TN college funding: Memphians need extra money for particular training, extra
Holding back the tears, Teresa Short described her struggles trying to help her son, a preschooler in need of special education, catch up after school disruptions caused by COVID.
Her school district, Fayette County Schools in Somerville, could only offer summer academic programs to children in K-12, she said. The reason, she was told, was the limited funding.
“So I had to find private schools to try to get him to and pay out of my pocket to try and get him an education and get him where he needs to be,” said Short.
Given the opportunity to ponder how Tennessee should approach its first school funding formula overhaul in 30 years, Short advocated giving more money to schools overall and ensuring more money is allocated to special education students.
She stepped into a crowded room with parents, students, educators, boards of directors, school board members and activists Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to visit the second of eight town halls the State Department of Education is hosting to collect contributions on the matter .
In remarks to City Hall on Thursday, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn encouraged attendees and those who tune in via live stream to make their voices heard as the state reviews how it should fund public education.
“A really good policy development process has to involve everyone. We are all Tenneseers, we all have a voice, ”said Schwinn. “Every single perspective and point of view should be counted and taken into account, no matter where you live, no matter from which perspective.”
Tennessee’s school funding formula is based on a complicated rubric with 46 components that determine how much government money is distributed to school systems to meet needs ranging from teacher salaries to textbooks, technology, and bus transportation. Districts have flexibility in how they spend that money.
Republican Governor Bill Lee is pushing for a revision of the system to emphasize individual student funding rather than school systems, which could force the state to bill students for students and make it easier for Tennessee to start a private school voucher program.
The goal is to propose a proposal to the Tennessee General Assembly when it is convened in January.
Memphis City Hall on Thursday came on the same day a national research group gave Tennessee bad marks for the “unfair” way it finances schools.
The Education Law Center’s Making the Grade 2021 report gave Tennessee poor marks for state and local school funding per student and for its overall efforts to fund PK-12 education as a percentage of state economy.
According to the report, Tennessee has the seventh lowest funding level per student in the country, averaging $ 11,139 – nearly $ 4,000 less than the national average. And while the state’s financial capacity is below the national average, Tennessee also makes sub-par efforts to fund schools, the report said.
The Education Law Center also gave Tennessee a “D” for the way it distributes school fees. On average, high-poverty counties in the state get 3% – or $ 389 – less per student than low-poverty counties, the report said.
Regarding this point in the report, Bob Nardo, executive director and founder of Libertas School, argued at City Hall on Thursday that the state’s new funding formula must provide dollars based on a student’s individual needs and that that money will follow them to school must be of choice like Libertas, a Montessori charter school that looks after nearly 500 students in the Frayser neighborhood of Memphis.
With a high concentration of students who are economically disadvantaged and receiving special education services, Libertas needs additional funding to meet its students’ needs, Nardo said.
But, according to Tennessee’s current formula, “a normally able middle-class child has the same financial resources as a child with cerebral palsy in a high-poverty school district,” Nardo said. “It is ridiculous.”
Other town hall attendees on Thursday urged state lawmakers to keep party-political measures out of the school funding formula and simply give public schools more dollars for essentials such as books, school supplies and school buildings.
Peggy Watkins said she had “subsidized” schools for over 25 years by buying off-budget materials for teachers’ classrooms or books so that each student could have their own copy. It shouldn’t be like that, argued Watkins.
“Let’s put the money where it matters most – invest in our future, in our children,” she said.
Others cited a recent spate of gun violence and children with gunshot wounds in Memphis, claiming schools need more funding for counselors, social workers and school nurses. Some also argued that teachers need more support in the classroom to better support students’ emotional and social wellbeing.
LaCanas Brandon, a teacher in the Millington urban school district, said she often feels unable to support students with so many personal challenges. Many, she said, struggle with the trauma of having parents in prison and being raised by grandparents, aunts, uncles or older siblings.
“There are resources they need that go deeper than just the teacher, the one counselor, the headmaster,” said Brandon. “The funding of our schools is not successful if our children cannot be successful.”