State legislators easily passed a bill Tuesday to increase funding for public education next year, while also voting narrowly in favor of a constitutional amendment that would give judges less say over school funding.
The House Administration and Planning Committee unanimously approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan, which would increase education funding by $261 million including more investments in technology, teacher salaries, and English language learners. The bill also would codify the state’s funding formula, which has been in flux for more than two decades, with three court decisions spurring the legislature to overhaul the way it funds public schools.
The committee then voted 7-5 in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution to emphasize the General Assembly’s role in setting education policy. The sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, says the amendment, which eventually would require a referendum vote by Tennesseans, is designed to block “tyrannical” judges from demanding certain education policies, including possibly more funding.
Dunn cited Kansas as an example of courts overstepping their bounds. There, a 2014 State Supreme Court ruling identified unconstitutional disparities among school districts and ordered the legislature to address them by a July 1 deadline. Then a lower court recently ruled that the law put in place by the Kansas legislature to fix the disparities is inadequate.
“We see across the country that there are judges stepping in saying no, we’re going to make the policy for our school system,” Dunn said.
Dunn was pressed on students’ rights to an equitable education by Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Democrat from Rock Island, who credits his public school education in part to increased school funding that resulted from court orders. Dunn responded that he supported past lawsuits that led the legislature to boost education funding, but is concerned about potential judicial overreach in the future.
It’s not clear how either the proposed constitutional amendment, or the governor’s proposed budget, would impact two current school funding lawsuits against the state filed by school boards in Shelby and Hamilton counties, along with six smaller districts.
Dunn said he has not yet received a response from the state attorney general about how the proposed amendment would affect the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which was key in a court ruling that led the legislature to craft Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) in 1992, as well as the 2002 lawsuit that prompted BEP 2.0.
The legislature passed BEP 2.0 in 2007 but, because of the Great Recession, it has never been fully funded. Instead, Tennessee has been using a hybrid of the two BEP formulas. The administration’s bill, based on two years of review, proposes to stick with that hybrid.
“We’ve taken a really focused effort to look at the way we distribute the dollars,” said Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of education. “In the end, when we looked at the outcomes, we really feel like what we’ve been doing the past nine years is an appropriate way to distribute the dollars.”
But that likely won’t appease districts seeking more money and changes to the funding formula. In March, seven school districts in southeast Tennessee, led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in education inequality across the state. The state has urged dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education, an argument that likely would be bolstered under the proposed constitutional amendment.
Shelby County Schools’ lawsuit maintains that the state doesn’t provide enough funding for its most vulnerable students.
Despite the legal questions, Smith told lawmakers that districts should rejoice over education spending increases. Districts would get $178 million more for teacher salaries than the amount guaranteed by BEP 2.0, he said. Smith added that the budget bill mandates that districts who pay teachers below the state average spend money allotted for teacher pay on actual salaries, not insurance costs, so teachers can feel the difference.
“This is a record investment for education,” Smith said.
Both Dunn’s amendment resolution and the budget proposal will be heard next in the House Finance Committee.