Yea, Nay, What? 

Education funding apparently looks a lot different from City Hall

Once Metro voters served notice on Sept. 13 that they had no interest in hiking the local sales tax a half-penny for education, Mayor Purcell has had his hands full looking for more money for schools.
Once Metro voters served notice on Sept. 13 that they had no interest in hiking the local sales tax a half-penny for education, Mayor Purcell has had his hands full looking for more money for schools. Last week, he tried to shake down the state, publicly saying the state funding formula used to distribute education dollars to local urban school systems is unfair. Gov. Bredesen, meanwhile, seemed to turn a deaf ear to the carping, something he’s become good at on a number of fronts. It would be easy to dismiss this little scuffle as yet another chapter in the ongoing Bredesen-Purcell political rivalry, but there’s more to this story than just the usual back-and-forth sniping between two people who have never cared much for each other in the first place. Both history and hypocrisy are involved. School systems used to rely in large part on local tax revenues to fund their schools with relatively little assistance from the state. This benefited urban systems, since not only did they have more stuff to tax than rural school systems, the urban taxing opportunities were more valuable. In short, urban systems had more financial means to fund their own schools. In frustration, a number of small rural Tennessee counties banded together in the late 1980s on the theory that this was unfair to their school systems. The Tennessee Supreme Court bought this argument and declared the old way of doing things unconstitutional. The legislature responded with a complicated funding equalization formula that you’d have to be Archimedes to fully grasp, but it basically works like this: the state collects local tax revenues, throws them all into a pot and then divvies them back out according to a variety of factors, the most important one being the ostensible ability of a school system to pay its own way. Suffice it to say that this ultimately results in Metro putting more education tax money into the pot than it actually gets back in education tax revenue, because, in short, we’ve got a lot more than rural counties do. Bill Purcell once thought that this was a swell idea. At least, we’re assuming that he thought it was a swell idea, since as a member of the state House of Representatives he was the main sponsor of the legislation that created this funding scheme. That’s right: as a member of the Davidson County delegation, Purcell was the driving force behind what most people know as the “Basic Education Program,” or “BEP” for short, the centerpiece of which was a funding formula that royally screws Davidson County. In fairness to Purcell, the Tennessee Supreme Court decision put the state legislature in a delicate position (though, contrary to popular belief, it did not necessarily mandate the specific BEP formula), and Purcell, as the House majority leader at that time and one of the few people on Capitol Hill with the requisite IQ to understand it, was the natural choice to shepherd the bill through. But that doesn’t get him off the hook, since back in 1999 the Purcell for Mayor campaign made a big deal of his sponsorship of the BEP legislation to demonstrate his commitment to education. Furthermore, one of the architects of the formula was a fellow named David Manning, who served as commissioner of finance and administration under Gov. Ned Ray McWherter. You may have heard of him: he’s now Mayor Purcell’s finance director. At the time, Manning gave short shrift to repeated warnings from the office of then-Mayor Phil Bredesen that Nashville (and other big city governments) would unduly suffer under the BEP formula because of what’s called “urban overload”—the idea that cities may indeed have more resources from which to draw tax revenues, but they also have more to pay for educationally: much higher proportions of immigrant children, for instance, kids from low-income families and more special education students, not to mention disproportionately higher capital and maintenance expenditures in inner city schools. And Purcell, whose own constituents at that time included many of these very sorts of students and schools, didn’t seem to pay any attention to these concerns either. In fairness to Purcell, the Tennessee Supreme Court decision put the state legislature in a delicate position (though, contrary to popular belief, it did not necessarily mandate the specific BEP formula), and Purcell, as the House majority leader at that time and one of the few people on Capitol Hill with the requisite IQ to understand it, was the natural choice to shepherd the bill through. But that doesn’t get him off the hook, since back in 1999 the Purcell for Mayor campaign made a big deal of his sponsorship of the BEP legislation to demonstrate his commitment to education. Furthermore, one of the architects of the formula was a fellow named David Manning, who served as commissioner of finance and administration under Gov. Ned Ray McWherter. You may have heard of him: he’s now Mayor Purcell’s finance director. At the time, Manning gave short shrift to repeated warnings from the office of then-Mayor Phil Bredesen that Nashville (and other big city governments) would unduly suffer under the BEP formula because of what’s called “urban overload”—the idea that cities may indeed have more resources from which to draw tax revenues, but they also have more to pay for educationally: much higher proportions of immigrant children, for instance, kids from low-income families and more special education students, not to mention disproportionately higher capital and maintenance expenditures in inner city schools. And Purcell, whose own constituents at that time included many of these very sorts of students and schools, didn’t seem to pay any attention to these concerns either. But things are different now, as they often are when it’s your ox that’s getting gored. So we’ll have to forgive the governor if he smirks to himself a bit when he hears Purcell complain about a state funding mechanism that he himself put into place when he and his right-hand man were muckety-mucks in state government. Of course, this assumes that the governor has even noticed in the first place. Given that Bredesen couldn’t be bothered with participating alongside 50,000 of his fellow Nashvillians in the sales tax referendum two weeks ago, it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t care one way or the other about the state of public education in the city he once led. Unlike a smirk, however, that would not be forgivable; it would be downright disturbing.

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