Governor Bill Haslam this week lamented school funding lawsuits while also admitting that Tennessee has a history of under-funding schools.
From the Tennessean:
“Now if you’re an educator saying, ‘Well, you’re not putting enough money in’ … you’re right, as a state we historically have not put enough money — but we’re changing that,” Haslam said.
When asked about pending lawsuits claiming the state is failing to live up to its responsibility in terms of school funding, Haslam said:
Asked about the validity of the school funding suits as a result, Haslam said, “obviously anyone can sue over anything they want.”
“But it’s kind of strange when we’re making historic investments in K-12 education, it feels like it sends the wrong message to do that,” he said.
Haslam doesn’t seem to understand why supporters of public education may doubt his commitment. Here are three reasons:
1) Haslam promised in 2013 to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state in teacher salaries.” By April of the next year, the promise was gone. Additionally, the BEP Review Committee noted in its 2015 report that weighted average salaries in 2015 were lower than in 2013 as a result of the Haslam-Huffman elimination of the state minimum salary schedule. At the same time, the gap in pay among the highest-paying and lowest-paying districts in the state remains at an unacceptable 40%. Meanwhile, Tennessee suffers from one of the largest teacher wage gaps — that is, the gap between salaries paid to teachers and salaries paid to professionals with similar educational preparation.
2) In response to a lawsuit from Metro Nashville Public Schools, the state’s attorneys have said the state is not bound to follow the school funding formula Governor Haslam proposed and the General Assembly adopted. Grace Tatter reported the state’s response:
Attorneys for the state say Tennessee isn’t obligated to follow through with its own spending plan — and that Nashville doesn’t have the grounds to seek the order in the first place.
3) The state has a $925 million surplus as of the close of the 2015-16 fiscal year. That’s enough money to fully close the teacher wage gap and still leave more than $400 million for funding other important state projects. A more conservative approach would at the least meet the state’s funding obligations under the revised BEP formula, as Nashville is demanding in its lawsuit. From there, the state could phase-in further investment and do so without increasing taxes one cent. The current surplus comes after a year in which the state’s surplus topped $1 billion. During that budget year, Haslam and the General Assembly failed to adopt a salary proposal that would have provided teachers and state employees raises if revenues exceeded projections. They did, of course.
So, while Haslam is saying the right things and while there has been some investment in schools in recent years, it’s not hard to guess why school districts are filing lawsuits to get the money they need. Bill Haslam is right. Tennessee has historically under-funded schools. But he’s leaving out an important point. The only thing that seems to get the attention of the state-level policymakers — and get money into schools — is a court order.
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