BEP Review - how it works and why we have to fix it

In early October, Governor Bill Lee and Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced a 90-day stakeholder review of the Basic Education Plan (BEP). The BEP is the funding mechanism used to finance Tennessee schools, and determines how much money each district and school gets for its operating costs. As it is currently constructed, the BEP is outdated and complex, resulting in unequal funding to schools and poor outcomes for Tennessee students. 

The stakeholder review will consist of 8 public forum events and the creation of 18 subcommittees, consisting of a variety of stakeholder organizations, advocates, parents and government officials, who will provide feedback and advice for the reform effort. As a stakeholder organization, Tennessee Disability Coalition has been invited to sit on the “Students with Disabilities and Gifted Students Subcommittee”. The schedule for the public forums and a list of the members of the review subcommittees can be found here

This review process is an overdue opportunity to critically examine a deficient public school funding mechanism and to reshape it to better serve all students, including students with disabilities. 

How the BEP currently works:

  • Schools are assigned a number of “positions” to be funded based on the enrollment and actual attendance of the school for the previous year
  • Each position is assigned a “salary unit cost,” or the amount that the state will provide to the district and school to pay for each position
    • In 2017, a teacher position was worth a little over $44,000
      • This price tag doesn’t account for variables in teacher salary - a teacher who has taught for 40 years likely earns more, and a new teacher likely earns less
      • This has implications for the quality of a school teaching staff - it incentivizes schools to hire teachers that are less experienced, and thus, less expensive
    • Other positions have similarly assigned “salary unit costs” - this includes special education assistants, behavioral interventionists, speech-language pathologists, counselors and social workers
  • Based on the previous year’s enrollment, the “salary unit costs” are added up and pooled into a pot that is then available to spend 
    • This means a school can determine that they want smaller class sizes and invest more of their pooled money into teachers (at the expense of other positions or investments)
  • The money is divided into 4 broad buckets for spending - instructional salaries, instructional benefits, classroom costs and non-classroom costs
  • Most local school districts supplement the BEP funding with local funds (through taxes, or other means)
    • In 2015-2016, the BEP funded 63,131 instructional staff across the state, but local districts collectively employed 73,848 instructional staff - meaning that local taxes paid for an additional 10,000 plus teachers
      • This indicates that the funding formula is not accurate for local school needs 

Why the BEP is a bad model for students with disabilities:

  • For the purposes of funding, the BEP assumes all students in each school are identical in need and identical in cost to educate.
    • This discounts disability, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, academic proficiency of the student body, geography and quality of instructional staff
    • Without accounting for more expensive needs in a given school, budgets are stretched thin to support the unique needs of students
    • This helps to explains why academic proficiency and educational attainment is lower in schools with a large population of students in poverty, high rates of special education services or many students for whom English is a second language, for example.
  • The BEP consistently underfunds education in the state because the formula is reactionary
    • The BEP formula does not anticipate nor account for the rising cost of education, instead determining a “salary cost” through opaque and hard to understand mechanisms.
    • The BEP formula does not account for changing student demographics and needs
      • For example, the BEP won’t account for learning loss and necessary remediation after multiple Covid-19 impacted school years.
      • This is why in 2021 the Governor’s special legislative session created and funded a patchwork of programs to account for these issues, rather than using the BEP.
  • The BEP has rarely been fully funded at its statutory intent
    • The Governor had to inject $70 million into his 2021 budget to ensure that schools could afford the student-teacher ratio mandated by the BEP itself
  • When schools are left to scramble to make funds work, they often make cuts to the most expensive programs - including special education
    • This leads to older, less effective curriculum, fewer classroom assistants, larger caseloads for school psychologists, social workers, counselors, etc.
    • Schools make fewer investments in individualized education, including assistive technology, smaller classrooms and caseloads and less educational and behavioral support.

How to fix the BEP:

  • In short, you can’t - the state has tried for years through a series of reactionary patches and fixes that have only perpetuated the problems of the BEP.
  • The state should replace the BEP with a weighted funding formula that accounts for the unique needs of given districts, schools, staff and students

Have questions or want to get involved? Contact: jeff_s@tndisability.org or 615-383-9442