Unpacking Education Finance Equity for State-Level Advocates: A Q&A with TennesseeCAN’s Erika Berry

Bellwether Education Partners’ series Splitting the Bill: Understanding Education Finance Equity gives advocates a crash course in the fundamentals of education finance and in key questions to ask in their states and communities. This series of short briefs is part of Bellwether’s ongoing examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families. For a look at how equity-minded policymakers and advocates can begin to understand school finance policy, click here.

Erika Berry is senior policy director for TennesseeCAN, an independent, state-based affiliate of 50CAN’s* national network. The organization’s mission is to empower local stakeholders — from community members to policymakers — to advocate for improved K-12 education policies that put Tennessee children first. Berry has spent her career focused on improving educational outcomes for students and breaking down inequitable barriers that prevent students from succeeding, beginning her career in education as a middle school math teacher.

As a participant in Bellwether’s ongoing school finance equity trainings, Berry is currently examining Tennessee’s state school funding formula using data tools like R and Shiny, in collaboration with other advocates. I caught up with her over Zoom to discuss her work and learn more about the education finance equity landscape in Tennessee. To learn more about key education finance concepts within this Q&A, click here.

Bonnie O’Keefe:
How does TennesseeCAN’s mission overlap with education finance equity?

Erika Berry:
Every day, my work is centered on ensuring that students across the state have access to high-quality schools, teachers, and resources. I focus a lot on how Tennessee’s schools can equitably prioritize the unique talents and needs of its teachers and students. 

Education finance in Tennessee treats students as ratios. Our system assumes that all schools are the same with the same needs. School and district leaders make decisions based on prescribed inputs for staffing and resources, instead of applying a strategic mindset grounded in students’ needs. It’s not their fault; the state’s resource-based student funding formula encourages this kind of thinking. Tennessee is one of only 17 states with this kind of funding formula. 

This means that in Tennessee, our Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula gives money to schools based on assumptions about schools’ costs and ratios of resources. This mostly revolves around staffing and student-teacher ratios. For example, in the BEP, for every 8.5 students with special needs, schools are allocated funding for a special education teacher, which means around an additional $48,000. But what if fewer than 8.5 students with special needs are enrolled in a given school — how will their needs be adequately met in this funding formula framework? And why are we counting “half” a student? 

To be clear, the resource-based formula doesn’t require that schools spend that exact dollar amount on those precise staffing ratios — it’s all based on averages. But it frames the way the whole state thinks about education funding. It’s an inherently inequitable system that is offensive to educators and students alike. Tennessee’s BEP system creates an incentive to hire less experienced teachers who make below-average salaries, and discourages schools from using their resources more creatively and strategically to best meet the needs of students. 

BOK:
Is there an alternative to this resource-based system?

EB:
Yes! At TennesseeCAN, we advocate for a weighted or student-based funding formula

BOK:
Tennessee’s governor recently announced a listening tour focused on potential changes to the state’s education finance system. What specific changes does TennesseeCAN most want to see, and why? 

EB:
Tennessee has done a great job in the past decade of implementing proven ed reforms. We have some of the best laws on the books to hold teacher preparation programs accountable. In recent teacher evaluations, something like 81% of educators in the state believed that the laws improved their teaching. I think our policymakers have held true to principles of accountability for high standards and it’s a good thing for students. But our resource-based funding formula just doesn’t match up.

A weighted, or student-based funding formula would force Tennessee school districts to think first about the needs of students every time they sit down at a table to form a budget. It would also allow district leaders to be more strategic about how to spend and create greater transparency around funding allocations clearly based on enrollment and student learning needs.

BOK:
How do coalitions or partnerships play into your advocacy strategy?

EB:
They’re a fundamental part of TennesseeCAN’s approach. In 2017, we started taking funding reform seriously as an organization and adopted a vision we wanted to see happen. We pulled in Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE),* Tennesseans for Student Success, the Tennessee Charter School Center*, and The Education Trust — all of whom are members of the Team Kid coalition.

Together, we’re pushing for a statewide weighted, student-based funding formula not just as a short-term fix, but as one that will support schools in the longer term. Every year and with each new state legislative session, our coalition partners work to defend progress made on accountability and on policies that center students. Although Tennessee is in a strong fiscal position at the moment, we know our advocacy work is far from done. Once you dive into the BEP funding system, you realize it’s wholly unpredictable and inequitable. School leaders, teachers, students, and families deserve more.

BOK:
What have you learned analyzing and visualizing your state’s finance system as part of Bellwether’s School Finance Equity trainings? What have you learned from other participants in the cohort?

EB:
Bellwether’s trainings enabled me to better understand and visualize our state and local revenue and stress-test prior assumptions — many of which were wrong. 

For example, we used to think that Tennessee’s state revenues were being distributed inequitably in the BEP. When we dove into the data, we were surprised to see that state funding was fairly equitable, but it wasn’t enough to offset inequities in local tax revenue, based on local property wealth. It was the local piece where the bigger, systemic inequities existed. We essentially have a regressive local funding system that allows wealthy districts to generate as much funds as they can, and still get state funding on top, widening the financial gap with districts that have less property wealth. My work in Bellwether’s trainings led me to realize that the added state revenue for lower-wealth districts isn’t enough to cover the local revenue shortfalls. This insight affected my thinking about what a more equitable state formula and school finance system should look like.  

The cohort model has been fascinating. I have a better analytical toolkit now, thanks to the cohort members and the training on data visualization. I’ve learned a lot from peers in other states and it’s interesting to see areas of similarity in state funding formula structures and, importantly, areas of difference. Every state has something funky in its funding formula that can usually be traced back to a quick-fix policy solution that’s good for adults, but not for kids and schools.

BOK:
What are some of the common misconceptions about Tennessee’s school finance that you encounter in your work — from policymakers, or from community members? How do you help break those down?

EB:
A lot of people think the BEP is student-based, so we spend time clarifying that. Enrollment is a factor, but it’s mediated by these resource-based ratios and funding assumptions. If you ask folks to think about how the funding formula influences decision-making, it often serves as an epiphany moment. Our resource-based system envisions spending on prescribed resources (e.g., number of staff, textbooks to order) but a weighted, student-based approach leads districts to first know their students’ needs and then be strategic about how to deploy funds in a way that prioritizes students over a laundry list of resources.

At the end of the day, local districts are in a better position to know their students than the state. And the resource-based mindset leads to a variety of ongoing issues around budgets.

BOK:
What do you hope to accomplish in 2022 as it relates to education finance?

EB:
We hope that 2022 will bring a new, weighted, student-based funding formula to Tennessee. We want to have a discussion about how a new approach could shift thinking and behaviors at the state, local, and school district levels to meet students’ needs and reduce inequities. 

I worry when I talk about education funding inequity, that people might misunderstand and think that this is a “silver bullet” solution. It’s not. But, a more equitable school funding formula can help uncover those silver bullet solutions and better enable districts to really move the needle for students. I think greater funding equity has the potential to pave the way for other kinds of reforms that target and center students’ needs, first and foremost.

BOK:
One last question: How did you get started in education and what fuels your work now?

EB:
I grew up in Mississippi and always heard that our schools weren’t successful because they were underfunded — and I believed it. After college, I taught middle school in a well-funded Mississippi school district and was surprised to find that my students weren’t achieving despite all the resources we had. More money wasn’t the solution; my students were kept behind in a system that could have served them well. 

That stark realization fueled my graduate work and advocacy work — to understand what was going wrong and think about what students need versus how to make it easy for adults to run a school system. 

*(Editor’s note: Tennessee SCORE is a Bellwether client; 50CAN and the Tennessee Charter School Center are former clients.)