In one giant wave of pandemic relief funding, Tennessee is about to get a massive influx of money for schools. More than $4 billion must be spent on K-12 education over the next several years.
Beyond addressing last year’s instructional losses, some hope the injection of money will fuel lasting improvements in a state that has long struggled to meet the national averages for test scores and graduation rates.
To take a closer look at how that money might be spent, WPLN’s Nina Cardona talked with Marta W. Aldrich, chief statehouse correspondent for Chalkbeat.
So this pandemic funding amounts to $1 billion a year, which is one of those numbers big enough to feel totally abstract at first. So let’s put that into context. Right now, the state spends about $6 billion each year on education. Where do you think the biggest long-term impact will be?
Well, it is an unprecedented stream of federal money coming to Tennessee, more than $4 billion dollars for K-12 ed. That’s over and above current funding levels being maintained here. So this is all gravy.
Just to give you an idea of how big this is: it’s more than eight times what Tennessee got after winning the federal Race to the Top award in 2010 under Gov. [Phil] Bredesen and President Obama. That was a huge pot of money. But this pandemic relief package dwarfs Race to the Top.
As for the long term impact, that’s the $4 billion dollar question. How this money will be spent will become part of the legacy of this pandemic. It’s being distributed in a way that closely tracks to poverty. So high-poverty school districts will get the larger shares, but it can’t help address long-standing challenges in Tennessee like teacher pay. This is one-time money and can’t be used for recurring expenses.
So what type of spending do you think they’ll be doing with this?
Well, by law, 20% of the most recent package has to go to programs like summer school and tutoring designed to catch up any kids who have fallen behind. The rest is to pay for other pandemic related needs. That can include in technology, student mental health services, cleaning supplies and school building improvements to reduce risk of virus transmission. District leaders have broad discretion over how to spend it.
So here in Tennessee, we saw Race to the Top trigger major changes to the education system — and that was new testing and ways of evaluating teachers, as well as state takeovers of low-performing schools. How do you think this new push compares?
What’s very different [is] Race to the Top was about innovation and reform. This new money is about relief and recovery from the pandemic.
Some of your sources have told you that this could settle a classic debate about why schools struggle to meet benchmarks. One side asks, is it because they’re underfunded? Or because they aren’t innovating enough? Do you think this really will decide that fight in Tennessee?
Some Republican leaders are setting this up to be a referendum on that very question. For years, they’ve heard Democrats and teachers complain the state is under resourcing public schools through our funding formula. But now we’re getting a big infusion of federal cash. So the message I’m hearing is Gov. [Bill] Lee’s administration expects to see not only recovery from any possible learning lags, but improvement on student test scores by the time the money’s gone.
Of course, this money isn’t about just academics. It’s about tending to both the physical and mental health of our students after the pandemic. It’s about ramping up technology. It’s about improving air quality in school facilities that have long been neglected. All of these are expensive items.
And by the way, national research has already settled this question of whether more education funding leads to better outcomes for kids or is just throwing money at the problem. The research is pretty consistent that greater investments in students lead to higher test scores, higher graduation rates and often higher wages as adults.
You know, in other areas of the state government, in recent years we’ve seen Tennessee take federal money and essentially squirrel it away or offset it with other spending cuts. How much of a risk do you think there is of that happening?
Again, that shouldn’t happen for each of the three relief packages. There are deadlines for spending or obligating that money or it goes away for this most recent and largest round of money coming from the Biden administration. The deadline to use it is September of 2024.
Marta W. Aldrich is chief state House correspondent for the education news outlet Chalkbeat.