Public Money, Private Schools: Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee
Plus, a teacher shortage crisis
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is an unapologetic champion of school privatization. While the Tennessee Supreme Court has delayed implementation of the voucher scheme Lee succeeded in passing in 2019, Lee has put on a full court press of other measures in order to bring privatization to the Volunteer State.
The latest effort comes by way of Lee attempting to “reform” the state’s school funding formula, known as the BEP. The move includes 18 subcommittees designed to make recommendations for revising the formula - even though Lee has indicated he has no plans to actually increase funding for schools.
On that note, the Tennessee Education Association suggests Lee’s efforts are missing the mark:
Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for what we invest per student. It is irresponsible and harmful to Tennessee children to continue the pattern of insufficient state investment in our schools, especially at a time when Tennessee has the largest revenue surpluses in state history. We can and must do better for our students.
Any review of the BEP funding formula must include more than recommendations on how to change the formula. Until the state makes a significant increase in public education funding to address many challenges plaguing our schools, updating a formula will not get us where we need to be to provide the high-quality public education Tennessee children deserve.”
Nashville education blogger TC Weber notes that the BEP is often studied, but never actually improved:
Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Nakia Towns puts it succinctly when pointing out that without a commitment from the governor and the legislature to put more money into funding education, “this whole conversation is without any real teeth.”
There is no need for further study, but Bill Lee insists on acting in a manner not dissimilar to my children’s behavior. If you don’t like what Mom says, go try to engage Dad. If that doesn’t work, try asking the question with different wording. Likely to work out as well for him as it does for them.
J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee embraces Lee’s promise of including more voices, but with a caveat,
“If we want different outcomes, we need different voices in the room. I hope there is an honest attempt to let people truly express their opinions, and that the outcome is not already decided,” he said. “This cannot be an exercise in futility. We need to address some giant issues.”
Lee has tipped his hand a bit by suggesting the new formula will be “student-centered” - that money will follow kids. This is exactly the type of rhetoric used by voucher advocates who suggest we should fund “students not systems.” Student-centered funding is also an approach pushed by privatization advocates over at ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).
If Lee were serious about improving public schools, his major announcement around the BEP would have included his commitment to a way to make up for the $1.7 billion shortfall in Tennessee’s current school funding.
Meanwhile, a Pro-Privatization PAC Ramps Up
Just as Gov. Lee is moving forward with his funding formula privatization scheme, a political action committee allied with Lee’s interests is ramping up activity. Team Kid PAC is now on the scene and sure to be a player in the 2022 elections.
Team Kid PAC is the political arm of Tennesseans for Student Success - a supposedly pro-schools nonprofit that is heavily involved in legislative and political advocacy with an aim toward school privatization. Plus, the group has close ties to the payday lending industry.
Finally, the Teacher Shortage Crisis is Here
I mean, we don’t actually want a teacher shortage crisis. But, for those who have been warning about it for some time, the moment may finally be here. Policy makers are actually making some noise about a crisis years in the making. One that was entirely predictable.
Few are suggesting one key solution: Raise teacher pay substantially. Yes, adjusting responsibilities and providing a more welcoming work environment are also important. But, it is long past time to pay teachers significantly more. Tennessee has a $2 billion surplus from the recently-concluded fiscal year. We could fully close the teacher wage gap (a raise of about 20% for most teachers) and still have plenty of cash left over without raising taxes one dime.
More notes on funding and privatization: