TN Department of Education town hall hears feedback on ‘student-focused’ education funding

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GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Tennessee Department of Education hosted a town hall in Greeneville Monday night hoping to get feedback on a new way to fund public education.

The town hall is one of eight hosted by the department across the state. They hoped to improve the state’s current funding model for state education dollars: the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

The state is exploring ways to create a new funding system that would take a student-focused approach.

Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn was in attendance and heard suggestions and questions from local education leaders and advocates.

“We’re getting so much great feedback from communities tonight,” Schwinn said. “They’re able to dream big with us and that’s great policy-making.”

The current BEP model sees Tennessee public schools get state funding through a formula that uses local sales tax revenue and property values to allocate funds at the county level.

The BEP has been in use for the last 30 years.

The formula creates a basic level of education for Tennessee students based on instruction, benefits, classroom and non-classroom, according to the state Board of Education website.

Critics said the BEP is too complicated, outdated and not focused enough on student outcomes.

“We need a funding model that is a student-based funding model, but it’s an equity-based student funding model,” South Central Elementary School Principal John McKinney told Schwinn during public comment.

Schwinn said a student-focused approach would allow school districts to get increased funding through an added percentage or weight based on their local needs.

“Every student again would get additional dollars for disability, a language, maybe K-2 if we want to focus on early reading, rural, urban,” Schwinn said. “That would allow for equity across.”

Schwinn said that approach would allow schools with a lower tax base to get adequate funding.

District leaders have maintained the current model leaves them underfunded, but it will be the state who has the final say.

State Rep. David Hawk (R–Greeneville) attended and said a change would have long-term implications for the state.

“An improvement to the BEP formula may be able to address the whole student to create a better learner in the long run,” Hawk said.

Schwinn said a core goal of a new model would be to generate better opportunities for students post-graduation.

Hawk said a better-educated workforce coming out of public school could attract better jobs and keep them in Tennessee.

“If we don’t have jobs for our 15-16 year olds right now, they’re going to be gone and we’re going to see the brain drain in Northeast Tennessee,” Hawk said.

Schwinn said if they stay in Tennessee, communities will be better off for it.

“Those are the people we want to make sure they are getting that great education,” Schwinn said. “They are able to support themselves and their families and really be a strong contributor to the State of Tennessee and good neighbors.”

Hawk said the General Assembly will evaluate a student-focused funding model at the next legislative session. He expects a report from the Department of Education on their findings from the series of town halls.

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