Funding fights

States often get sued over school funding. Here’s what makes Tennessee stand out.

It’s official: three of Tennessee’s four urban school districts are suing the state for more money.

Last week, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools became the latest district taking the state to court, following on the heels of litigation already in process by school systems in Memphis and Chattanooga. The districts’ situations differ enough to justify separate suits, but the underlying message is the same: local school leaders believe Tennessee isn’t providing enough money to properly educate students.

Their crusades may be successful, based on the track record of similar cases across the country. And national school funding experts also side with the districts. They say Tennessee’s funding formula is badly in need of updates.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in 45 of 50 states. The cases started cropping up after 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that education is not a federal right, and therefore school funding is entirely a state matter. From then on, if school leaders believed their state legislature wasn’t giving them enough money to educate students properly, they could go to their state courts as a recourse.

About 60 percent of school funding cases have gone to trial, and states have lost the vast majority of those, says Michael Rebell, an attorney who has represented districts in New York State in funding cases.

“In almost every state constitution, there’s an explicit cause that guarantees students some kind of an adequate education … so you have a very strong legal anchor to begin with,” Rebell said. “And when you give evidence of what’s going on in schools, particularly in underfunded areas, judges tend to be shocked at conditions in these schools.”

Most cases thrown out were due to a judge who said school funding was not under the court’s purview and should be handled by the legislative and executive branches. That’s an argument Tennessee Rep. Bill Dunn made during the most recent legislative session when he unsuccessfully lobbied for a constitutional amendment barring courts from interfering in schools.

The separation-of-powers argument hasn’t held much water in Tennessee, though. State courts heard three historic school funding cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those cases keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

New focus

The latest round of lawsuits, while all different, zoom in on inadequacy and argue that Tennessee is not funding its schools based on the true cost of educating today’s students.

The move from a focus on equity to adequacy is a trend nationwide, abetted by the move toward more rigorous academic standards, Rebell said. Districts are no longer as focused on whether they are getting more or less than other districts, but if they are getting enough money to help their students meet standards — in other words, to provide kids with an adequate education.

“Every school should have enough resources to meet adequacy, however we define it,” he said.

And when it comes to providing adequate funding to educate students based on today’s standards, national experts say Tennessee isn’t.

Tennessee uses a complex formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP, to generate and distribute state education dollars to public schools to provide a basic level of education. But critics charge that the formula, developed more than a quarter century ago in response to one funding lawsuit against the state, falls short on two fronts: 1) it doesn’t properly account for the cost of educating students in the 21st century; and 2) Tennessee doesn’t spend enough money on schools, period.

Tennessee has made historical increases in education spending under Gov. Bill Haslam. Still, in a time of economic surplus, it lags behind other states in school spending.

"Tennessee is really at the bottom of the national barrel in terms of how much funding it provides to support public education."David Sciarra, Education Law Center

“Tennessee is really at the bottom of the national barrel in terms of how much funding it provides to support public education,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a group advocating for fair and equitable school funding.

But state officials argue otherwise. This summer, the state released a 25-page defense of its funding formula in response to the lawsuit filed last year by Shelby County Schools in Memphis. Haslam has maintained all along that the state is filling its constitutional duty to its public school students. And the State Department of Education, in its statement about Nashville’s lawsuit, noted that education spending has increased steadily during the last few years.

Time to reset

Experts say Tennessee is overdue for a reset. They say the state should step back and look at what it costs to educate kids today, taking into account how technology, demographics and school accountability have changed since the BEP was approved in 1992. (The legislature included some updates to the formula this year, while leaving out others.)

“One of the things the legislature could embark on (would be) a cost study to figure out what kind of formula would serve Tennessee schools today given the demands lawmakers are placing on schools and students for performance,” Sciarra said.

Tennessee’s formula also should take into account the high concentration of impoverished students served by many of its districts, say advocates for equitable funding. The state already gives districts more money per low-income student. But when low-income students are segregated in schools, the impact of poverty magnifies, says Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of EdBuild, another nonprofit organization focused on fair school funding.

Gov. Bill Haslam
PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

“This is where your students are much more likely to encounter violence on their way to or from school, they are much more likely to only have one parent at home, be faced with lower (living conditions),” she said. “When you start to fund for concentrations for students with higher needs, you can actually start to address some of those larger societal needs.”

Sibilia points to California as a school funding success story. The state recently overhauled its spending formula — and ramped up education spending.

But it’s rare to see states start over. “Comprehensive overhauls don’t happen that often,” she said. “The fact that they don’t is indicative of how very political the discussion is.”

Sciarra says that’s where the courts come in.

“The reason you see litigation is not because people want to go to court,” he said. “It’s because the other branches of government aren’t doing their job.”

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

About 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the broiler repairs on their own.

“We are not working with SCS because they don’t handle HVAC issues that are less than $25,000” maintenance director, Erica Williams told Chalkbeat in an email.

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.