Tennessee Has a $3Billion Surplus

Will it be invested in schools?

Over at Tennessee Education Report, I note that our state currently is projected to have a $3.1 billion surplus when lawmakers return to the General Assembly next week.

As the Sycamore Institute explains, this happened because of exceptionally conservative revenue estimates by the state’s Funding Board and because consumer spending in Tennessee didn’t drop as much as the rest of the country during COVID. Of course, our state revenue relies primarily on the sales tax and no matter what’s going on, people have to buy food (which is, yes, subject to sales tax).

Here’s what’s interesting: Our state funding board consistently underestimates revenue. We have billions (at least $5 billion by some projections) just sitting in reserves around the state. Then, we’re in a budget year where we are about to have more than $3 billion in extra money.

Still, I’ve yet to hear anyone in the state’s legislative leadership call for bold, new investments in public schools. Yes, a bipartisan group of policymakers has suggested that our school funding formula - the BEP - needs $1.7 billion just to be adequate. Still, Gov. Bill Lee has not come out and mentioned that he’ll be proposing using these surplus dollars to fund schools.

Tennessee’s teachers earn 27.3% less in income than comparably educated professionals. Many of them have already been teaching in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Gov. Lee and legislative leaders are pushing all districts to return to in-person learning before teachers are vaccinated. This despite thousands of teachers so far having contracted the virus and more than 10 dying from it.

When Gov. Lee had a chance to invest in teachers during the special session that just concluded, he chose not to, instead adding a paltry sum to paychecks for the remainder of this year.

Usually, I would suggest investing some small portion of the surplus in schools and then point out that EVEN if we invested up to a billion new dollars in schools, we’d still have 2 billion to spend elsewhere, for example.

But, here’s what I’m suggesting now. Every penny of this surplus should be invested in Tennessee public schools. Not in some voucher scheme the governor wants. $3.1 billion in investments in schools. That’s a boost of 10% or more in teacher pay, adding school nurses, funding school psychologists and social workers, ensuring broadband access, and more. The basic investment just to reach adequacy is $1.7 billion. Let’s not settle for adequate, let’s be truly bold. After all, EVEN with a $3.1 billion investment in schools, we’d still have billions and billions sitting in various other state reserves.

The question for Bill Lee and lawmakers now is: We’ve got the money, you can invest in schools without raising taxes one cent - what are you gonna do?