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.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

Human Resources

Leanne Emm, Colorado education department’s chief financial officer, to retire

Leanne Emm, the state education department's retiring chief financial officer. (Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Education)

A long-running joke among Colorado education officials, policymakers and activists is that only a handful of people really know how Colorado’s complex school funding system works.

One of those people — Leanne Emm, the state’s education department’s deputy commissioner — is retiring later this month after nearly 30 years in public service.

Emm announced her retirement in an email to other school finance officers late last month. Her last day at the department is Sept. 22.

“Each of you helps your students, communities, stakeholders and decision makers with a huge array of issues,” she said in her email. “I can only hope that I will have helped contribute to an understanding of budgetary pressures that we have within the state.”

Emm was appointed to her position in 2011 — about the same time the state’s schools were grappling with deep budget cuts due to Great Recession. She worked at Jeffco Public Schools for 14 years before joining the education department.

Katy Anthes, the state’s education commissioner, said Emm’s exit will be felt at both the state and local school district level.

“Leanne’s leadership and her deep knowledge of the school finance system will be sorely missed by all of us at CDE and by the districts she has supported over the years.” Anthes said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for her support as I transitioned to this role. I’m sad to see her leave CDE, but I suspect that her love for the state of Colorado and passion for improving education will cause our paths to cross again.”