February 23, 2023

From Antiquated to Equitable: How Tennessee Overhauled Its State School Funding Formula

By Carrie Hahnel | Max Marchitello | Titilayo Tinubu Ali

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In the United States, state governments bear the primary responsibility for overseeing K-12 public education. A major part of this responsibility involves providing adequate resources for students to receive a high-quality education. Unfortunately, thousands of school districts — particularly those in rural and urban areas and those serving large numbers of low-income, Black and Latino, and English learner (EL) students — are under-resourced. This presents not just an adequacy problem but also an equity issue. Outdated state school funding formulas disconnected from what students need today are a significant contributing factor.

The solution isn’t straightforward: updating or replacing state funding formulas can be difficult, with policymakers and stakeholders often at odds on how to divide limited resources and which communities and policies to prioritize. Despite the challenges, some states have managed to improve their formulas. One example is Tennessee, which in 2022 passed the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act, making changes to the state’s funding formula designed to better meet the needs of its nearly 1 million students.

From Antiquated to Equitable: How Tennessee Overhauled Its State School Funding Formula explains how TISA came to be and offers promising practices and lessons other states may adapt to their political and economic contexts. Through in-depth interviews with advocates and state leaders, we uncovered five factors that contributed to TISA’s passage that have broad application in other states:

  1. Strong alignment among political leaders.
  2. Advocate coalescence around a shared set of priorities.
  3. A promise of significant new funding for schools.
  4. Robust stakeholder engagement and outreach.
  5. A focus on evidence-based finance principles and major design features.

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