Two Anderson County, Tennessee, school employees were indicted in February on charges of stealing $10,000 from a local school.
Just weeks after that, the office of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury announced that the head of the Parent Teacher Association at Kingston Elementary School had misappropriated nearly $20,000, and investigators are reviewing an additional $50,000 in questionable purchases.
The activity took place between 2014 and 2018, which means the potentially criminal actions occurred for years before it was stopped.
Such actions happen frequently in public school districts around the country, as research by The Heritage Foundation has documented. District officials sometimes engage in fraud and embezzlement schemes for long periods of time before investigators can uncover the problems.
School spending formulas are at least partly to blame.
State K-12 school spending formulas are notoriously complex, understood by a select few officials in each state, and the processes are rarely transparent to taxpayers.
Tennessee lawmakers, though, are taking significant steps to make sure taxpayer spending follows K-12 children to their school or learning option of choice and is more transparent for taxpayers and families.
According to reports, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has pledged to “simplify [the school funding formula] and allow the funding model and outcomes to be publicly available.”
Officials want to reduce the steps in the spending process by more than half, while also changing the school spending process so that districts assign funds to students based on their needs.
Reason Foundation research explains that just 3% of Tennessee’s spending per student is based on a child’s characteristics, caused by an outdated provision in the education funding formula that is found in just eight other states today.
States such as South Carolina and Texas have more student-centered funding provisions, including funding “weights” that adjust taxpayer spending per child based on a child’s needs.
That key feature helps children with special needs receive spending based on their unique diagnoses and access education therapies, for example.
In Arizona, state officials have also used a weighted system for many years so that children with special needs have access to therapies and other services.
Tennessee and Arizona also allow children with certain needs to access education savings accounts, which allow families to customize their child’s learning experience. Until such quality learning opportunities are available to all students, Tennessee’s improvements to the state formula now will help to eliminate long-standing inefficiencies.
Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a research institution in the state, says that simplifying the formula will allow parents to better understand how much school officials are spending on their children, and the current proposal will lead to “greater accountability” for school districts.
Owen wrote for the Tennessean last month that just half of Tennessee’s K-12 education spending is used in the classroom, with the rest going to administrative costs.
The governor has also promised an additional $1 billion in school spending as part of the package that includes an update to the school spending formula.
While that may pacify teachers unions, increased spending is not necessary for any K-12 school formula to work properly.
Evidence demonstrates that additional spending does not lead to student achievement, but those hoping a formula change will help children with special needs and add more transparency can oppose additional spending while also supporting an update to the formula.
Everyone can agree that cryptic spending formulas that allow waste and fraud to continue and that also prevent children with special needs from finding help are provisions badly in need of an update.
Proposals to simplify state education spending formulas—and that focus spending on a child’s needs—are overdue. Tennessee’s proposal is a good first step.
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