Town hall on school funding: Memphiens want more money for special education, schools for disadvantaged people and counselors
October 29, 202
Holding back tears, Teresa Short described her struggles trying to help her son, a preschooler in need of special education services, catch up after school disruptions caused by COVID.
Their school district, Fayette County Schools in Somerville, was only able to offer summer school programs to children in Kindergarten to Grade 12, she said. The reason, he was told, was limited funding.
“So I had to go and find private schools that I could try to get him into, paying out of pocket to try to give him an education and catch him up to where he needs to be,” Short said.
Given the opportunity to vote on how Tennessee should approach its first overhaul of the school funding formula in 30 years, Short called for more money to be given to schools overall and in s ‘ensuring that a greater part is directed towards pupils in special education.
She joined a packed house of parents, students, educators, administrators, school board members and activists at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on Thursday for the second of eight city halls as the Education Department state is organizing to gather comments on the matter.
In remarks ahead of City Hall on Thursday, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn urged attendees and those who tune in via a live broadcast to make their voices heard as the state considers how it should fund public education.
“A great policy-making process has to include everyone. We’re all Tennessians, we all have a voice on this,” Schwinn said. “Every perspective and point of view should be counted and considered, no matter where you live, whatever your perspective.”
The Tennessee Schools Funding Formula is based on a complicated rubric of 46 items that determine how much state money is distributed to school systems to cover needs ranging from teacher salaries to textbooks, technology and transportation. by bus. Districts have flexibility on how to spend this money.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee is pushing to revamp the system to focus on funding individual students rather than school systems, which could force the state to do student-by-student calculations and make it easier to launch a voucher program for private schools in Tennessee.
The goal is to bring a proposal to the Tennessee General Assembly after it is convened in January.
Memphis City Hall intervened Thursday the same day that a national research group gave Tennessee low marks for the “unfair” way it funds schools.
The Education Law Center’s “Making the Grade 2021” report gave Tennessee failure scores for the level of funding of local and national schools per student and for its overall PK-12 education funding effort as a percentage of the economic activity of the state.
Tennessee has the seventh lowest level of per-student funding in the country, according to the report, with an average of $ 11,139, nearly $ 4,000 below the national average. And while the state’s fiscal capacity is below the national average, Tennessee is also making a below-average effort to fund schools, according to the report.
The Education Law Center also awarded Tennessee a “D” for the way it distributes school funds. On average, high poverty districts in the state receive 3% – or $ 389 – less per student than low poverty districts, according to the report.
Referring to this point in the report, Bob Nardo, executive director and founder of the Libertas School, argued in town hall on Thursday that the state’s new funding formula must provide dollars based on the individual needs of students. and must allow this money to follow them to school. of their choice as Libertas, a Montessori charter school that welcomes nearly 500 students in the Frayser district of Memphis.
With a high concentration of economically disadvantaged students who receive special education services, Nardo said Libertas needs additional funds to meet the needs of his students.
But according to the current Tennessee formula, “a disabled middle-class child has the same amount of funding as a child with cerebral palsy in a very poor school district,” Nardo said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Other attendees at Thursday’s town hall urged state lawmakers to exclude partisan politics from the school funding formula and simply provide more dollars to public schools for bare necessities like books, school supplies. and school buildings.
For more than 25 years, Peggy Watkins has said she “subsidized” schools by purchasing teacher classroom supplies not included in the budget, or books so that each student can have their own copy. It shouldn’t be, Watkins argued.
“Let’s use the money where it matters most – by investing in our future, our children,” she said.
Others referred to a recent spate of gun violence and children with gunshot wounds in Memphis, and said schools needed increased funding for counselors, social workers and school nurses. Some have also argued that teachers need more support in classrooms to better support the emotional and social well-being of students.
LaCanas Brandon, a teacher with the Millington Municipal School District, said she often felt ill-equipped to support students facing 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 advisor, the principal,” Brandon said. “Funding our schools is not successful if our children cannot be successful.”
This press release was produced by Chalkbeat Tennessee. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.