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For Tennessee’s students, proposed education funding formula makes the grade

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

The Tennessee Business Roundtable believes that TISA will measurably improve academic performance and post-secondary readiness for generations of Tennesseans.

David Pickler, Guest columnist


Tennessee’s nearly 33-year-old K-12 education funding formula, the Basic Education Program, deserves a “D” at best. Its outdated methodology cannot effectively support Tennessee’s public school students. Their academic gains have stalled in part because the BEP funds their schools neither adequately nor equitably.

Six months ago, Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn invited Tennesseans to participate in a full, open review of school funding. This produced the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement funding formula, a proposed replacement for the BEP. The Tennessee Business Roundtable believes that TISA, combined with a historic $1 billion proposed recurring increase in state education funding, will measurably improve academic performance and post-secondary readiness for generations of Tennesseans. In evaluating TISA, our member executives asked, “Will this improve student outcomes? Will this improve equity among all Tennessee students? Will this improve Tennessee’s workforce? Is now the right time for funding reform?” In every case, we concluded that the answer for TISA is yes. As business leaders, TISA’s approach to school funding makes a great deal of sense to us. It starts with three student success objectives: third-grade reading proficiency, post-secondary college and career readiness, and supporting the learning needs of every student. Then it rationally formulates the real costs of educating each student to achieve those objectives. TISA directly aligns school funding with student outcomes in a way the outdated BEP simply cannot.

TISA can advance educational equity

As a former school district leader, in TISA I see tremendous opportunity to advance educational equity. Every Tennessee student matters, no matter who they are or where they live. By applying funding weights to student characteristics requiring increased educational resources, TISA more accurately calculates the funding level each district truly requires to deliver an equitable education to all the students it serves — especially those starting from socioeconomic, ability, language or other disadvantages.

Well over half the jobs for which Tennessee employers will be hiring over the next decade will not require a bachelor’s degree. TISA will help equip more Tennessee students with the skills needed for these high-paying, high-demand occupations. It invests more state funding directly into career and technical education, and provides for new outcome-based rewards to schools for each student who attains a high-value industry certification. And TISA gives districts more funding to hire counselors to help students discover and optimize their academic and career paths earlier.

Formula holds local leaders accountable

Like the BEP, TISA is a funding formula, not a spending directive. As such, TISA preserves control over education spending levels and priorities by local elected and school district leaders — and their accountability to voters for those decisions. TISA doesn’t tell them how to spend education funds, but it does require them to set academic goals for that spending and then report the results down to the school level and publicly. TISA also creates brand-new state oversight mechanisms to improve accountability for school-funding decisions.

Thanks to decades of prudent, bipartisan fiscal stewardship, Tennessee’s strong and growing fiscal resources now provide a historic opportunity to multiply the positive impact of TISA’s reforms by investing $1 billion more annually in public education. At this defining moment for the future of education, TISA offers an “A” approach to funding the educational needs of succeeding generations of Tennesseans. Now is the time to implement this critical improvement. We urge lawmakers to enact TISA this session.


David Pickler, chair of the Education Council of the Tennessee Business Roundtable, is President and CEO of Pickler Wealth Advisors in Collierville, and is founder and executive director of the American Public Education Foundation.