Joining two other cities, Nashville raises stakes in Tennessee’s school funding fight

Nashville’s Board of Education this week became the third of Tennessee’s four urban school boards to vote in favor of suing the state for more funding.

Memphis-based Shelby County Schools and Chattanooga-based Hamilton County Schools filed separate lawsuits last year charging that Tennessee was not funding local schools adequately or equitably.

Gov. Bill Haslam presides over budget hearings last fall. Haslam ultimately boosted education spending for 2016-17, but Nashville school officials say its not enough to educate their district's English language learners. ( Photo by TN.gov )

Gov. Bill Haslam presides over budget hearings last fall. Haslam ultimately boosted education spending for 2016-17, but Nashville school officials say its not enough to educate their district’s English language learners. ( Photo by TN.gov )

In a split vote Tuesday night, the Nashville board voted to take the state to court after receiving less state money than expected for its growing population of English language learners. Nashville has the largest ELL population in Tennessee and serves about a third of the state’s ELL students overall.
More than a year earlier, the board had voted to pursue dialogue over litigation over concerns about the adequacy of state funding for schools.
“This decision was the option of last resort, and the culmination of years of deliberations that brought us to this simple conclusion: On his own, the Governor is not going to help Nashville. On its own, the rural majority in the legislature is not going to help Nashville,” said Nashville board member Will Pinkston in an emailed statement on Wednesday. “…The only place left to go is the judicial branch, which hopefully will (as it has done in the past) compel relief.”
The vote was the latest volley in a decades-long battle between districts and the state over education funding in Tennessee. Smaller school districts successfully sued the state to change its funding formula in the 1990s and early 2000s. Urban districts and city governments began conversations as early as 2004 about potential litigation, but had not filed lawsuits until last year. Both of the current suits are pending in Davidson County Chancery Court.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she is disappointed in the board’s vote in behalf of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, known as MNPS.
“Since 2011, Governor (Bill) Haslam and the General Assembly have worked together to provide more than $730 million in new funding for K-12 education. Just this year, the state provided a record investment for our schools — $220 million in new funding, including $14 million in new funds for school districts to serve English learners,” McQueen said in a statement. “This increased ELL funding benefits MNPS more than any other school district in the state. MNPS’ use of taxpayer dollars to sue the state only serves to remove funds from classrooms and the very students the district is attempting to help.”
Earlier this year, Haslam championed Tennessee’s largest-ever boost in education spending unaccompanied by a tax increase. Haslam has also increased teacher pay in other years and had hoped that those efforts would quell funding frustrations from local districts. But at least some of that money has passed over larger districts like those in Nashville and Memphis because it specifically targeted disparities in teacher pay. The urban districts already have the highest teacher salaries, but also rely considerably more on local funding than their rural counterparts, which have smaller tax bases.
To keep pace, Nashville has increased property rates several times, most notably in 2012 when a 50-cent tax increase resulted in nearly $100 million more for the city’s schools.
At the heart of Nashville’s complaints are that some improvements outlined in Haslam’s budget for 2016-17 aren’t being honored. This year the legislature passed Haslam’s proposal to fund ELL teachers at a 1:20 student ratio and translators at a 1:200 student ratio, but Nashville will only receive funds for a 1:25 student ratio and translators at a 1:250 ratio. In a letter to the district, a State Department of Education official said that the stated ratios were the goal but that the state does not have the funding to fulfill it in the upcoming fiscal year.
Nashville board members also have said that they believe the state should be kicking in more for teacher salaries and other components. Should the suit go to court, it’s possible that their case would expand to look similar to Shelby County’s suit.
Shelby County Schools argues that the state has violated its constitutional duty to “equitably and adequately fund public school education for all students,” noting that Memphis and Shelby County have a disproportionately high number of students who are minorities, have disabilities and live in extreme poverty.
In their suit, Hamilton County Schools and six smaller school systems charge that the state has created a system that “shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in substantially unequal educational opportunities across the State.”
While Nashville and Shelby County’s complaints are more specific to urban areas, the suit filed by Hamilton County would potentially impact all districts in Tennessee.

This article originally appeared on Chalkbeat.org.