Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

taking action

Denver to dismiss students early as teachers rally for more school funding

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Colorado educators rallied outside the State Capitol on April 16, 2018. More rallies are planned for next week. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The Denver school district will cut short the school day on April 27 after the local teachers union announced its members would join an afternoon rally at the Colorado Capitol to advocate for more state education funding.

District-run schools will have an “early-release” day with students being dismissed sometime between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Denver Public Schools spokeswoman Jessie Smiley said. Exact dismissal times will depend on a school’s transportation schedule, she said.

Innovation schools, which are district-run schools with additional autonomy, can opt out of the early dismissal and operate on a normal schedule, according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg that explains why the district is declaring an early-release day. Denver Public Schools is the largest school district in the state, with 92,600 students.

Several charter schools also plan to dismiss students early so teachers can participate in the rally. They include schools in the district’s two biggest homegrown charter networks, DSST and STRIVE Prep, according to officials from those networks.

Other Colorado school districts have canceled school for a whole day. Colorado has among the lowest level of school funding in the country, and a recent study ranked the state last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Read Boasberg’s letter in full below.

Dear DPS Community,

As we have been communicating with you, DPS has been working extraordinarily hard and in partnership with superintendents across the state to press our state government to restore education funding to our schools, and ensure our students and our educators receive the supports and compensation they deserve.

In Colorado, the state funds education at an average of $2,500 per student less than the national average. That is short-sighted and wrong. Our state needs to dramatically increase our investment in education, and all of our voices play a vital role in this effort.

The statewide teachers association, the Colorado Education Association, is planning a statewide rally of educators on Friday, April 27 to advocate for greater state funding and expects that many of our teachers will participate. As such, we’ve been working with our teachers on a plan that will have as minimal impact as possible on our students and families

Given the number of teachers expected to participate in CEA’s event that afternoon, we have decided to schedule an early release day for all district-managed schools on Friday, April 27. Innovation schools can opt out of the early release schedule and decide to operate on a normal schedule. We felt it was important to get a decision on this as early as possible so schools and families can plan ahead.

The planned early release will not impact student meals. We are committed to feeding every child every day, so bagged lunches will be available for every student on April 27.

Also, the planned early release day will not impact the 34th Annual Shakespeare Festival. The festival will follow its regular schedule. Transportation will be provided to students who go back to school after the celebration.

We are working with Transportation Services to provide accurate information about transportation for Friday, April 27. We will share this information as soon as it’s available.

We are communicating with school leaders and families to provide you with answers to your questions about your school’s schedule, transportation, and after-school activities. Please look for a detailed communication from your student’s principal by the end of the day Thursday, April 19.

As in every case, our students’ safety is our top priority, and we will make necessary revisions to these plans to prioritize their well-being. Thank you for your support of our educators and your partnership in our students’ education.

Best,
Tom

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.