Funding fight

Does Tennessee have to follow its own school spending plan? Court prepares to weigh in

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
State education funding for its growing population of English language learners is at the heart of a legal challenge filed in September by Metropolitan Nashville government.

Tennessee lawmakers voted this year to give local school districts more funding for the state’s growing population of English language learners.

Now, the state’s lawyers say Tennessee doesn’t have to follow through on its own plan.

At a hearing Friday at the Davidson County Chancery Court, attorneys for the state and Metropolitan Nashville government faced off on the issue, the latest development in a series of legal challenges by local districts over education dollars from the state.

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.

Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman is scheduled on Sept. 26 to decide the matter. She can issue the order, deny the city’s petition, or instruct Nashville to refile its challenge as a declaratory suit, as two of Tennessee’s other large school districts have done. Should she side with Nashville, she’d likely give the state a long deadline that allows the legislature to appropriate the additional funds at its session next year.

The state says Tennessee isn’t legally required to follow the BEP, and that it provided Nashville with enough money for now, with intentions to phase in more funding eventually to meet the new BEP ratio. It says Nashville cannot prove it has a right to the additional funding, and that the courts cannot compel the legislature to appropriate more money.

Nashville’s Sept. 1 petition differs from the lawsuits spearheaded last year by Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, because it directly demands the state to pay based on the BEP formula. The other districts’ lawsuits charge that the state isn’t adequately funding public education in Tennessee and ask the court to decide what districts have a right to receive, potentially impacting districts statewide.

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.”

Nashville’s lawyers countered that a court order is appropriate, and that its funding case is different from those of the other large districts.

At the heart of the other lawsuits is the question of the BEP’s adequacy. Nashville’s lawyers say they’re willing to maintain for now that the state’s current funding plan is adequate; they’re just demanding that the state comply with it.

“What (the state’s lawyers) fail to understand is that (Nashville) accepts, for purposes of this lawsuit, the BEP in its current form — but demands (the state) live up to the Supreme Court’s directive that the BEP is fully funded,” Nashville attorneys wrote in their response to the state’s objection filed this week.

A 1995 Tennessee Supreme Court decision declared that the state must fund the BEP regardless of revenue.

Shelby County Schools’ case against the state is currently in discovery, meaning both sides are gathering evidence and building their cases for trial. Hamilton County’s case is also continuing since Bonnyman denied the state’s request for dismissal.

Vision quest

Colorado lawmakers want to reimagine the state’s schools. Here’s how.

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

What should Colorado schools look like in 2030, and how should the state pay for them?

Those are two big questions a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers hope to answer in the next several years.

State Reps. Millie Hamner and Bob Rankin, two of the state’s most influential lawmakers on education policy, are asking their colleagues this spring to approve a bill that would create a legislative process for rethinking the state’s entire public education system.

“Right now, there’s dissatisfaction with our system,” said Rankin, a Carbondale Republican and member of the state’s budget committee. “We’re sort of average. We’re average in the U.S. We’re average in the world. That’s not good enough for Colorado.”

The bill’s sponsors have two outcomes in mind: Create a vision for improving and modernizing Colorado schools and change the way the state pays for them. The plan, they think, could create enough support to convince voters to send more money to schools as needed.

“We realize it’s time to have a conversation with the state of Colorado around what is it that they want for their kids, how can we achieve that and how can we fund it,” said Hamner, a Frisco Democrat and vice-chair of the state’s budget committee, noting two recent failed attempts at the ballot to raise statewide taxes for schools.

The discussion over the future of Colorado’s schools comes as states are being handed more control over education policy. The nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, has fewer requirements than previous iterations of the federal law.

And soon, Colorado will no longer be bound by agreements it made with the Obama administration. The state may re-evaluate and perhaps repeal some of the policies it enacted during the last decade in an effort to win federal money.

“We’ve all been working hard, but I’m not convinced we’ve been working toward the same direction — the right direction,” Hamner said.

House Bill 1287 would create a series of committees to craft a vision and strategic plan for the state’s schools.

