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600 public comments later, the state education department releases draft of a new funding formula

Commissioner Penny Schwinn speaks last fall at a school funding town hall in Chattanooga.
Commissioner Penny Schwinn speaks last fall at a school funding town hall in Chattanooga.

Tennessee’s legislative session is in full swing, and so are efforts to pass a new formula on how the state divides school dollars. The Tennessee Department of Education released a draft framework Tuesday night, with the opportunity to provide feedback through Jan. 18.

The initial model is based on months of public engagement. Along with eight in-person town halls, education officials held online forums, collected over 600 written comments, launched 18 subcommittees and enlisted hundreds of school funding ambassadors.

“We know this cannot just be about a funding formula in isolation, but about what funding can do to accelerate achievement for our students, ensure they have access to a high-quality education, and set them up for success after high school,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a statement.

Moving toward a student-based formula

Gov. Bill Lee has been determined to change the school funding from a resource to student-based formula. The current model, known as the Basic Education Program, consists of 46 components regarding salaries, benefits, classroom resources (like textbooks, classroom supplies and technology) and non-classroom resources (like school buses and maintenance costs.)

The framework generally relies on staffing ratios to distribute state aid. For example, the state will help local school districts fund one teacher for every 20 kids in grades K-3. Throughout the years, school leaders have found the model to be complicated, inequitable and inflexible.

In a student-based formula, districts would receive a minimum amount of state aid per student, plus additional funding to support students with unique needs. Some local school systems, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, already use a per-pupil model to distribute money to individual school.

The state’s proposed framework has four layers: the base, weights, direct funding and outcomes.

Here’s what you need to know:

The base

The “base” refers to resources that every student should be provided, at least in terms of state aid. The draft formula includes funding for educators, nurses, counselors, school-based supports, Response to Instruction and Intervention supports, technology, coordinated school health and room for district-specific needs.

At the first steering committee meeting, Schwinn said those recommendations were among the most commonly received feedback. What’s left to be determined is whether positions, like school nurses, will be funded at the nationally-recommended ratios.


On top of the general aid, the proposed formula assigns “weights” or additional dollars to students with higher needs, like economically disadvantaged students, English learners, students with disabilities, pupils in rural or sparse districts.

The framework tries to account for nuance. For instance, funding varies for students living in poverty and concentrated poverty — the rationale being that schools with a high concentration of economically disadvantaged students have more challenges to face.

The draft framework is also incorporating a tier system to better reflect each individual’s need and fund appropriately. Students with disabilities and English learners are allocated different amounts of funding depending on their severity of their needs.

Lastly, additional funding is included in the framework to support charter schools facilities.

Direct funding

Aside from student-specific funding, the proposed model gives extra aid to fast growing districts, like Williamson and Rutherford counties. School systems can also receive funding for high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring geared toward rising 4th graders and College, Career and Technical Education programs.

Some hope direct funding can expand to include more services. At a recent rural and small districts subcommittee meeting, members underscored a need to fund tutoring for all grade levels and early childhood programming.


The final layer of the draft outlines the possibility of bonuses based on student performance. Districts can earn additional funding for students who receive high ACT or SAT test scores, earn college credit through the Advanced Placement exam or complete their FAFSA application, among other outcomes. The formula would also award more aid to economically disadvantaged students.

The public can provide feedback through email to 

Juliana Kim is WPLN’s education reporter, focusing on equity and the achievement gap. Before joining WPLN News, Juliana was a reporting fellow at The New York Times, where she mainly covered the New York City school system through the lens of kids and families. Juliana is also a first-generation college graduate and New York native.
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