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.

state of the state

Gov. Rick Snyder proposes more money for Michigan schools in final State of the State

Gov. Rick Snyder delivers his eighth and final State of the State address, Jan. 23, 2018.

Gov. Rick Snyder hopes to send more money to schools around the state next year.

He announced during his eighth and final State of the State address Tuesday that his budget proposal will include “the largest increase in the basic per pupil student foundation allowance in the last 15 years.”

This proposal comes just a week after Amazon delivered a major rebuke to the state’s educational system.

The retail giant cited the poor state of schools and the lack of qualified professionals in the state when it eliminated both Detroit and Grand Rapids from consideration for the future home of its second headquarters.

Snyder, who will be forced from office by term limits at the end of the year, said he’s determined to use his final year in office to help improve education and to better prepare Michigan students for technology jobs.

“Let’s invest more in education,” he said.

The governor did not get into details about how the money should be spent. He made no mention of a major report that came out last week recommending a different way of distributing education dollars.

But in addition to promising more K-12 spending in his upcoming budget proposal to the legislature, Snyder said he’s also developing a “Marshall Plan for Talent.”

He did not provide details about that plan but said it “is going to lay the groundwork for a new way of producing talent in Michigan.”

The plan, he said, “is going to prepare Michigan students to invest in the future and to be ready for what comes next and to break down the walls that have traditionally existed between educational institutions and businesses.”

The state “learned some things” from its Amazon proposals, he said. “We can do better.”

Watch the full speech here:

money matters

After Cuomo calls for belt-tightening, New York’s Board of Regents look to lawmakers for more school aid

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Rosa at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School

Less than a week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a modest increase in school spending, the state’s top education policymakers began plotting ways to secure more funding.

Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa rallied her fellow board members at a meeting Monday, urging them to shift their focus onto the state legislature, which must negotiate a final budget with the governor. She said the board should come up with a unified plan for pressuring lawmakers, adding that State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia would continue to make the case for more funding in public and in private conversations with legislators.

Now the question becomes: What else can we do to continue to move that agenda forward?” Rosa said to the group. “I’d like us to do it in a collective kind of way so that it doesn’t become a free-for-all.”

In the 2018 spending plan that Cuomo released last week, he proposed a $769 million increase in education funding — less than half the amount that the Board of Regents had called for. Rosa and Elia issued a statement soon after the budget came out saying they were “concerned.”

They may face an uphill battle as they prepare to urge lawmakers to haggle for more school aid. New York is staring down a projected budget deficit, responding to a federal tax overhaul that could limit the state’s ability to raise revenue, and bracing for the possibility of further federal cuts.

Even as the Regents got set to resist Cuomo’s spending plan, Commissioner Elia pushed back against another one of the governor’s proposals.

In his budget plan, Cuomo suggested that the state education department and his budget office be given final approval of local school-district budgets. The added oversight is meant to ensure that the neediest schools receive their fair share of funding, but Elia raised concerns that it could usurp local officials’ authority.

“I think there’s some concerns, clearly, on someone from [the state education department] and or the division of budget separated from a school and their community saying you can’t do something on your budget,” Elia told reporters Monday outside the Regents meeting.

Now that the governor has submitted his budget, lawmakers in each chamber will craft counteroffers. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, has already signaled that he wants a sizeable increase in school funding this year. But Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, has spoken in general terms about spending restraint.

The board is also pushing for extra funding for specific purposes, such as support for students learning English. The Regents had called for spending an additional $85 million on English learners this year, but this request did not make it into the governor’s budget.

Regent Luis Reyes, a longtime advocate for English learners, asked how the board can ensure that this goal does not get lost in the shuffle.

“How do we spend the rest of January, February, and March publicly and/or privately to get this pillar to be built and not to be dismantled?” he asked.