Funding fight

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

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star
A first grader does his work while sitting on a bilingual rug at Enlace Academy, Tuesday, April 14, 2014. The charter school, with 55 percent English-language learners, uses a blended language learning approach.

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.

hot off the presses

A silver medal for Detroit pre-K. Now where are the kids?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Detroit has earned a silver rating, the second-highest possible, in a national ranking of urban preschool programs published Wednesday. But the report by the advocacy group CityHealth also says that too few eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled.

CityHealth, a foundation-funded organization that rates America’s largest urban centers based on their public policies, looked at how big cities stack up in offering preschool programs in a report published Wednesday.

Researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University conducted the study and compiled the report.

Following standards set by the largest state-funded pre-K organization, the Great Start Readiness Program, Detroit requires teachers in state preschool to have at least a bachelor’s degree, limits class sizes, and requires health screenings of children.

Those are some of the hallmarks of a high-quality program, according to CityHealth.

Only eight of the 40 cities whose policies were reviewed earned a silver rating, and only five earned the top gold rating. A handful of cities — Indianapolis and Phoenix, Arizona, among them — were far behind, with low enrollment and few or none of CityHealth’s model policies in place.

Still, the gap in Detroit’s pre-K system is a big one. The city has far fewer pre-K seats than it reportedly needs. That’s the case in many of America’s largest cities, according to CityHealth. In nearly half of the cities studied, pre-K programs reached less than one-third of the cities’ pre-schoolers.

The lack of preschool slots is one reason advocates from Michigan’s largest cities are pushing lawmakers to put early childhood on the agenda in Lansing. And it’s part of why Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has gotten behind the idea of a expanded pre-K system for Detroit.

Read the full report here:

School Funding 101

Report: Michigan has biggest school funding decline in nation

How’s this for a grim school funding statistic: A new report out Wednesday says total revenue for Michigan schools declined 30 percent from 2002 to 2015 — the largest decline for any state over the past quarter century.

The statistic, adjusted for inflation, is among findings of a report by researchers at Michigan State University that reviews school funding and recommends how the state can improve.

“Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap, focusing on more accountability and school choice,” wrote David Arsen, lead author and professor of education policy. “To make those policies effective, they have to be matched with adequate funding. We have been kidding ourselves to think we can move forward while cutting funding for schools.”

Co-authors are Tanner Delpier and Jesse Nagel, MSU doctoral students.

Here are a few of the highlights in the report — which is aimed at spurring public discussion of how to improve school funding in the state. The data were adjusted for inflation:

  • Dead last: Where Michigan ranks in total education revenue growth since the mid-90s, when the state’s current school funding formula was developed.
  • 60 percent: How much funding for at-risk students has declined since 2001.
  • 22 percent: How much per-pupil revenue declined from 2002 to 2015.

 The report comes about a year after the bipartisan School Finance Research Collaborative released a comprehensive set of recommendations for fixing the school funding system in Michigan. The MSU report provides a review of that report and adopts many of its recommendations.

It also comes after a December lame-duck legislative session in Michigan that ended with lawmakers voting to shift some funding from the state School Aid Fund to other priorities, such as road repairs and environmental cleanups.

Officials from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group that represents educators in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, said the MSU report should be a wake-up call for lawmakers. They said it confirms that Michigan’s K-12 funding is in crisis.

“Lawmakers need to stop hiding behind talking points that claim they are investing in our schools when the reality is our funding hasn’t even kept up with the rate of inflation, let alone the increased cost of the services we are being asked to provide our students,” said George Heitsch, president of the alliance and superintendent of Farmington Public Schools. “When you see the numbers from this report showing the drastic funding cuts that have been forced on our schools in recent years, it should be no wonder why our state ranks at the bottom in reading and math proficiency. This simply has to change because our students deserve better.”

Read the full report for more information and recommendations: