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Education NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Comptroller Sees Transparency Problems With Schools Funding Formula

A top state finance official calling for a rewrite of the state’s formula for funding schools says he’s unsure whether the current recipe doles out taxpayer dollars fairly.

Comptroller Justin Wilson last week asked for a revision of the state’s Basic Education Program, telling leaders of the state Education Department and legislative education committees there are too many complexities to keep spending accountable.

“I don’t know at this point whether anyone is a winner or a loser, whether the money is right or wrong. I don’t have any idea at this point, but we do want to understand why,” Wilson told TNReport. “When we’re talking about a third of the state’s budget, then we ought to know what’s happening to the money.”

The state spends some $3.8 billion, or 37 percent of its annual budget, issuing dollars to school districts based on the BEP, a school funding system written into state law that Wilson says lacks accountability and uniformity in reporting student attendance – the primary factor in how much money each school gets.

“The way the different (school districts) count the students is different. Not saying one is wrong and one is right, but they ought to be done on a consistent basis across the state.”

Wilson asked officials to consider revising the funding formula in favor of one that is “understandable, transparent and verifiable,” although he said he did not know whether the state would be able to do so in time for the 2012-13 school year.

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Education Health Care NewsTracker

Haslam Seeks Cost Controls As Colleges Consider Double-Digit Tuition Hikes

Gov. Bill Haslam says he’s trying to be lean, not mean, in trimming state government, and he’s ready to ask the same of the state’s colleges and universities this week.

With tuition votes coming up in both the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees and the Tennessee Board of Regents systems, Haslam said Tuesday when he goes to those meetings he will be asking schools to make some tough choices in holding down costs. He knows that can be hard to do.

“In government, we’re basically bureaucratic organizations, so it’s easier to gain people and programs along the way,” Haslam said. “And I’m going to ask them (in higher education) to do the same things we’re doing in state government, to ask the hard questions: ‘Are we doing this the best and most inexpensive way as we can?'”

Haslam has made several public references in the last two weeks about how higher education is suffering because of the rising costs of health care. He made the same point again Tuesday in Nashville at a summit on aging

While the state remains committed to fully funding K-12 schools under the funding formula called BEP, other departments are having to hold the line and make cuts. Haslam is prepared to take that message to the state’s colleges and universities, as those schools are primed to hit students with another tuition hike

The University of Tennessee system is reportedly prepared to ask for up to a 12 percent increase in tuition while the Board of Regents is reportedly looking at an 8.8 percent to 11 percent hike, which Haslam has said is affecting middle-income families most, since lower-income families stand to make up the most, comparatively, through grants and scholarships.

Haslam says the state must not lose sight of its goal of graduating more students. He believes pricing students out of college would be exactly the wrong way to go.

“I won’t just totally point the finger at them,” Haslam said of the higher ed schools. “Part of the problem is ours in state government. We fund a lot smaller portion of their budgets as we did 30 years ago as more and more of our money has gone to those health care issues. So we have to figure out together how we’re going to address that situation.”

The governor said he would like to boost funding for higher ed, not cut it, although he trimmed 2 percent out of higher education in his budget this year.

“I think we have to figure that out, not just so tuition doesn’t keep going up, but we need to send more Tennessee students to college,” Haslam said. “That’s going to cost us money. We’re going to have to appropriate more money to higher education.”

Tuition votes are expected for the University of Tennessee schools on Thursday in Knoxville and for Board of Regents schools on Friday in Nashville. Haslam has hammered home the point about college and workforce development going in opposite directions. The state is making a concerted effort to produce more college graduates who can fill the kind of high-quality jobs the state wants to attract.

Lagging behind in college graduates does not attract jobs. Yet the price tag on college is working against the state in its pursuit of those jobs.

And it’s not as though the state schools don’t have competition inside Tennessee’s borders.

The Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities announced this month that its average tuition and fees for the coming school year will increase only about 3.8 percent, which the organization says is the lowest increase in more than a decade. The organization includes schools such as Belmont University, Cumberland University and Lincoln Memorial University.