MNPS Funding Suit DENIED

Jason Gonzales reports:

A judge has denied a request from Metro Nashville Public Schools asking the courts to command Tennessee to fully provide education funding to local school districts.

The district’s petition, filed Sept. 1, contends that the state’s constitution requires the Tennessee General Assembly to fully fund education in the state under its Basic Education Program. Commonly known as the BEP, it’s the formula the state uses to calculate how much it costs to educate an individual student in Tennessee.

Apparently agreeing with the state’s attorneys who said:

In its response to Nashville’s petition, the state says Nashville should follow the other districts in asking the court to address their right to education funding, rather than for a direct order to pay more money. “(Nashville) seeks a writ of mandamus that would require the General Assembly to provide funding to ELL teachers and translators in the ratios provided in (Tennessee Code),” the response reads. “… However, (Nashville) is not entitled to that writ.”

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s order says:

While the state has been sued for proper education funding, those cases didn’t request the courts force the state to immediately appropriate funds, Lyle said in the court papers. Therefore, Lyle said there is no law to enforce.

“Such law must first be adjudicated before the writ can issue,” Lyle said.

In short, until a decision is rendered on the adequacy of the formula, the state can’t be compelled to fund the formula. Lawsuits filed by Shelby County and Hamilton County both claim the state’s funding formula is inadequate and seek a judgment based on that claim. Those cases are still moving forward.

More on School Funding:

Haslam on Tennessee School Funding History

Just Kidding

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

 

Haslam: Haters Gonna Hate

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.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Just Kidding

The Tennessee General Assembly this year approved changes to the state’s school funding formula (the BEP) and at the same time, refused to appropriate sufficient funds to pay for the changes.

As a result of this refusal, MNPS is suing the state and demanding full funding of the formula.

The state’s response is pretty remarkable. State lawyers maintain that even though new funding ratios are now state law, the state doesn’t have to follow this law.

Grace Tatter reports:

Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves about a third of the state’s ELL population, is seeking a court order demanding that the state provide the district with funds promised under its recently revised funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

State lawmakers voted this year to increase ELL funding based on a 1:20 student-teacher ratio instead of the previous 1:30 ration, but only provided Nashville with money for a 1:25 ratio. That’s about $4 million short of what was promised this school year, say Nashville school leaders.

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.

The state doesn’t have to follow through with its own spending plan? Then why even have a spending plan? The state adopted a new funding formula and put new funding ratios into Tennessee Code. But now the state is saying they don’t actually have to follow the laws they passed.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this entire situation is that Tennessee has a $925 million budget surplus this year. That’s following a $1 billion surplus last year.

Yes, we have the money to fully fund the formula. Instead, lawyers are now arguing that policymakers are not obligated to follow a formula they proposed and adopted. That’s a pretty strange defense.

The legislature could have phased-in the ratios. Or adopted different, more “affordable” ratios. But they didn’t. Now, the state doesn’t want to be held accountable for meeting the ratios Governor Haslam suggested and the General Assembly adopted. What other laws does the state view as mere suggestions?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Much Ado About Nothing?

Representative Bill Dunn of Knoxville has proposed an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution that purports to remove the requirement that the General Assembly adequately fund public schools in the state.

However, an Attorney General’s opinion published on March 29 notes:

“… the proposed amendments to the public schools clause of the Tennessee Constitution do not substantively change that clause.”

The opinion was issued in response to a query from Rep. Dunn regarding the amendatory language and the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Here’s some relevant discussion from the opinion:

The amendatory language proposed in HJR 493, if adopted, would do nothing to change the fact that any legislation enacted in furtherance of the public schools clause must comply with the equal protection guarantees of the Tennessee Constitution.

But the opinion also says:

It is, therefore, redundant to add that the General Assembly “as the elected representatives of the people” shall provide for free public schools.  The General Assembly cannot provide for public schools in any capacity other than as representatives of the people.  Similarly, it is superfluous to add that the General Assembly shall provide for free public schools “in such manner as the General Assembly shall determine.”  It is already implicit in the current version of article XI, § 12, that the General Assembly determines the manner in which to provide for the required system of free public education.

If the new language is “redundant” and does not “substantively” change the Constitution, then it would not prevent local districts currently seeking relief due to alleged inadequate funding from finding that relief through the courts.

But, that’s not what Bill Dunn thinks.

In his advocacy for the amendment, he noted that courts in Kansas and Washington had used clauses similar to Tennessee’s Article XI, Section 12 to require those states to provide additional funding for their public schools.

When the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that schools there required additional funds to meet the state’s Constitutional mandate, the reply went like this:

“A political bullying tactic” and “an assault on Kansas families, taxpayers and elected appropriators” is how the president of the Senate, Susan Wagle, a Republican, responded to that ruling, which was based on requirements in the state Constitution. Mr. Brownback spoke darkly of an “activist Kansas Supreme Court.”

In his remarks, Dunn warned Tennessee lawmakers of future activist courts that may require the General Assembly to actually follow the Tennessee Constitution.

Of course, he also fudged the numbers and claimed that the Small Schools lawsuits and the resulting BEP did little to improve education outcomes in the state.

So, here’s the bottom line: Either the Attorney General is right, and the amendment proposed by HJR 493 does nothing OR, Rep. Bill Dunn is right, and the proposed amendment would prevent the Supreme Court from finding in favor of districts seeking to force the General Assembly to fund a system of free public schools.

Either way, the resolution should be rejected.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport