Differences in school funding in TN counties
By Riley Cardwell and Lauren Fotta
May 11, 2016
One question that always surrounds public schooling is whether or not the students are getting the best possible education. A way to gauge this is to look at the money spent per student according to budget and enrollment in a county. An evaluation of the per-pupil expenditures in the 2nd and 3rd largest school districts in TN, Metro Nashville and Knox County, can shed some light on this topic.
Knox County is the third largest school district in Tennessee. With almost 60,000 students enrolled in this area, Knox County is considerably underfunded because of the lack of revenue from both state and federal funding.
For the fiscal school year of 2015-2016, the approved budget for Knox County is approximately $440 million. The per pupil expenditure is an average of $8,500, which means Knox County is spending about $8,500 on each student.
The statewide per pupil expenditures, which takes into account all schools from TN, is $9,400. The average student in Knox County makes $900 less than the state average, a considerably lower amount compared to Davidson County that spends $200 more than the statewide average.
Many reasons come into factor when understanding why Knox county has an extremely low per pupil expenditure. While most districts can find cost savings to fund instructional priorities through more efficient methods within their central office, Knox's already low state funding and small central office makes that challenging.
Knox county is not only underfunded in per student expenditure but with teachers as well. On average all teachers in TN make an average salary of $48,500. While Davidson County makes $2,000 more than the state average, teachers in Knox county make $7,500 less. This significant difference in salaries is a leading reason why teachers move to other districts or even out of the profession all together.
Even though Knox county school funding for teachers and students are so low, a question that begs an answer is, “Would more funding make a difference?” The answer is yes. More funding would move Knox up from 35th in average teacher pay among school systems in Tennessee into the top 15.
Low funding for Knox County has not gone unnoticed. The school board is already focused on trying to close this pay gap with limited funds. In the last five years, 85% of budget increases received from the county have been directed to teacher salaries and into the classroom. With more money put directly into the teacher’s hands and towards students’ learning, the quality of education will start to increase.
The Metro Nashville public schooling district accounts for the 2nd largest number of student enrollment in Tennessee. It covers the area of Davidson County which includes Tennessee’s capitol, Nashville.
The student enrollment of this district is approximately 82,000 for the 2016 year. The approved budget in the 2015-2016 fiscal year can be estimated to $790 million for all school related expenses. Considering those figures, the per-pupil expenditure is calculated to about $9,600. This essentially means $9,600 is spent on each student to insure they receive a quality education.
This value is significantly higher compared to the per-pupil expenditure of Knox County ($8,500). It is important to remember this value considers the population difference between the two districts. Simply, the amount of money being spent on each student in each district is not equivalent.
According to the Metro Nashville home page, 80% of the operating budget is spent on personnel. Teachers represent the largest number of personnel in Metro Nashville. With this in mind, it would make sense to evaluate the differences between teachers’ wages to find why there is a difference in per-pupil expenditures.
Teachers in Metro Nashville are paid an average of $50,280 per year, compared to the $41,020 a year that Knox County teachers are making. Based on the amount of teachers in Metro Nashville, 5,786, about $290 million is being spent a year in teacher salaries alone. This is $133 million more than the amount spent in Knox County.
A possible explanation for this difference may be that the Metro Nashville District has a higher cost of living. According to PayScale.com, in order to maintain the same standard of living coming from Nashville to Knoxville a teacher would have to make $49,271, if that teacher started with the average Nashville salary of $50,280.
On average a Knox County school teacher is only making $41,020, when they should be making $49,271 in order to be on the same level as a Metro Nashville teacher. This furthers the argument that the money being spent in each district is not equal.
Another explanation could be a difference in federal grant money. For example, Metro Nashville received $2.2 million last school from the federal grant known as Race to the Top.
These grants reward money on the basis of things such as: educator effectiveness, adopting common core standards, adoption of policies that do not prohibit charter schools, and turning around the lowest-performing schools. All school systems do not receive equal amounts; it is solely based on the degree to which the requirements listed above are met.
Ultimately, the conclusion is made that the these districts are not being equivalently funded. Again, how do taxpayers know if students are getting the best education especially if their school is being underfunded when compared to other schools in its state? In an article by the Albert Shanker Institute, they conclude that in fact money does affect the quality of education. Students in Knox County are not receiving an equal education based on per-pupil expenditures.