insights (2007-07)

Bredesen Shortchanges Knox Schools

Never before in anyone's memory has a Tennessee governor devoted virtually his entire state-of-the-state address to education as Gov. Phil Bredesen did last week. Bredesen certainly deserves commendation for making education his top priority as he begins his second term in office. Tennessee ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in everything from public school funding and student proficiency to college graduation rates. And all of these deficiencies need to be addressed.

I believe the governor has started in the right place with his emphasis on making pre-school available to every four-year-old in order to maximize their readiness to learn. He's also right on the mark in his call for "a top to bottom review of Tennessee's school curriculum to make it more specific, more rigorous and better aligned with what our children really need to succeed in college or the workplace." And his recommendation of a cigarette tax increase that would raise more than $200 million dedicated almost exclusively to education would put a meaningful amount of additional state funding behind his rhetoric.

Yet from my Knoxville vantage point, I'm deeply disappointed by the way the money would be allocated and by Bredesen's renunciation of any changes in the state's inequitable public school funding formula known as the BEP.

For going on two years, the governor has been acknowledging that the BEP formula disadvantages urban county school systems, and he's singled out Knox and Hamilton county schools in that regard. Their state funding of about $2,300 per student leaves them at the bottom of the totem pole among the state's 136 school systems, some $800 per student below the state average.

But Bredesen's recommended basis for allocating the additional funding derived from a tripling of cigarette taxes to 60 cents a pack would leave Knox County even worse off relative to others than is the case today. Under Bredesen's proposal, $120 million of the money would go to school systems based on their enrollments of "at-risk" students. Knox County has nearly 20,000 students who fit this definition--the third highest of any county in the state, and its total enrollment of around 53,000 students represents 5.7 percent of the state total of 933,000. Yet Knox's $3.3 million allocation of the additional at-risk funding is only 2.75 percent of the state total--hence, less than half of the amount that would be needed just to keep Knox county schools from being further disadvantaged. Equally disturbing is the fact that other urban county school systems--Davidson and Hamilton in particular--would get a higher proportion of their increased at-risk funding covered by the state than Knox. Under the workings of the BEP, all funding is divided into state and local shares based on county fiscal capacities (as measured primarily by property and sales tax bases per student). Thus Davidson, which has the highest fiscal capacity, would be expected to get the lowest percentage of its total funding from the state, and Hamilton and Knox, with similar fiscal capacities, would be expected to get similar percentages. Yet the allocations of additional funding distributed by the governor's office show Davidson and Hamilton getting almost two-thirds of their risk money covered by the state whereas Knox only gets about half ($3.3 million of $6.6 million, the balance of which would have to be funded locally). The state Department of Education lamely explains that the disparity is due to the fact that Davidson and Hamilton have higher proportions of at-risk students. But assuming each at-risk student warrants more money ($509.33 to be precise), this disparity further serves to illustrate the inequitable workings of the BEP.

Granted the $3.3 million bone that Bredesen has thrown us is the something that's better than nothing. And the $3.3 million local match isn't really an unfunded mandate because Knox County's total school budget of $332 million (of which $128 million comes from the state) already includes far more local dollars than the BEP requires. But Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who's crusaded for BEP revisions that would give Knox schools a better shake, had high hopes of getting at least $10 million in additional state funding.

In Bredesen's speech, he acknowledged that, "We all believe there are issues that need to be addressed in the BEP." But he went on to say that, "While there have been calls for a radical overhaul of the BEP, I don't think this wise... I believe--and the BEP Review Committee [of the state Board of Education] has independently come to the same conclusion--that it is a better strategy to build and improve what we have--to continuously identify specific needs and shortcomings, both urban and rural, and address them."  

Knox Sen. Jamie Woodson, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the BEP Review Committee, bristles at Bredesen's assertions. "We have to come to reality and realize that the BEP funding formula that served an important purpose 15 years ago is now woefully inadequate and in many areas creates inequities," she contends. Woodson is especially irked by Bredesen's claim that the BEP Review Committee agrees with him, which she emphatically states is not the case. And, she laments, "We're talking about $200 million in additional revenues with so little effort and direction... The governor has created a one-time opportunity to really look at how we can strategically invest in education, and to ignore it would irresponsible."

Still, the Legislature will be hard pressed to succeed where Bredesen has failed to rid the BEP of even its most glaring inequities. And the governor will be challenged just to keep the $200 million proceeds of his cigarette tax increase dedicated to education against legislative pressure to apply the revenues to reduction of the state's sales tax on groceries.