The House unanimously passed a bill Monday to boost funding for K-12 public education in Tennessee, even as some lawmakers worried that the increase won’t reach enough schools or teachers’ paychecks.
The bill, part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan, would add more than $220 million for school technology, teacher salaries, and programs for English language learners during the next school year. It also codifies the funding formula used by the state for the last nine years.
The proposal is expected to pass the Senate on Wednesday.
While the magnitude of the spending increase is apparent, the impact on individual districts is unclear. The bill stipulates that the state cannot give districts less money for education than it did in the 2015-16 school year — unless school enrollment has declined, as it has in Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district, in Memphis.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis asked how and if the spending increase would buoy Shelby County Schools, which anticipates at least $50 million in budget cuts next year and has filed a lawsuit against the state for more funding. Rep. Mark White, also of Memphis, answered that he wasn’t sure of the exact dollar amount that would go to Shelby County, but that the proposed state budget could only help.
“Shelby County Schools will do much under this plan than if we did nothing,” White said.
It’s also unclear how much, or if, the spending boost will raise teacher salaries in urban districts.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville said he celebrates much of the bill, but dislikes the provision that keeps the state’s contributions to teacher salaries at 70 percent, rather than the 75 percent outlined under BEP 2.0, the Basic Education Program funding plan adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 but never fully funded due to the economic recession.
Clemmons said the governor’s spending plan doesn’t accommodate districts such as Metro Nashville Public Schools or Williamson County Schools, which already rely solely on local money to fund hundreds of teaching positions. He noted that rural and urban districts alike are pursuing legal action against the state for more money. Metro Nashville, the state’s second-largest district, is also weighing a lawsuit, depending on the outcome of the new spending plan.
“This is going to be the first governor who passes a bill that creates lawsuits from small schools and large school districts,” Clemons said, declaring the bill “BEP No.”
Although Haslam is proposing increased spending for teacher salaries by an unprecedented $178 million, not all teachers would see that boost in their paycheck. The bill stipulates that funds appropriated for instructional salaries and wages must be spent for that purpose if a district’s average salary is below the statewide salary. But districts where the salary exceeds the statewide average salary, such as Shelby County Schools, don’t have to spend the money on teacher salaries and instead can funnel it to other areas of need.
Districts that are losing student enrollment also are permitted to reduce teacher salary spendings while all other districts must at least maintain their current levels.
Shelby County Schools’ persistent loss of students also leaves the district without recourse for the bill’s eventual elimination of the cost differential factor, or the CDF, a bonus for districts with high costs of living.
The bill was amended by Rep. Charles Sargent of Brentwood to offset the CDF loss by ensuring that the state allots more money for growing districts such as Williamson County Schools. However, the amendment would not aid Shelby County Schools, which is not growing.
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