State Policy Network
Tennessee reforms education funding formula to ensure more money makes it to the classroom

Thanks to the Beacon Center, a nonpartisan policy organization, Tennessee reformed its education funding formula to prioritize teachers and students, not systems. The Tennessee Legislature passed the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA), a plan spearheaded by the Tennessee Governor which will allow more money to flow into classrooms.

Before we dive into Tennessee’s big win for students, teachers, and parents, let’s take a step back and review how states typically fund education.

Education funding 101

Public schools receive funding from a combination of federal, state, and local dollars. At the state level, each state has a method, or education funding formula, for determining how much money the schools in their state receive for education. There are different factors, such as school district size, that states use to determine how the money is allocated, and each state has a different process.

Tennessee has one of the most complicated education funding formulas in the country. The Volunteer State has 46 different factors that determine how much money a school district or student receives. Because this formula is so complex, it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Tennesseans to understand why a school generated the funding that it did or what the school used those funds for. It’s also very difficult for residents, and notably parents, to keep the school accountable for its academic results.

Beacon report spurs conversation on reforming Tennessee’s convoluted education formula

Improving Tennessee’s K-12 education system has long been a priority for the Beacon Center. Each year, Beacon analyzes how much the state spends per student on education, and how much money actually makes it into the classroom.

In the summer of 2021, Beacon, anticipating school funding reform might be a topic in the next legislative session, released an updated report that explains how Tennessee spends tax dollars on education. The report found that out of the 11 billion the state spends each year on education, just 53 percent of funding makes it to the classroom. The state spends the rest on administrative costs.

After reviewing this research from Beacon, the Tennessee Governor announced a campaign to look closely at the way Tennessee funds its education system and options for reform. The governor appointed a group of subcommittee chairman, including Beacon Center President and CEO Justin Owen, to offer recommendations on how to improve the system for Tennessee families. The committee sent their recommendations to the governor, who released his plan, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA), in January 2021.

The Beacon Center’s advocacy partner, Beacon Impact, endorsed TISA and worked with partners such as TennesseeCan and the American Federation for Children (AFC), to promote this important reform to communities across the state. Through earned media, social media channels, and other outreach, Beacon Impact reached thousands of people across the state. The state’s largest newspaper, The Tennessean, endorsed the legislation and encouraged lawmakers to adopt it.

In addition, thanks to Beacon Impact’s efforts, lawmakers received more than 150,000 emails in support of the reform. The bill received bipartisan support, and the Legislature passed TISA in May 2022.

Tennessee’s new funding formula will give schools more flexibility and help parents keep their schools accountable

Under TISA, every child in the state will receive a certain amount of money for education. How much money a child receives is based on various factors—including whether or not that child has special needs or needs to learn English. Tennessee’s Department of Education will provide school districts with the money in a lump sum, and those schools will have flexibility in how that money is spent. This will empower school leaders to have more control over the budget and how to best educate their students.

The new funding formula will also enable parents to access an online dashboard that shows how much money their child generated, how much money their public school generated, what their school is spending that money on, and what results the school is getting. With this information in hand, parents and taxpayers can hold their school leaders accountable if the school isn’t adequately educating students and setting them up for success.

SPN partners with Beacon to drive education reforms in Tennessee and other states

State Policy Network works alongside state think tanks like Beacon to help them advance reforms like these that improve education outcomes for families. During this campaign, SPN helped connect Beacon with national partners who study education funding and how that process works in other states. SPN also provided messaging support on how to effectively communicate this issue to lawmakers and the public. Beacon also credited SPN’s polling as particularly helpful in making the case that education reform was popular and sought after by most American families.

Additional Reading

Tennessee will now fund students, not systems
Beacon Center of Tennessee Blog Post

A Little Less Conversation… A Lot More Spending
Beacon Center research

Organization: State Policy Network