School Boards in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis have all voted to begin the process of exploring a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the state’s school funding formula, the BEP.
This challenge is different from the previous Small Schools challenges in two ways. First, it is being initiated by the large school systems, with some support from smaller districts. Second, it’s about adequacy, not equity. That is to say: The point of this potential lawsuit would be to say Tennessee’s school funding formula does not provide enough funding for ALL districts.
Past suits, focused on equity, argued that smaller and poorer districts lost out because the formula didn’t give kids from all districts an equal opportunity. There’s certainly evidence that the BEP is approaching (or already at) unacceptable levels of inequity. One noteworthy example is teacher pay, which shows a disparity of 42% between the top paying and lowest paying districts. The last Small Schools suit found a disparity of 45% unconstitutional. It’s not at all a stretch to suggest that 42% is also unconstitutional or that Tennessee will very soon be at the 45% disparity level.
This time, though, systems are suggesting that overall funding for schools needs to increase — likely to the tune of $500 million or more.
A story from June of last year might explain why. The Chattanooga Times-Free Press reported on changes to rules governing school nutrition, including what can be sold in vending machines at school. Here’s an interesting note from that article:
Before the change to diet sodas, Soddy-Daisy High School’s vending machines would pull in nearly $40,000 a year — money that helped pay the monthly phone bill or purchase copier paper. Now that revenue is down to about $9,000 annually…
…In Hamilton County, the school district funds teaching positions, maintains building and pays utility bills. But for other costs of running a school — including copiers, phone bills and school supplies — the schools have their own budgets, which often don’t come close to covering annual expenses. That’s why money from school fees, vending machines and fundraisers is so important.
Yes, that’s right. Schools are counting on money from selling unhealthy snacks to teenagers to meet their budgets. Existing funds aren’t enough to pay the phone bill or provide adequate school supplies.
The problem with the BEP now goes beyond equity — the inputs simply aren’t adequate to meet the needs of Tennessee’s public schools.
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