Why Nashville would get a smaller funding increase than other urban school districts in Tennessee’s education finance reform
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Why Nashville would get a smaller funding increase than other urban school districts in Tennessee’s education finance reform

A central goal of Gov. Bill Lee's education funding reform is to reduce unfair funding gaps between school districts, so they can’t all receive an equal funding boost.

As more details emerge regarding Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s proposed K-12 education funding reform effort, some local stakeholders are expressing concerns that their school districts wouldn’t get their fair share of the new funding that the plan would make available for schools. For example, Nashville Mayor John Cooper said he was dismayed that Metro Nashville Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, would get a smaller funding increase compared to other urban school districts in the state. 

“While I’m appreciative of the state’s increased investment in education across Tennessee, I am dismayed that Nashville’s share of funding will decline under the new formula,” Mayor Cooper wrote in a tweet. “We are set to receive about $12.6 million in additional funding, far less than other cities in Tennessee.”

Mayor Cooper is right that Metro Nashville Public Schools wouldn’t see as many new dollars as other urban school districts under the governor’s proposal. A Fox 17 report found that Nashville would receive an additional $159 per student under the new plan while other urban school districts like Sevier County in the Knoxville area would receive an additional $676 per pupil and Memphis-Shelby would receive an additional $1,444 per pupil. But the truth is, the governor’s education funding proposal is fair to Nashville’s students.

In order to level what is currently an unfair playing field, state policymakers have to prioritize the school districts that have the field tilted against them. According to the most recent funding data published by the Tennessee Department of Education, Metro Nashville is one of the highest-funded school districts in Tennessee—and it’s not particularly close when compared to other urban school districts.

Metro Nashville Public Schools receives $14,109 in state and local revenues per pupil. By comparison, Memphis-Shelby County Schools receives $10,861 per student from state and local sources, Sevier County School District in the Knoxville Area gets $10,620 per student, and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga receives $9,641 per pupil. 

These significant funding differences can’t simply be attributed to Metro Nashville having higher shares of low-income students than other districts and cities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, Metro Nashville’s childhood poverty rate is 17.48 percent. Comparatively, Memphis-Shelby’s child poverty rate is 28.26 percent, Hamilton’s is 17.8 percent, and Sevier’s is 16.46 percent. (Scroll to the bottom of the page for a full list of each Tennessee school district’s poverty rate and state and local education revenue per student.)

Generally, when states want to reform their education funding systems to be more equitable and responsive to individual student needs, they must include a substantial increase in overall funding so that no school districts lose funds under the new formula. That’s the approach Tennessee is taking now, and it’s similar to the approach California used when reforming its education funding system in 2013.

But if a central goal of the education funding reform is to reduce unfair funding gaps that exist between school districts, they can’t all receive an equal funding boost. To improve the state’s learning outcomes, policymakers should prioritize getting funding to school districts that have greater student needs and have been getting shortchanged by existing funding systems for decades. 

If Gov. Lee’s funding proposal goes into effect, Metro Nashville Public Schools would still receive $12.6 million in new funding and remain the highest-funded school district compared to its urban peers. Nevertheless, Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Nashville Public Schools, criticized the new plan.

“As more details emerge about [the Lee administration’s] funding proposal, it appears that the second-largest school district in Tennessee, accounting for more than 8 percent of public school students, will receive less than 2 percent of the $750 million investment next year,” Battle said to Axios. 

Suppose Metro Nashville was able to get a greater share of the $1 billion in new funding over the next two years (the plan proposes $750 million next year and $250 million in 2024). Which school districts should lose some of their new funds so that Metro Nashville can get a bigger slice of the pie?

It would be tempting to say Shelby County School District should since its funding increase under the proposal is much larger than Metro Nashville’s. But that would be deeply unfair. Shelby has a much higher poverty rate and currently receives $3,428 less in state and local dollars per student compared to Metro Nashville. 

The Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement plan isn’t perfect, but it would take a big step in the right direction by making Tennessee’s K-12 funding system more student-centered. 

Education funding is not about individual school districts getting their fair share—it’s about all students getting their fair share. 

Tennessee School Districts’ Funding and Poverty Rates in the 2019-2020 School Year

