School funding

Chronic state underfunding of education spurs lawsuit by seven school districts

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks earlier this month to constituents from Chattanooga, home of the Hamilton County Board of Education, which sued the state Tuesday with six other school districts for underfunding education in Tennessee.

Charging that the state has breached its constitutional duty to provide “a system of free public education” for children in Tennessee, the Hamilton County Board of Education and six smaller school districts sued state officials on Tuesday, asking that the court order the General Assembly to address a broken system that has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of underfunding.

The suit asserts that, instead, the state has created a system that “shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in substantially unequal educational opportunities across the State.”

Specifically, the suit claims the state’s funding formula underestimates the cost of teachers’ salaries by about $532 million and that schools face an annual shortfall of about $134 million in classroom costs.

The suit was filed in Davidson County Chancery Court by school boards in Hamilton, Bradley, McMinn, Marion, Grundy, Coffee and Polk counties. It names Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell, and members of the State Board of Education.

The lawsuit was the first legal volley fired by local school officials weary of chronic underfunding by the state. The action came one day after superintendents from Tennessee’s four largest school districts, including Hamilton County, met with Haslam in Nashville to discuss school funding issues.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor was “very disappointed” about the lawsuit after committing Monday to collaborating with superintendents to address the challenge. “Litigation will obviously decrease potential for collaboration,” Smith said in a statement.

Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith said his district intends to continue working with the governor and legislative leaders. “The board does not believe that its decision to assert its legal claims should preclude productive dialogue since everyone, ultimately, wants the very best education for everyone in our state,” he said in a statement.

Local district leaders across Tennessee have intensified discussions about inadequate state funding since 2013 when representatives of Metro Nashville Public Schools discovered fundamental questions about the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP), the state’s school funding formula.

The school boards of Shelby, Knox, Hamilton and Bradley counties voted earlier this year to explore possible legal action, while school leaders in Nashville chose negotiation over litigation.

Dorsey Hopson
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
Dorsey Hopson

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, who represents the state’s largest public school district, wants a legal analysis conducted before determining whether his district should go to court.

“Being a lawyer, I want to understand the merits … and make sure it’s a winnable suit before you jump out there,” he told the district’s Board of Education Tuesday night.

Hopson, who was among superintendents who met with Haslam on Monday, complimented the governor for initiating discussions on the matter. “I can tell you he’s committed to increasing student achievement outcomes for students and expressly stated funding isn’t all of that but a lot of that,” Hopson said.

Board member Chris Caldwell, who has shepherded Shelby County’s exploration of possible legal action against the state, expressed frustration over the legislature’s unwillingness to adequately fund education for all Tennessee children. “I think the governor has tried to do a lot of good things,” he said. “My concern is his being able to get the General Assembly to go along with him.”

In January, Haslam unveiled his budget proposal to include an additional $170 million in state spending for K-12 education, including $44 million for the BEP.

However, that’s far below the funding outlined in Tuesday’s lawsuit. Specifically, it cited the legislature’s 2007 amending of the BEP to include the cost of teachers within the funding formula, with adjustments anticipated from time to time based on recommendations from a BEP review committee.

The lawsuit notes that the review panel’s most recent report, issued last November, found that the BEP formula failed to: estimate accurately a local district’s cost of insuring its teachers; use the actual salary costs incurred in employing teachers; provide the required 75 percent of classroom expenses set forth under Tennessee law; provide the cost of professional development and mentoring of teachers; fund school nurses and technology coordinators; provide adequate funding for teaching materials and supplies; and account for the increased use of technology within school systems.

“In total, the BEP Review Committee concluded that the General Assembly is underfunding education in Tennessee by hundreds of millions of dollars,” the suit says.

While commending the state for initiating higher academic standards and accountability measures, the suit says the state has not provided adequate funding for such education reforms, placing additional demands on local boards to pay for unfunded mandates.

Meanwhile, the suit notes, parents in more affluent communities are paying fees and participating in fundraising activities that defray local education costs while also contributing to an inequitable level of funding education across the state.

“The General Assembly has been aware of its obligation to fund a system of free public education across the State for more than 20 years and yet has been deliberately indifferent to its constitutional duty,” the suit says.

Contact Marta W. Aldrich at [email protected]

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computer science for all

Report: Brooklyn schools lack laptops, strong Wi-Fi, as city expands computer science education

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio learns about computer science from a student at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in the Bronx.

As the city embarks on a massive push to expand computer science education, many Brooklyn schools lack laptops, adequate access to Wi-Fi, and computer science teachers, according to a new report released Thursday by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

The report, which surveyed 136 Brooklyn schools, found that only about 20 percent of students have access to laptops at any given time, and only 30 percent of schools have an established computer science curriculum. These findings provide a glimpse at how difficult it will be for Mayor de Blasio to achieve his ambitious goal of offering computer science in every city school by 2025.

“We have a lot to do,” said Borough President Eric Adams. “It has to be some real concrete action. We have to sign on and make this happen.”

The mayor’s Computer Science for All initiative has been hailed by many as a bold plan to prepare city students for the 21st century working world. But its critics have questioned whether the city has the infrastructure and teaching force to bring the plan to fruition.

This report, which breaks down findings by district and school, paints a detailed picture of which schools in Brooklyn need extra support. Throughout Brooklyn, schools rated their Wi-Fi at about a 3.2 on a 5-point scale, which likely means the school’s Wi-Fi slows when too many students are logged on, said Jeff Lowell, the borough president’s deputy policy director.

