The 2024 legislative session should be interesting. While Governor Bill Lee has proposed universal vouchers, this issue will continue to garner attention and debate. The success or failure of the proposal will depend on the program design and how the polling questions are asked. Before getting into legislation, we need to review a few items for further context as we discuss the next steps in public education.
This summer, the state held hearings on federal funding in education. The intersection of federal requirements and existing state laws can create a complex landscape, especially in areas like education funding. States often rely on federal funding for various educational programs, but accepting such funding usually comes with strings attached, as it often requires adherence to specific federal mandates or guidelines. A report is expected to come out within the next few weeks and could potentially involve numerous legal implications and uncertainties.
The 2023-2024 school year brought a significant change in how schools are funded. The Basic Education Program (BEP) and Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) formulas differ in their approaches to funding allocation.
The BEP was focused on itemized resources used by schools and districts, adjusting the allocation based on student enrollment, while TISA factors in per-student funding considering not just enrollment but also the specific learning needs identified for each student. This distinction reflects a shift from a general resource allocation model to a more targeted approach addressing individual student requirements.
The state also rolled out letter grades for schools from the Tennessee Department of Education. The law to issue letter grades for schools passed in 2016 but it was only implemented this year. The timing of the release just before Christmas was criticized. Our concern is that schools labeled as failing will now struggle to attract teachers and administrators. It does emphasize achievement, but is it reflective of everything that should be included in what makes a good school? Parents will ultimately make that decision.
There were also significant updates and additions to school security measures during those legislative sessions in 2023. The additional state funding implies a commitment to bolstering security measures within schools. The enforcement of locked school doors, annual safety plans, and the establishment of threat assessment teams create a focus on proactive security strategies and risk assessment. There are new safety measures that emphasize preparedness and ensure that schools can handle potential security threats. This will be an ongoing challenge.
Investing in education facilities is critical for creating a better learning environment. Public school capital projects spending by local school districts and their governments totaled an estimated $2 billion in 2019-20. The need is much greater. Long-term debt, such as bonds, is commonly used to finance these projects, allowing institutions to spread the costs over time. This enables educational institutions to plan for expansions, renovations, and land acquisitions while responsibly managing their financial obligations. Most education facility costs are funded by local sources such as city and county governments, and schools themselves.
Managing the growth of school districts presents multifaceted challenges. In Middle Tennessee, the biggest challenge is to ensure that the district can effectively meet the needs of its growing student population while maintaining the quality and accessibility of education. Strategic planning, community engagement, and prudent financial management are integral to overcoming these obstacles. The state must monitor factors driving school capital spending increases, including changing educational needs, natural aging of buildings, and rising construction costs. Tennessee does not provide financial support for school capital construction.
Growing student enrollment puts pressure on school district resources, requiring more capital spending to build new schools or expand existing facilities. This expansion demands a considerable investment in capital, including land acquisition, construction materials, hiring additional staff, and furnishing new spaces with necessary equipment and resources. It remains to be seen if legislators will get creative and work to address the challenges faced by local governments when tax revenues are not keeping pace with infrastructure and service needs. State Representative David Hawk has been one legislator who has raised this issue at the Tennessee General Assembly.
We expect a busy legislative session at the Tennessee General Assembly. We look forward to working with legislators, policymakers, and other stakeholders to move our state forward in K-12 education. All Tennesseans, and state policymakers must frequently ask, “What kind of state or community do we want to live in, work in, and raise our family in? What kind of schools do we need to make this happen?”
Every citizen plays a crucial role in the realm of public education and our next steps. Education policy affects not just students and teachers but the entire community. Each person's voice and engagement in these matters can shape Tennessee's education direction and quality. Our policies must align with the needs and aspirations of the citizens of our state. Our success depends on creating educational policies that help students and educators thrive.
JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee