Lawmakers: Governor’s school funding plan not likely to avert state lawsuit

By: - April 20, 2022 7:01 am
East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Two Democratic legislators predicted Tuesday the governor’s K-12 funding plan won’t persuade Metro Nashville or Shelby County school districts to drop a lawsuit over education funding.

On the contrary, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, said he hopes the proposal won’t dissuade Metro Nashville’s efforts to obtain more state education funding.

Clemmons contends Metro Nashville Public Schools “certainly had legal grounds to file a lawsuit and thank God for civil rights.”

“Take away common sense, take away politics, take away everything. The final backstop on all of this will be civil rights claims because of the direct, adverse impact on children,” Clemmons said.

He added the new initiative could go to court, as well.

In addition to Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts, 84 small school districts joined the lawsuit in 2020, claiming funds are inadequate for all public schools, not just those with a high percentage of poor students, English-language learners and disabled students.

Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) spokesman Sean Braisted said Tuesday the impact of the legislation on pending litigation would be a matter for the school board to consider. He noted, however, the district opposes the legislation because it continues to “inadequately fund” MNPS students.

"Take away common sense, take away politics, take away everything. The final backstop on all of this will be civil rights claims because of the direct, adverse impact on children," said Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville (Photo: John Partipilo)
“Take away common sense, take away politics, take away everything. The final backstop on all of this will be civil rights claims because of the direct, adverse impact on children,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville (Photo: John Partipilo)

Under an amended version of Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, Metro Nashville Public Schools is slated to receive $22 million more in the program’s first year, only 2% of a billion-dollar spending increase even though Nashville has 8% of the state’s student population.

Gov. Bill Lee is proposing to pour $1 billion more into public schools in fiscal 2022-23, but that funding is separate from the new funding plan, which is proposed to replace the 30-year-old Basic Education Program, which critics say is too complex. All told, the state spends about $7 billion on K-12, some $5.8 billion of which comes from the state government.

It will be up to lawmakers to approve more funding each year for the governor’s proposal.

The new money is slated to go to career and technical education next year, in addition to schools in floodplains and a teacher raise that would equate to about $1,000 more. The following fiscal year, it would be funneled into the new funding formula.

The proposal passed the House Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on a voice vote Tuesday and is slated to be considered Wednesday in the full finance committee. The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee was to discuss the matter Tuesday but wasn’t ready to vote on it.

Gov. Bill Lee floated the proposal to change Tennessee’s K-12 funding mechanism last November just as arguments were to be made in the lawsuit against the state. At the time, Lee contended the funding plan was not designed to impact the lawsuit.

Yet a three-judge panel put the litigation on hold to determine how the legislation will affect funding across the state, Clemmons pointed out.

The proposal places $6,800 in base funding in the plan for students, then adds funds for unique situations such as poverty, rural districts and student needs such as disabilities.

Shelby County Schools stands to pick up more state funding, about $115 million, as part of the new funding and the proposed mechanism. Shelby filed the lawsuit in 2015 and was joined by Metro Nashville two years later, before small schools joined in fall of 2020.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper conceded Tuesday that the funding plan contains “a lot of good things,” but she pointed out many questions remain unanswered. 

For instance, an inflationary index to determine how much the Legislature should invest in the program each year is not part of the bill and could wind up “making it political” in the coming years, Camper said.

The Memphis Democrat also said she “doubts seriously” the increase in funding will lead Shelby County Schools to drop its lawsuit.

“I think they’ll see that process through,” she said. 

Camper also noted the Shelby school district could be affected by the amount of matching funds it has to come up with in three to four years when a “hold harmless” provision is lifted. Lawmakers have raised concerns that local governments will be forced to raise taxes in that fourth year.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, though, reiterated Tuesday that school districts across the state would be forced to raise taxes in the first year if the state keeps the BEP formula and puts $1 billion more into K-12 education.

The Sycamore Institute put out a recent study in which it said the new proposal “is unlikely to grow the statewide total for mandatory local spending over the next decade and – compared to the BEP — could require fewer district-level increases.”

In addition, based on how quickly legislators increase state funding, most school districts wouldn’t feel the effect of TISA on their required spending for at least 10 years, whereas the BEP would force more districts to exceed current levels quicker, the Sycamore report found.

The Sycamore Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Nashville, put out a recent study that said Lee’s new proposal could require fewer district-level spending increases.

Critics of the plans questioned the Sycamore report because The Gates Foundation donated $100,000 to the institute “to support the adoption of an equitable funding formula to improve educational opportunities for all K-12 students in Tennessee.”

Gates gave that same amount to the Memphis Education Fund, the Knox Education Fund and NAACP Empowerment Programs Inc., all for the same purpose.

But Brian Straessle with Sycamore said the description on the Gates website is an “inaccurate reflection of the actual work.” He pointed out the project description was made months before anyone knew Gov. Lee would push this legislation.

“Anyone familiar with our work knows Sycamore’s analysis is always neutral and impartial,” he said in an email.

Gov. Lee continued to tout the plan Tuesday, sending out a statement noting some 100 local leaders and organizations statewide are supporting the funding proposal, including the Memphis Education Fund, NAACP of TN, Memphis Restorative Justice Coalition, Oasis Center, Tennessee Disability Coalition, Tennessee Charter School Center, Tennesseans for Student Success, The Memphis Lift and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, along with dozens of officials representing medium-sized school districts.

“For the first time in 30 years, we have a unique opportunity to replace Tennessee’s outdated K-12 funding formula with a modern, student-focused approach, and we are honored to have strong support from countless local leaders who agree the time is now,” Lee said in a statement.

House Education Administration Committee Chairman Mark White pointed out during debate Tuesday that the state will never be able to fully fund the Basic Education Program to the “satisfaction” of local districts because the old formula is based on ratios. White, an East Memphis Republican, contends the new plan will provide funds based on student needs and create more accountability for districts.

“A school district that is really sharp is going to take this and do wonders,” he said.

In contrast, the state will be able to ask poorly performing districts why they aren’t excelling, he said.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth argued against holding up on the bill this session, saying students can’t afford to wait another year for a formula that will bolster their education.

Tennessee House Majority Leader Rep. William Lamberth (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee House Majority Leader Rep. William Lamberth said it’s too early in the redistricting process to speculate on the redrawing of congressional districts. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“We’re stuck with that outdated model when this can spring us forward,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican.

Democrats countered afterward that the funding plan is creating more questions than answers.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, said too much of the formula will be handled through the Legislature’s rule-making process rather than the legislation, leaving it in the hands of the administration.

The legislation has seen multiple amendments, forcing lawmakers to familiarize themselves with each new iteration. 

For instance, the bill initially gave “weight” to charter schools, but that was taken out before it reappeared in another category called “direct” funding.

State Rep. Sam McKenzie, a Knoxville Democrat, said, “I’m not going to call it a bait-and-switch game, but it’s complicated. … When you have a complicated formula, there are ways to hide things, ways to move things, and it just wasn’t given enough time to be fully vetted.”

In order to improve its financial standing, MNPS is pushing for a “50% floor” in state funding, because the district is one of two that will receive less than half of its proposed TISA funding formula in state money. Metro Nashville also wants a “cost-differential factor” that recognizes the higher cost of living in Davidson County.

The state’s calculations for Metro’s “cost-differential factor” are about 120%, yet that isn’t part of the legislation, meaning the student-based funding formula isn’t paying enough for students in districts with a high cost of living.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.