Bredesen proposes education funding overhaul

Hank Hayes • May 3, 2007 at 11:27 AM

Northeast Tennessee school systems that have claimed to be shortchanged by the BEP would see millions in new money if Bredesen's plan wins approval.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen promised no local school systems will be losers in the major education funding overhaul he submitted to lawmakers on Thursday.

"Everyone wins some," Bredesen said in a conference call with reporters about his plan to redo the state's Basic Education Program (BEP).

Bredesen said his $475 million plan - dubbed "BEP 2.0" - would receive at least half of its funding this year, with the remainder implemented as state finances allow.

Northeast Tennessee school systems that have claimed to be shortchanged by the BEP over the years would see millions in new money if Bredesen's plan wins approval.

For instance, Sullivan County would get an additional $5.9 million under Bredesen's BEP overhaul, with more than $3 million of that money going to Kingsport City Schools. Hawkins County would receive more than $4.1 million, while Washington County would get more than $3.6 million, according to figures supplied by the governor's communications office.

"My initial reaction is: We are thrilled with the bipartisan support shown by this recent announcement," Kingsport Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller said in an e-mail. "The additional funding will help Kingsport City Schools and many other systems across the state. As we understand it, the revised formula will provide about $1.6 million more than we would have received under last year's formula and in excess of $1 million more than we were anticipating in our budget planning for this year.

"We fully support Governor Bredesen's plan to overhaul the BEP and make historic investments in our schools."

Under Bredesen's proposed budget, about $280 million would be directed toward new education spending in the budget year beginning in July. That would include the education elements of his proposed 40-cents-per-pack increase in the state tax on cigarettes.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he is on board with Bredesen's proposal, but he noted the amount of the cigarette tax hike has yet to be worked out.

"I think in the end, it will help everyone. ... In the end, we will fund the full (BEP overhaul) plan," Ramsey said.

Bredesen's plan, pitched during a special Joint Convention of lawmakers, builds upon a proposal he presented earlier this year by allocating additional state money for school systems with high numbers of at-risk students and those with high growth in student populations.

The BEP overhaul intends to increase the state's portion of instructional salaries from the current 65 percent to 75 percent and raise the average teacher salary from $36,700 to $40,000.

State and local governments have shared K-12 education expenses since the BEP's creation in 1992 in response to court rulings claiming the state's old formula unconstitutionally deprived children in poorer counties of an adequate education.

A complicated county-level fiscal capacity model has been used to dole out BEP dollars, but Bredesen's plan calls for a new formula that would use a county's amount of assessed property and sales tax revenue to determine ability to pay.

The new BEP, he said, would be more fair and more defensible in court.

"It is my extreme desire to leave my successor with no lawsuits," Bredesen emphasized.

The plan also has an increased emphasis on accountability - including increased standards for student achievement, increased state involvement in the outcome of failing schools, and increased expectations on state colleges of education to turn out qualified teachers. In his remarks to lawmakers, Bredesen said Tennessee suffers from a lack of "truth in advertising" in reporting educational progress.

"When our eighth-grade students take the Tennessee tests in math, we tell 87 percent of them and their parents that they are ‘proficient,'" he said. "When our eighth-grade students take the national standards exam ... 21 percent of those same eighth-graders are graded as ‘proficient.' ... If our kids were just going to be competing with other kids, we could get away with this. But you know that's not the world these kids are going to live in."

Bredesen said a pay-for-performance component for teachers is not part of his BEP overhaul.

"I believe financial incentives are one of the tools you have to change behavior, but I did not put those on the table. ... They are one of the things we will continue to look at," he said.

For more about the plan go to www.tn.gov.

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