Already, it is being met with caution by some district-level school board members who hold dear their constitutionally protected local control.

“I can see the noble desire to invest in a vision and strategic plan. But many school districts have already done this locally,” said Doug Lidiak, a member of the Greeley school board. “I worry the outcome is more education bills coming from our state legislature.”

The idea faces other challenges: educators who feel taxed by a slew of mandates and are wary of change; school leaders already dealing with with tightening school budgets; and growing inequalities between schools on the Front Range and in the more rural parts of the state.

“Whatever comes out of this process needs to take into consideration the various differences of districts in size and geography,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Some education lobbyists at the Capitol have also voiced concern that the process laid out in the bill is too bureaucratic and could take too long to address urgent needs.

The bill would create a series of committees.

The first legislative steering committee would be made up of a dozen state lawmakers, including the chairs of the House and Senate education committees and two members of the Joint Budget Committee.

A second executive advisory board would be made up of the state education commissioner, two members of the State Board of Education, representatives from the early childhood leadership commission and higher education department. The governor would also have a representative on the advisory board.

The third committee would be made up of teachers, parents, school board members, education policy advocates, representatives of the business community and others. These individuals would be appointed by the legislative steering committee.

The work would be done in four stages.

In the first phase, the committees would take stock of Colorado’s current education landscape and create a process to solicit input on what the state’s schools should look like. The second phase would collect that input. The vision and plan would be drafted in the third phase. And lawmakers would consider any legislation necessary to make the vision and plan a reality in the fourth phase.

The bill also requires the committees to meet periodically after the vision and plan are adopted to monitor how the plan is being carried out across the state.

Rankin, the House Republican, said Colorado’s education system could benefit from short-term fixes, but that it was important to take the long view, too.

“If you fight a lot of tactical battles, it ought to fit into your overall strategy,” he said. “We’re trying to build something the public can buy in to.”

funding feud

Three struggling New York City schools in line to get millions in back payments from the state

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Three struggling schools in New York City will receive millions of dollars in back payments from the state, thanks to a recent ruling from an appellate court.

The schools — Automotive High School and P.S. 328 Phyllis Wheatley School in Brooklyn and Mosholu Parkway Middle School in the Bronx — were added to the state’s list of persistently struggling schools in July 2015, making them eligible for extra state funding.

But last February, the State Education Department, citing new test data, removed four of the seven original “persistently struggling” New York City schools from the list. One of the schools, P.S. 64 in the Bronx, was closed. Because the remaining three were no longer on the list of lowest-performing schools, they became ineligible for their second year of funding through the grant, according to the state Division of the Budget.

That decision angered advocates such as the union-backed Alliance for Quality Education, which helped organize parents to file suit over the lost funding, which amounts to more than $3 million for the three New York City schools alone. Most of the $75 million originally granted to struggling schools never made it to them, according to Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center, who helped argue the case. Twenty total schools are owed money, according to the ELC.

“We’re thrilled the money can now be released to the schools because the money was providing vital services that were completely interrupted,” Lecker said, including extended learning time and additional teacher training. “It will affect hundreds of kids.”

Last week’s decision, issued by a panel of state judges, technically doesn’t end the litigation. The ruling lifts a stay that had frozen the funding while the case continues on to an “expedited” appeal, Lecker said. In the meantime, the state must release the money.

But since the case hasn’t been completely resolved, it is possible that the schools would have to hand the money back, though Lecker believes that outcome is unlikely.

Since the lawsuit was filed last September, different arms of the state bureaucracy have pointed fingers at each other over who is responsible for withholding the money, even while they all agree the money should be paid out. The state Division of the Budget has largely blamed the State Education Department, while SED said removal from the persistently struggling schools list should not require a loss of funding.

Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, would not comment on whether the state will keep pursuing the case. “We’re reviewing the decision,” he wrote in a statement.

And for its part, the State Education Department seemed to celebrate the decision. “We are pleased with the Court’s decision to lift the stay,” spokeswoman Emily DeSantis wrote in an email, “and allow for the release of funding for these at-risk schools.”