Mayors from three of the four large metropolitan counties in Tennessee met with Gov. Bredesen to discuss the state's Basic Education Plan funding formula. They argue that their counties are being shortchanged:

Speaking after a meeting with Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey and mayors from Knox and Shelby counties, Gov. Bredesen said changes that the state's urban counties want in Tennessee's Basic Education Program formula would cost $150 million.

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Officials from the three counties and Metro Nashville have said for months that the BEP funding formula discriminates against them.

Hamilton County ranks last among Tennessee's 136 school districts in per-capita assistance from the state, according to state figures.

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A BEP review committee in 2005 recommended several changes in the formula, including allotting state money based on a school system's wealth rather than the county's wealth and eliminating a cost-of-living factor.

Hamilton County lawmakers have said they would work to make changes. However, Sen. Ward Crutchfield, D-Chattanooga, recently warned it would be difficult.

Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale said leaders in local government must work with the General Assembly to push for changes and continue to work with the governor.

If I'm not mistaken, Tennessee's BEP program was intended to provide a more fair and equitable allocation of state education funding that would benefit smaller/rural communities with smaller tax bases and fewer resources. It appears that the formulas may be working too well, however, and larger/urban counties are feeling the pinch as a result. The problem is compounded by the fact that urban school systems tend to have disproportionate numbers of at-risk and "low English proficiency" (i.e. immigrant) students.

I presume most states have similar programs. If I'm not mistaken, Georgia and Alabama both do. Here's a summary of Tennessee's BEP program:
 

  • The funds generated by the BEP are what the state has defined as sufficient to provide a basic level of education for Tennessee students. This basic level of funding includes both a state share of the BEP and a local share of the BEP.


  • The BEP has three major categories (instruction, classroom, and non-classroom), each made up of separate components related to the basic needs of students, teachers, and administrators within a school system.


  • Student enrollment (average daily membership) is the primary driver of funds generated by the BEP.


  • There are 45 BEP components most of which are based on student enrollment (ADM). For example, students per teacher, assistant principals per school, or dollars per student for textbooks.


  • Unit cost adjustments (salary, health benefits, insurance) are essential to maintaining a similar level of funding from year to year, due to inflation. For example, in 2006 over 100 million new state dollars were required to maintain full funding of the BEP.


  • The funds generated by the BEP are divided into state and local shares for each of the three major categories (instructional, classroom, non-classroom).


  • The state and local share for each school system is based on an equalization formula that is applied to the BEP. This equalization formula is the primary factor in determining how much of the BEP is supported by the state vs. the local district.


  • The equalization formula is driven primarily by property values and sales tax, applied at a county level. For example, the state and local equalization shares for County System A would be the exact same state and local shares for City System A, within the same county.


  • All local school systems are free to raise additional education dollars beyond the funds generated by the BEP.

(Curiously, the program does not address one of the great equalizers: teacher's salaries. The oversight committee, I believe in response to a lawsuit, has recommended that the formulas be updated to reduce disparity in teacher pay.)

In trying to understand the local issue (where there is a growing controversy about the level of state funding and how state v. local taxpayer dollars are spent on local education), I looked at Tennessee's most recent BEP Annual Report. It's probably the most Byzantine, complicated formula that could possibly have been devised. I don't know how anybody is able to figure out if they are getting their fair share or not. Which is why there is controversy, I suppose.

At any rate, the real problem here in the South is that no matter how you slice the pie there's just not enough to go around. According to the latest NEA reports, Southern states are more likely to be ranked in the bottom ten than the top ten in terms of education spending. The exceptions are Virginia, West Virginia, and Georgia, where per-pupil spending is above the national average. North Carolina is 40th, Alabama is 41st, Florida is 44th, Tennessee is 45th, Mississippi is 48th, and Arkansas is 49th.

But as I have said before, you get what you are willing to pay for. And Southern taxpayers are mostly for less spending and lower taxes, even at the expense of failing to provide basic, adequate education for our future generations.

OK, then.