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Achieving Funding Equity through State Funding Formulas
In Tennessee, the state government and legislature uses a funding formula called the Basic Education Plan (BEP) in order to determine how much money to provide local districts to distribute to schools. Like many other states, Tennessee's counties and districts can be vastly different from one another. In theory, in order to achieve funding equity, Tennessee uses the BEP to determine how much it costs to cover the basics of a school district's budget, based on how many students that district serves. For example, the BEP provides funding for one teacher for every 20 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, one art teacher for every 525 elementary students, and one school counselor for every 500 elementary students. This kind of formula is used for everything from school librarians to principals to social workers, and yes, school psychologists. The problem is that the BEP funding formula only funds one school psychologist for every 2500 students. If districts want to provide local money to decrease that ratio, they can, but many districts are unable or unwilling to do so.
The average school psychologist to student ratio in Tennessee is one school psychologist to every 1600 students, but that ratio can be much higher in various pockets of the state. In some districts, school psychologists are serving upwards of 4000 students. Less than a handful of districts can afford a ratio even remotely close to NASP's recommendation of 1:500-700. The ratio issue becomes increasingly complicated due to the national shortage. In many districts, even if they can afford more positions, there are not enough applicants to fill the openings.
The good news is that Tennessee has an exciting opportunity in this upcoming legislative session. The state recently elected a new governor, and many elected officials have called for the BEP to be 'reviewed and revised.' The Tennessee Association of School Psychologists (TASP) is working to take advantage of this revision and make sure that school psychologists have a seat at the table when decisions on the revisions are made. To that effect, TASP has published a policy memo titled "Addressing School Safety in Tennessee: Utilizing the BEP funding formula to improve provision of mental health supports to students in Tennessee." The purpose of the memo is to help Tennessee legislators understand the crucial role that school-based mental health supports (like school psychologists) play in preventing school and community violence. TASP mailed paper copies of this document to every state senator and representative, and advocates and school psychologists in Tennessee followed up during School Psychology Awareness Week's Virtual Hill Day by sending emails and making phone calls. The legislature is not currently in session, so TASP advocates plan to make in-person visits in January when everyone is back at the Capitol. This fall, TASP recorded a podcast about legislative advocacy and posted it on their website. The advocates also created buttons that say "Reduce the Ratio" and wear them whenever they have meetings with our elected officials or attend school board meetings. Each of these advocacy activities serve the purpose of being proactive and developing relationships with Tennessee's elected representatives, and to present research that school psychologists should have a seat at the table when decisions are made, as they could drive education funding for the foreseeable future.