‘Big deal investment’: Student funding would increase by $868 million under Democratic leader’s effort

Increased education funding key to competing with neighboring states, Sen. Yarbro says

NASHVILLE — Tennessee public schools would see an $868 million funding boost under a budget amendment introduced by Sen. Jeff Yarbro this week.

“This is the first year where a budget amendment of this size would even be possible because we usually don’t have recurring surpluses in the neighborhood that we have this year,” Sen. Yarbro said while presenting budget amendment 304 to the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 22. “We have to be realistic: it’s going to take an investment that’s eye popping for us to catch up to where we need to be.”

Currently, Tennessee is ranked 46th in the nation for student funding. That low investment is holding back our students, teachers and, ultimately, our economy, according to Sen. Yarbro (D-Nashville).

When student funding lags, schools can’t afford the resources and support that’s needed to help students achieve their potential. It also becomes harder to recruit and retain high-quality teachers to work at under-resourced schools.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville), Senate Democratic Caucus Leader

And the consequences go further, too: Good school districts play a critical role in recruiting business and supplying a skilled workforce. Underfunded schools have the opposite effect on a community.

In February, Gov. Bill Lee proposed adding $190.7 million to Tennessee’s $5.1 billion public school budget, known as the Basic Education Program or BEP.

Comparatively, also in February, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey proposed a $441 million increase to her state’s education budget.

Sen. Yarbro, the Democratic leader in the Tennessee Senate, says the Volunteer State is falling behind our neighbors on investing in students and fixing Tennessee’s broken school funding formula is key to strengthening our future.

Tennessee cannot compete with our neighboring states with anything less than a $868 million student funding increase.

“If I was trying to get Tennessee’s education spending up to the national average, this would be a $3.5 billion recurring request. If I was just trying to catch up with Kentucky, it would be a $2.5 billion request,” Sen. Yarbro said. “This is a number that catches us up with Alabama and maybe gets us out of the bottom 10 (in state per student funding).”

Republicans in the controlling party are quick to point out that education spending has increased over the decade their party has been in charge of school funding. But even as overall education spending has increased slightly each year, Yarbro says Tennessee’s student funding ranking is going backward.

“We end up running in place. We’re largely keeping up with inflation rather than making the big deal investment that we want to as a state,” Yarbro said.

In addition to Tennessee’s abysmal student funding rank, Tennessee teachers earn less today than they did a decade ago after accounting for inflation, according to the National Education Association’s 2020 Rankings report (page 46).

“At some point we have to make what is an uncomfortable investment for us if we’re going to actually provide for the teachers we’ve got,” Yarbro said.

The finance subcommittee took no action April 22.

Gov. Lee’s budget is expected to be heard in the Senate next week.

Fighting for everyday people in the Tennessee General Assembly

Fighting for everyday people in the Tennessee General Assembly