In its first response to a funding lawsuit filed last year by Shelby County Schools, the state is denying that its funding model is the cause of financial struggles faced by Tennessee’s largest school district.
And while agreeing that the state is responsible for maintaining and supporting a public school system “that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students in Tennessee,” the state says its existing funding formula, known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, meets that requirement.
The 25-page response was filed last Friday afternoon in Davidson County Chancery Court, marking the next step in a legal process expected to take years.
The Shelby County lawsuit, filed last August by the district’s school board, charged that the state not only does not adequately fund school operations, but that the state does not fully fund its own formula. The formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the overwhelmingly impoverished student population in Memphis. The suit details how its funding level impacts student achievement and district operations including school closures, class sizes, student services such as guidance counselors and nurses, and even community engagement efforts.
In its response, the state affirmed its funding model at every front and cited the district’s flexibility to spend the money provided. The response does not include specific defenses of the state’s funding model, only saying it provides the money.
State officials named in the district’s funding lawsuit “deny that their actions ‘forced’ the District to eliminate any programs.”
“The District has considerable discretion in deciding how to allocate funds,” the response says. “… Education funding affects the educational opportunities that are available to students, but deny any conclusory opinions regarding the causal effect of money on educational outcomes.”
The state is now facing several school funding lawsuits. Last year, Chattanooga-based Hamilton County Schools spearheaded the first lawsuit with six surrounding rural districts. And last month, the school board for Metro Nashville Public Schools voted to sue the state too, after learning that the district will receive less state money than expected for its growing population of English language learners.
The lawsuits are the latest legal challenges to Tennesee’s system for funding public education. In 1988, 77 small school systems successfully sued the state, claiming its funding formula — known as the Tennessee Foundation Program — was inequitable. The ruling in 1993 by the Tennessee Supreme Court forced the state to change its funding formula, and subsequent legal challenges led to more revisions over the next decade.
Earlier this year, Shelby County Schools hired the Memphis-based law firm that won the 1993 ruling.
Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have expressed disappointment that districts are taking legal action. They point out that the Haslam administration has worked with the legislature to provide more than $730 million in new funding for K-12 education, including $220 million in new funding next school year — a record investment.
But while generally giving the governor high marks for his efforts, district and Shelby County government leaders have argued that the state’s funding mechanism is broken and that the state’s system has gradually shifted the cost of education to local governments.