Urban lawmakers question cost of new education funding plan for Tennessee

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Posted at 6:03 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-19 19:31:46-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Gov. Bill Lee's new education funding plan promised cities a lower cost of education, but lawmakers representing the state's most urban areas aren't convinced.

With state leaders estimating the time left in the legislative session to be about two weeks, there are still a lot of priorities.

Besides the budget, the state will also try to pass the TISA — Tennessee Investment for Student Achievement — which will replace the Basic Education Program. It's the reorganization of the state's education funding system and was heard Tuesday in a House finance committee.

Advocates for the bill and the bill's primary sponsor Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, said this is an answer to the current funding formula they feel is outdated.

"We're not just going to allocate the money, we're focusing on that," said Rep. Lamberth in committee.

Criticisms of the past plan included chronic underfunding.

Supporters believe the student funded TISA plan is the answer.

However, some are skeptical of those promises to cities, especially in the state's largest cities.

"Their percent of what they pay in the formula is going to be higher than the majority of districts in the state," said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner about the cost split between the state and Davidson County. "Their bill is going to be lower because of how TISA works. We do not apply local share to the entire formula. So, they're going to receive more money and pay less locally."

Democrats who represent the most populated areas said they're not convinced it will always work that way.

Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, pointed out the base funding is actually lower than the funding for each student in Gov. Lee's plan from several years ago to provide students with vouchers for private schools.

The base amount for students is $6,860. The voucher plan had about $7,300 for each student.

"At it's basis, it's not even equivalent to something that's two or three years old," McKenzie said. "So, you think the cost of living and things like that. Specifically, you talk about extra money, there's more money to give. There's more money in state costs. Why not fully fund to deliver quality public education across the state?"

Opponents said the bill isn't ready to become law in the state, and there's no guarantee that urban districts won't pay a higher percentage of funds in the future.

The Governor's office emailed Tuesday out a list of more than 100 local leaders they said support the bill.

It includes groups like Cheatham County Schools and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

While the chamber said they support the idea of student funded education, in a blog posted on their website, the group cites some concerns with the bill. It said the chamber hopes lawmakers address the increased cost of living in urban areas, to name one of the concerns.