Just over half of schools felt they had a qualified computer science teacher, and some districts have laptops for as few as 11 percent of students. Students may have access to computer labs in lieu of tablets or laptops, but in order to create a robust computer science curriculum, Lowell estimates more students will need access to devices they can use outside of a computer room.

Despite these hurdles, the mayor and education department officials have remained optimistic. De Blasio announced this September that fundraising for the initiative is “ahead of schedule” and education department officials said 246 schools are already participating in the program. Officials also praised Adams for his spirited support of computer science education.

“We thank Borough President Adams for his partnership in bringing computer science to every public school,” said education department spokesman Will Mantell.

The mayor’s initiative is meant to ensure that low-income students have the same access to computer science as their wealthier peers. The report provides a mixed picture on how equitably computer access is currently spread across Brooklyn schools. Some of the poorest districts in the report, such District 16, which encompasses Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, had above-average access to laptops, while others like District 32, which includes Bushwick, have below-average access.

Still, Adams said, high-poverty schools are in great need of Wi-Fi and computer support.

“Just as they don’t have access to Wi-Fi [in schools], they typically don’t have access in their community or in their home,” Adams said. “We need to do more to stop that.”

A new hope?

Colorado school funding advocates take early steps toward possible 2018 ballot measure

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
A student at Indian Peaks Elementary School works on a project in class.

Stung that a proposed 2016 ballot initiative that would have sent millions of dollars to Colorado classrooms was abandoned, a coalition of school funding advocates is quietly meeting to consider crafting a different package for the 2018 election.

Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for school funding, has pulled together education leaders and community organizations to discuss the issue. How big the ask might be and details such as potential ballot language are unknown because the group’s work has just begun, said Lisa Weil, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We have to prepare the ground for something to be successful,” Weil said. “This work is to make sure we don’t miss an opportunity.”

The working group is made up of representatives from organizations such as the Colorado PTA and the Colorado Rural Alliance. Faith leaders and organizations that advocate for people of color and those with disabilities also are participating.

Weil declined to identify the organizations but said “we have to have a broad organization thinking about this.”

For any push to be successful, Weil said, it will take advocates talking to voters in all corners of the state, not just “television ads and slick mailers.”

Earlier this year, Weil’s group and many others in the education community rallied behind a proposal to ask voters to approve additional taxes to pay for education, roads, mental health and services for seniors. But organizers suspended gathering petitions over the summer, citing concerns that they couldn’t raise enough money for the campaign.

Colorado voters were last asked to pump money into public schools statewide in 2013, with Amendment 66. The constitutional amendment, backed by more than $11 million in campaign donations, would have added about a billion dollars to the state’s school system and triggered a new formula for how the state funds schools. The measure was defeated by 30 percentage points.

Nine of the state’s 11 most populous counties voted no on the amendment. Voters in Boulder and Denver — reliably liberal and tax-friendly counties — barely approved the increase.

Leaders at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank that led the charge against Amendment 66, said history is on their side when it comes major tax increases.

“People are more interested in how money gets spent, not just how much,” said Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst for the institute. “I would be interested in having a discussion about how we allocate the huge amount of money we put into K-12 education before we start talking about raising taxes.”

Colorado, a low-tax state with constitutionally restricted spending caps, often falls at the bottom of lists that rank how much states spend on schools.

Those who want the state to spend more money often point to the so-called “negative factor” as proof that the state is shortchanging schools.

The negative factor is the difference between how much the state should fund its schools as defined by the constitution and what it actually provides based on available revenue. Currently, it amounts to about $830 million.

“Our current funding system is not up to the task we’re asking of it, that we should ask for it,” Weil said.

Despite projections that show the shortfall growing next year, most schools would get slightly more money than last year if the General Assembly approves Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal.

Weil said she still has hope that the governor and lawmakers will come up with a long-term solution.

“What the legislature might do, what can they do, that’s part of the conversation” about whether to press forward with another ballot initiative, Weil said.

Local school districts, under the impression that the state will never make up the shortfall, have increasingly asked local voters to approve smaller tax increases — either bonds for capital needs or mill levy overrides to support education programs or increase teacher salaries.

This year saw a record number of districts — including those in Denver, Aurora and Greeley, and Jefferson and Adams counties — ask for local tax increases. Voters approved about two-thirds of them.

Nora Brown, secretary for the Colorado PTA and a member of the group weighing a 2018 ballot measure, said educating voters about how the schools are funded and what restrictions the state has will be one of the group’s biggest challenges.

“I think people’s minds are open to the discussion,” she said. “The challenge will be to educate and make this relevant to others to get involved and engaged in the conversation.”

Another potential test to the group’s effort could be the passage of Amendment 71, which makes it more difficult to amend the state’s constitution.

If the group proceeds with a constitutional amendment, it will be required to collect signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If any amendment makes the ballot, 55 percent of voters must approve of the ballot language for it to become law.

The group could also submit a proposition to the voters, which would create new state law without changing the state’s constitution. Unlike voter-approved amendments, state lawmakers can easily repeal propositions through legislation.

“It’s way too early to say whether this is going to be an amendment or a proposition,” Weil said. “But in terms of talking preparation, Amendment 71 means we have to be prepared more broadly.”