The Metro Nashville school district has taken aim at the state's level of education funding, arguing that Davidson County has been shorted millions of dollars and setting the stage for what could be a broad-based assault on state funding levels by districts all over the state.
The Metro school board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask Gov. Bill Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly to "adequately fund public education" in a way that would allow local districts to meet rigorous new academic standards.
At issue is the state's funding education funding law known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP, which the Metro board claims hasn't been fully funded since it was overhauled six years ago under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen.
"It's a shared responsibility to educate our students," school board member Amy Frogge said. "We have a state legislature that has passed a law, and there's no compliance with the funding aspect of that."
The resolution cites a November report from the BEP's Review Committee that found Metro would need an additional $12.7 million on top of the $253.4 million it got this year from the state to become fully funded under the program. Statewide, that gap is $146 million, the report says. School officials claim an additional $74.6 million was required for Nashville this year to meet the committee's funding recommendations, which include adequate teacher salaries.
Metro's resolution also references a May report from the U.S. Census Bureau that found Tennessee, at $8,765, is 49th in per-pupil public school funding. That report, the most recent compiled by the bureau, is based on 2011 data and includes state, local and federal resources.
Frogge, who sponsored the resolution, said she would be showing it to the school boards of Memphis-Shelby County, Knoxville and Chattanooga. Together, they form a lobbying arm at Capitol Hill on behalf of the state's four largest school systems.
Charter rift cited
Board colleague Elissa Kim questioned the wisdom and focus of digging deeper into an ongoing rift with the state — one that grew out of the board's disapproval of a charter school proposal a year ago.
"Having tussled with the state like we have in the past, this strikes me not necessarily as the highest-value thing we could do," Kim said, though she ultimately supported the resolution.
Tennessee has a constitutional obligation to provide free K-12 public education, which it does through the BEP. The program uses demographics, enrollment and other data to determine a local district's allocations.
Metro officials have long criticized the equity of the BEP funding formula. Major changes were made in the early 1990s to help rural districts, but the formula today allocates fewer dollars to districts such as Metro Nashville that have the capacity to generate more local tax revenue.
At $3,103 per student, Metro ranks fourth to last among districts in the amount it gets per pupil from the state. Its local share accounts for two-thirds of its education dollars.
An attorney for Metro Nashville Public Schools in September advised the board to explore whether the BEP is equitable for large school systems such as Nashville. But instead of directing its resolution at the equity of that system, the resolution approved Tuesday questions the adequacy of education funding statewide.
'No one … formula'
Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, did not directly address the adequacy issue when asked for a comment Tuesday, instead focusing on equity.
"With regard to the equity of BEP, there is no one funding formula that will satisfy all districts," she said in a statement. "The reality is that there is a finite amount of money for education in Tennessee, and amending the formula will not change that."
Haslam has called funding for schools a top priority. During 2014-15 budget hearings last month, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman presented a plan that called for a $57 million increase in education funding. The governor also has unveiled a new goal of making Tennessee the fastest-improving state in teacher salaries.
Other states have seen clashes over school funding turn to litigation. In Kansas, for example, the state Supreme Court is reviewing a suit waged originally by 63 local districts claiming they should be funded at a higher level.
"It's way too early to talk about going to court," Metro school board member Will Pinkston said. "The first step is to surface concerns — do it collectively with the large districts — and see if the state is willing to listen and have a conversation. But if all else fails, you reserve the right to pursue legal remedies, but that would be way down the road."