Tennessee, Swimming in Cash, Refuses to Invest in Schools

Governor Plans to Continue Starving Schools

While Tennessee’s Department of Revenue reported a January surplus of nearly $400 million, Gov. Bill Lee is still stubbornly refusing to invest significant additional funds in public schools.

The announcement of the robust collection numbers comes on the heels of a report by the Sycamore Institute noting that state lawmakers have over $3 billion in “excess” revenue to use as they budget this year.

The total surplus so far this year is just over $1 billion.

It’s also worth noting that President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes $350 billion for state and local governments. This means Tennessee will likely see another injection of COVID cash. In the first round of COVID stimulus, the state received $2.36 billion. Assuming a similar infusion of a few billion dollars, the state will soon be swimming in cash.

With all this money floating around, one wonders why Lee proposed an underwhelming investment in public schools in his recent State of the State?

It’s especially interesting that Lee and legislative leaders apparently feel no sense of urgency around investing in schools when there’s a lawsuit over the adequacy of the state’s funding formula for schools set for trial in October of this year.

As I noted over at Tennessee Education Report:

[Tennessee] can add at least $2 billion to our investment in schools and do so without raising anyone’s taxes. In fact, doing so would likely help keep local property taxes down for some time to come.

It’s clear the BEP is inadequate. The state’s own bipartisan commission that studies issues like school funding says the formula is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

The Education Law Center notes that our state’s school funding has yet to recover from the 2008 recession. Had we kept up with prior funding levels and inflation, we’d have an additional $1 billion invested in schools right now.

So, Tennessee has billions and billions of dollars to spend and a school funding system that ranks 46th in the country and has landed lawmakers in court. Why isn’t there some big push to make an investment in schools?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Gov. Lee and those in legislative leadership don’t actually believe in public schools.

Lee is a long-time supporter of Tennessee Federation for Children, a project of Betsy DeVos that seeks privatization of schools:

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

The current crop of legislative leaders in the state was all-in with Lee in 2019 during a push for a voucher scheme that got the FBI involved and included hot chicken, sex, and cocaine.

It’s also important to look at the track record of those currently in power to see a pattern. The pattern is consistently weak investment in schools followed by incessant crowing about fully funding the BEP.

To be clear, when legislative leaders tell folks back home they “fully funded the BEP,” they are simply saying they put the minimum required funding into the formula. What they aren’t saying is that this formula still has a $1.7 billion hole plus a $1 billion inflationary gap. It’s like saying you made the minimum payment on your credit card bill while ignoring the 40 plus years it will take to pay off the balance if you only pay the minimum each month.

It’s also worth noting that when you “fully fund” the BEP, you’re leaving a lot of things out.

School nurses? Who needs those? Psychologists and counselors? Nope, not in Tennessee’s BEP. Enough teachers to actually staff schools? Wrong - the state comes up about 12,000 teachers short on that score. Providing districts with funds to pay teachers a competitive wage? Nope - we’re $500 million+ short on that one. In fact, Tennessee teachers earn roughly 30% less than comparably educated professionals.

So, when will the excuse-making stop? When will Lee and legislators be called out for the vast gulf between their rhetoric of support for public schools and the reality of starving school systems in budget after budget?

Let’s be clear: If there’s not a significant commitment to school funding in Tennessee this year, it’s simply not going to happen. Not with Bill Lee in charge, not with the current crop of legislative leadership.