strand said.

The Tennessee Alliance for Equity in Education raises the same concern in its  opens in a new windowanalysis of TISA:

“What specific auditing and monitoring procedures will the state use to ensure that students are not under or over-identified based on their identity? How will the state address any monetary incentives that places students in more restrictive environments?”

Both organizations recommend that the state use more sophisticated ways of identifying students with disabilities, such as IEPs and 504 plans for students with disabilities.

The Tennessee Disability Coalition explained its concerns about TISA in a letter to legislators.
The Tennessee Disability Coalition explained its concerns about TISA in a letter to legislators.

More concerns

The “weighted” formula has raised other concerns about TISA.

First, the formula would generate funding based on individual student needs. The state would add $750 million to the formula each year to cover the new “weighted” expenses.

But districts and schools would have full discretion over how they want to use those funds.

Commissioner Schwinn
Commissioner Schwinn

“Nothing in TISA directs a local district how it has to spend this money,” Cepicky noted in a recent House committee meeting. “The local district can take money that was allocated one way and spend it another way.”

“Yes,” Schwinn replied. TISA — like BEP — is “a funding plan, not a spending plan,” she explained. “We give you the funding to bake the cake, but you decide how to bake it.”

“But we don’t want to put new icing on an old cake,” state Rep. Harold Love, a Nashville pastor, replied.

Schwinn said districts will be held accountable for how TISA funds are spent.

The state Department of Education will require school districts to submit annual TISA reports detailing how funds were spent, and whether achievement goals were met.

The department — and presumably school boards and parents — will use the reports and the state’s school grading system to hold district administrators accountable for how and how well they use TISA funding.

”I deeply believe in the work that is happening in our school districts, and I deeply believe our superintendents are making the best decisions for our kids,” Schwinn said.

Jacob Sorrels, Marshall County’s director of schools, said he appreciates TISA’s flexibility.

“We could take the money for unique learning needs and spend it elsewhere, but that’s going to be a hard conversation with moms and dads,” he told legislators. “Give us the money to carry it out, and if we don’t allocate it the right way, it’s my fault so get rid of me.”

Strand, who represents the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said the extra funding for TISA looks good on paper.

“The additional funds from the administration will help fund more teachers and support staff, including those like school psychologists, social workers, counselors and therapists, that serve students with disabilities,” Strand explained. “But we just can’t say for certain that the money that the base and weights generate for a student with a disability would be used for that student.”

‘Backpack funding’

There’s a second concern about TISA’s weighted, student-centered approach to funding.

Student-centered funding is also called “backpack funding.” Funding follows the student, as if each student carries a backpack full of cash to school.

Advocates say “backpack funding” ensures that students get the resources they need wherever they attend school.

That form of funding also is more sensitive to student mobility. As many as one in four students change schools at least once during the year.

Under TISA, if a student moves in the middle of a school year, the funding follows the student to the new school.

Skeptics say that mobility also will make it easier for students to take their funding backpacks to public charter schools, and, eventually, to private schools.

The original version of TISA included the state’s $24 million charter school facilities fund as a “weight.”

After school superintendents complained that would require local governments to “share the cost” of charter schools, the item was moved into the state-only direct funding category.

“This so-called ‘student centered funding approach’ shows a clear motive of Gov. Lee and the supermajority Republicans that they have of privatizing our public schools and turning our tax dollars over to private schools and corporate-funded charter schools,” said Rev. Laura Becker, a Chattanooga pastor and member of  opens in a new windowPastors for Tennessee Children.

In 2019, Lee and the GOP-controlled General Assembly approved an education savings account.

The voucher scheme passed the House by a single vote, thanks to questionable “strong-arming” tactics by then-Speaker Glen Casada. Casada later resigned as speaker, and the FBI is investigating the vote.

Meanwhile, the voucher program is  opens in a new windowtied up in court because it would only apply to students in Shelby and Davidson counties.

Lee has rejected claims that a new state funding formula is intended to enable students to move to charters or private schools.

“While I’m an advocate for school choice, I’m a strong advocate for public education and we need to fund our schools appropriately,” Lee said.

But skeptics point to TISA’s strong resemblance to the “ opens in a new windowStudent-Centered Funding Act,” model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

ALEC is a political coalition of predominantly Republican state legislators, conservative philanthropies and private-sector businesses that drafts “model legislation” for state lawmakers.

In 2010, ALEC developed a “student-centered finance model based on a weighted student formula in which money ‘follows’ a child to his or her school.

Since 2010, 39 states have moved to student-centered K-12 funding models like TISA.

“A student-centered public school finance model also complements efforts to expand private-school choice,” ALEC explained.

In 2019, Lee’s Department of Education signed a $2.5 million contract with ClassWallet to manage the state’s Education Savings Account.

“ClassWallet is also a pioneer in the field of fintech for private school choice, providing a useful tool in the provision of options such as education savings accounts,” the Heritage Foundation noted in 2017.

Schwinn rejected the concerns.

“Is it the administration’s intent to promote school vouchers?” state Rep. David Byrd, a former high school coach, asked Schwinn in a recent committee meeting.

“No, sir,” Schwinn said.

“Is it the administration’s intent to let student-based funding follow students into private schools?” Byrd asked.

“No, sir, it is not.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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