District Name Per Pupil Revenue $(State + Local)District Poverty Rate
Newport City School District9,77147.90%
Oneida Special School District8,16941.10%
Bledsoe County School District10,44037.40%
Lake County School District11,13135.80%
Paris Special School District10,00535.60%
Rogersville City Schools9,55933.30%
Hancock County School District12,18133.20%
Scott County School District8,48030.30%
Cocke County School District8,66829.70%
Johnson County School District9,44129.60%
Elizabethton City School District9,86528.80%
Shelby County School District10,86128.30%
Sweetwater City School District8,66327.90%
Fayetteville City School District9,33227.70%
Sequatchie County School District9,00227.70%
Jackson-Madison County School System8,57827.40%
Campbell County School District8,20227.30%
Athens City Schools9,50827.20%
Humboldt City School District9,68927.10%
Dyersburg City School District9,99426.80%
Richard City Special School District10,63526.70%
Alamo City School District9,03026.10%
Clay County School District9,88825.90%
Union County School District7,94325.90%
Haywood County School District9,35925.70%
Carter County School District9,25025.60%
Etowah City School District8,88325.40%
Fentress County School District8,49725.30%
Morgan County School District9,07725.30%
Union City School District9,66225.30%
Dayton City Elementary School District8,52425.30%
Benton County School District10,97124.90%
Hollow Rock-Bruceton Special School District9,02624.80%
Perry County School District9,41124.70%
Grundy County School District9,17024.60%
Henry County School District10,06524.50%
Hardin County School District9,70124.40%
Hawkins County School District9,45924.30%
Bristol City School District10,84524.10%
Huntingdon Special School District8,67724.00%
Van Buren County School District10,21024.00%
Greeneville City School District11,04823.90%
Lauderdale County School District9,45023.50%
Lexington City School System9,64323.40%
Monroe County School District8,46323.40%
Hardeman County School District9,79323.20%
Kingsport City School District10,86523.00%
DeKalb County School District8,24222.70%
Clinton City School District10,52422.60%
Claiborne County School District9,59822.60%
Houston County School District9,11422.40%
Meigs County School District9,00722.30%
Jackson County School District10,08322.20%
Greene County School District8,89022.10%
Warren County School District9,40422.00%
Grainger County School District8,88121.60%
Anderson County School District10,36521.50%
West Carroll Special District9,13621.50%
Lewis County School District9,10621.40%
Tullahoma City School District10,77121.20%
Decatur County School District8,97421.20%
Manchester City School District11,15921.00%
Pickett County School District9,26821.00%
Bells City School District9,46920.80%
McKenzie Special School District8,47820.70%
Hickman County School District9,06020.60%
Polk County School District8,98020.50%
Millington Municipal School District10,73320.50%
Marion County School District8,42520.40%
White County School District8,11220.40%
Cumberland County School District8,12320.30%
McNairy County School District8,73620.20%
Weakley County School District8,59220.20%
Johnson City School District10,46320.10%
Roane County School District9,73120.00%
Smith County School District8,39420.00%
Unicoi County School District9,01819.70%
Trenton Special School District10,36219.60%
Wayne County School District9,57219.60%
Oak Ridge City School District12,92219.40%
South Carroll Special School District9,61419.40%
Lawrence County School District8,41719.40%
Crockett County School District8,32919.30%
Hamblen County School District9,58719.20%
Overton County School District8,49519.10%
Macon County School District8,34019.00%
Rhea County School District8,81119.00%
Bradford Special School District9,97218.90%
Marshall County School District8,40218.70%
Humphreys County School District8,55218.50%
Henderson County School District8,58118.40%
Sullivan County School District9,25218.40%
Giles County School District8,99718.20%
Cannon County School District9,10918.00%
Hamilton County School District9,64117.80%
Stewart County School District8,62717.80%
Bedford County School District7,73817.70%
Obion County School District9,15517.70%
Metropolitan Nashville Public School District14,10917.50%
Chester County School District8,23917.40%
Milan Special School District10,14517.30%
Franklin County School District9,21517.00%
Putnam County School District8,37717.00%
Jefferson County School District8,68616.90%
Coffee County School District9,30516.80%
Cleveland City School District9,05816.70%
McMinn County School District7,99716.70%
Sevier County School District10,62016.50%
Dyer County School District9,55216.20%
Trousdale County School District8,58516.20%
Lenoir City School District9,89815.80%
Clarksville-Montgomery County School System8,54315.20%
Lebanon Special School District9,99614.80%
Tipton County School District8,27814.70%
Washington County School District8,44114.70%
Lincoln County School District8,66714.50%
Fayette County School District8,83014.30%
Alcoa City School District10,75714.20%
Murfreesboro City School District10,35614.00%
Bradley County School District8,14413.40%
Dickson County School District9,02613.30%
Moore County School District10,68413.30%
Knox County School District8,72713.20%
Blount County School District9,72113.10%
Robertson County School District8,66812.70%
Lakeland School System District9,93511.80%
Loudon County School District9,66811.70%
Maury County School District8,67711.10%
Cheatham County School District8,33910.80%
Maryville City School District10,39710.60%
Sumner County School District9,11310.60%
Gibson County School District8,98910.50%
Rutherford County School District8,88310.20%
Bartlett City School District10,52710.10%
Wilson County School District8,1708.00%
Franklin Special School District17,6217.60%
Collierville School District9,8997.30%
Arlington Community School District9,2856.70%
Germantown Municipal School District11,0503.90%
Williamson County School District12,0392.80%
U.S. Census and 2020 Annual Statistical Report published by the Tennessee Department of Education