After meeting to discuss budget concerns with representatives from four of the state’s largest school districts the day before, on March 24, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam found himself, and the state legislature, the commissioner of education and board of education, named as defendants in a suit attacking the state’s failure to adequately and equitably fund its school system. The case, Hamilton County Board of Education v. Haslam, is the fourth such suit against the state in almost 25 years.
The latest litigation was initiated by seven Tennessee school districts that allege that the state has abdicated its constitutional duty to fund the state’s system of public education, and has impermissibly shifted that responsibility onto local communities. They allege that the state has failed to fully fund the Basic Education Program (the “BEP”), an approach that the legislature enacted in 1992 while the first school funding litigation was still proceeding. A BEP Review Committee periodically determines the actual costs of operating the public school system, and is expected to ensure the equitable distribution of funds to meet these costs across the state based on school districts’ relative funding needs. Plaintiffs had returned to court in 1995 and 2002 because of the state’s failure to ensure that the BEP fulfilled the state’s obligation to equitably fund the school system and, specifically, because adequate state funding to cover teachers’ salaries was not being provided. In 2007, the state made upward cost revisions to the BEP to account for teachers’ salaries, but, according to the current complaint, it has failed to fully fund the BEP to cover these costs in the years since.
The complaint alleges that the BEP’s current funding formula underestimates the costs of teachers’ salaries by roughly $532 million, teachers’ insurance by approximately $64 million, and classroom costs by roughly $134 million. The plaintiff-districts allege that the state has continued to underfund education despite the numerous recommendations from the legislatively-created BEP Review Committee “to fund the true costs of operating Tennessee’s system of public education.” The districts further contend that their situation is made more dire by the state’s continuing imposition of higher academic standards. In wealthier districts, the complaint alleges, parents are asked to pay fees and support fundraisers to offset increasing educational costs, while in poorer districts, school officials lacking the means to raise sufficient funds are forced to cut even the most basic educational services.