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.”

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

priorities

With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.