frank_talk (2006-51)

Fun with School Funding

How do you balance inner cities versus poor rural counties?

by Frank Cagle

Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale continues to campaign for changes in the state formula that distributes education funds. The Basic Education Plan allocates higher sums per pupil to smaller counties than the amount awarded to large metro school systems like Knox County, Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis.

Ragsdale has raised legitimate issues for large school systems. State Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, is chair of the Senate Education Committee, and one expects her and her committee to take a hard look at the funding formula. Gov. Phil Bredesen has heard from Big Four mayors and may be amenable to changes.

It is certainly true the large school systems get more than their share of students not accounted for in the BEP formula. It is the large school systems that contain housing projects, poor urban neighborhoods and special-needs children. It is also a fact of life that the parents of mentally- and physically-challenged children move to the cities because the poor rural systems cannot provide for their needs.

These are powerful arguments for the large systems, especially contrasted with suburban counties with healthy property tax bases and shopping malls. Williamson County, with the towns of Brentwood and Franklin just south of Nashville, is usually singled out as an example. But the issue is a little more complex.

The state Supreme Court has seemingly recognized, responding to the small school’s lawsuit, that there are problems with the way school funds are collected and dispersed. The difference between a decently funded rural school system and a poor one often comes down to Wal-Mart. Take Union County, for instance, where people collect paychecks and spend them, largely, in Knoxville. Outside of a couple of IGA supermarkets Grainger County lacks large sales tax generators. People in Grainger County drive down Rutledge Pike to Knoxville Center and other Knoxville businesses and spend their sales tax. They go to the Motor Mile and Parkside Drive and buy shiny new pickups and cars. They buy appliances at Lowe’s and Sears and Home Depot. The sales tax Knoxville accepts as the normal way of doing business doesn’t happen in these rural counties.

It has been suggested that sales tax for big ticket items return to the home county, but that doesn’t allow for the routine every day spending, and sales tax revenue, being collected in a neighboring county.

If you can come up with a funding formula that equally allocates money for big systems that have special problems, poor counties without a decent tax base and decide how much money a rich suburban county should get, I’m sure the various education committees would like to hear from you.

There are those who believe it would be best if all education monies were collected by the state and then sent back to the counties on a per pupil basis. When you go down that road you give up a measure of local control. You have the state making local funding decisions. There is also the issue of local governments that want to do more for education than others. Do you punish Oak Ridge for demanding higher education funding than Union County? Do you take money from Oak Ridge and send it to Maynardville? But the people in Maynardville are giving their sales tax to Knoxville.

There is an argument to be made that people vote with their feet. If your child’s education is important to you, do you choose to live on Norris Lake and send your child to the Union County school system? Or do you move to Oak Ridge or Halls? If you think it is better to buy cheap farm land in Union County and pay low property taxes as opposed to buying a place in Oak Ridge and paying higher property taxes to fund education, then haven’t you made a choice? Should we decide that you can live in a county with low taxes and cheap land and the state somehow owes your child the same level of educational opportunity as people in a place like Maryville or Oak Ridge, where people willingly pay higher taxes?

Should the courts and the legislature decide that people who choose to live in communities where people insist on high educational standards be made to fund education for counties where people choose to live where land is cheaper and taxes are lower? But if you grew up in that poor county, and it is your home, and your job doesn’t pay very well because you don’t have DOE facilities or the Knoxville economy to sustain you, doesn’t your child deserve a good education? Can we really progress as a state with poor counties turning out students that can’t get into the University of Tennessee, can’t get a good job and thus continue the cycle of poverty?

This next legislative session will feature a lot of committee work and a hard look at the BEP formula. It is not a simple matter.

Good luck Sen. Woodson.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .