What happens when, despite your best efforts, local school systems sue your state claiming a lack of adequate funding? You get nervous is what happens. Especially when three previous lawsuits claiming your state has underfunded schools have been successful.
When a body like the Tennessee General Assembly faces a dilemma such as whether or not to make funding schools a top priority, they can either make a significant new investment in schools OR wait and see if the courts order them to make a significant new investment in schools. Historically, our General Assembly has waited and then taken corrective action by way of new investment only after courts have found that school funding is not adequate and/or equitable.
Now, however, lawmakers are taking a different approach. They are advancing amendments to the state constitution that would essentially eliminate the requirement that the General Assembly provide for a “system of free public schools” in Tennessee.
That’s creative problem solving. The state’s governing legal document binds the General Assembly in a way they don’t much like. So, just change it. Thus, you are now free to continue inadequately funding the state’s schools.
Former state Senator Roy Herron decried this effort on behalf of Tennessee School Systems for Equity. Here’s his take from a letter he submitted to legislators:
I write on behalf of the Tennessee School Systems for Equity, which includes most of Tennessee’s school districts. As your former colleague, I know something of how incredibly busy you are and so I will come right to the point.
This week you will consider a constitutional amendment that would strip your schools and students of constitutional protection for adequate funding.
There are two different proposed constitutional amendments that would deny Tennessee’s children any state constitutional right to adequate public schools. We believe that if either of these provisions were in Tennessee’s Constitution instead of our decades-old Article XI, Section 12, then our children effectively would have no state constitutional protection to ensure even minimally adequate public schools.
Some may tell you that the amendments would leave your school systems and your students with some constitutional protections. But these amendments would deem whatever funding any future legislature provided — or didn’t provide — to be adequate and constitutional. No matter how little.
The amendments would leave in the Constitution language that would provide the illusion, but remove the reality, of constitutional protection for public schools. If the proposed language were in the Constitution, school children would be doomed to whatever fate any future legislature decreed. And schools in your district could receive millions less in state funding, leading either to woefully inadequate schools or soaring property taxes or both.
It’s hard to imagine anything that would adversely impact our students — or Tennessee’s future — more than stripping our children of their constitutional right to adequate public schools.
HJR 493. A distinguished House colleague of yours, however, also has a constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 493. It is before your House Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee this Tuesday, March 1st at 3:00 p.m.
The able sponsor says that he only wants to remove any constitutional requirement for schools to be funded “adequately.” But without constitutional protection, a future legislature could say, for example, that each child gets to go to a free public school for a month a year. And that would be legally and literally true.
This proposed amendment would strip our children of any state constitutional protection to an adequate education. That is the respected sponsor’s stated intent and would be the legislative effect.
Let me respectfully submit for your consideration the following beliefs and concerns:
1. To destroy our state’s constitutional protection for adequate funding:
1.1 Endangers children in every county;
1.2 Endangers Tennessee’s future;
1.3 Leaves future legislatures and governors free to undo every good thing you and this legislature have done to educate our children and would allow them to do wrong by our children.
1.4 Would let future legislatures and governors decide that our children and grandchildren could go to inadequate schools.
2. It is not conservative to:
2.1 Strip citizens of constitutional protections;
2.2 Blindly trust government and future governments to do right;
2.3 Ignore decades of constitutional precedent and history;
2.4 Vote to amend our Constitution without carefully hearing from leading experts or at least the Attorney General;
2.5 Ignore Congressman Davy Crockett’s maxim, “First be sure you’re right; then go ahead.”
On behalf of more than 80 school systems all across Tennessee, I respectfully request that you not strip our children of their constitutional right to adequate schools.
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