Addressing chronic state underfunding of Tennessee public education, the director of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is urging more patience and cooperation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration amid a growing chorus of urban school leaders exploring whether to take their case to court.

While affirming that the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) is not being adequately funded, MNPS Director Jesse Register said Monday that litigation is the “wrong way” to effectively advocate for additional money.

“The threat of litigation should only be considered as the last resort, and I do not believe we are at that point in Tennessee,” Register wrote in a letter to the district’s school board, Metro Council, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, the governor’s administration, and school superintendents in Shelby, Knox and Hamilton counties.

Nashville’s board is scheduled Tuesday to discuss whether to join Tennessee’s three other urban districts that passed resolutions in February to pursue legal discussions. But Register cautioned that now is the time for cooperation, not litigation.

Jesse Register
Jesse Register

“The Governor has this year demonstrated good faith efforts toward increased funding for our students,” wrote Register, noting that the governor’s proposed budget would increase teacher pay and maintain current BEP funding levels. He also applauded Haslam’s help in bringing $60 million in federal funding to Davidson and Shelby counties for early childhood education.

Chris Caldwell, the Shelby County Schools board member who urged his district to pursue legal options, said neither Haslam nor any individual legislator can guarantee anything to local school districts, however.

“I would ask Mr. Register this question: What has the governor or legislature done in the last two years to make him think working with them can yield any results?” Caldwell told Chalkbeat. “We’re 45th in per-pupil spending in the country, and it’s beyond the time for empty promises. These kids don’t get these years back.”

Caldwell said Shelby County’s exploration of a lawsuit would not be impacted by the stance of Nashville’s school district. Shelby County’s board is to discuss selection of an attorney in the matter Wednesday during a specially called meeting.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, Caldwell said, SCS would receive between $40 million and $50 million, well short of the $100 million needed to fully fund the BEP, pay teacher insurance for 12 months, and fund teacher salaries at the state level.

Caldwell also said that the state’s investment in education is not a question of having the money, but of setting priorities. “To fully fund schools for all districts in Tennessee would only be about 5 percent of the full state budget,” Caldwell said. “Where else in the state budget can we impact so many things – poverty, having an educated workforce, increasing tax revenues, reducing crime?”

Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address.
Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address.
PHOTO CREDIT: TN.gov

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said the governor has made education funding a priority during his time in office. The governor’s proposed budget for 2015-16 includes nearly $44 million to account for BEP growth and nearly $100 million to increase teacher salaries. In his State of the State address on Feb. 9, Haslam proclaimed: “While other states are cutting K-12 education, Tennessee continues to be one of the few states in the country to make significant investments.”

If some state school districts decide to take the matter to court, it won’t be the first time. In 1988, 77 small districts filed a lawsuit claiming that the state’s funding formula was inequitable. The Tennessee Supreme Court agreed and, out of that litigation, the BEP was implemented in 1992. In 2007, Gov. Phil Bredesen outlined a plan known as BEP 2.0 to increase the amount of state money to school systems, but an economic downturn dissuaded state officials from implementing it.

In 2013, concerns about BEP funding began to intensify when MNPS representatives discovered fundamental questions about the state’s funding formula.

“Other school boards around the state will tell you point blank that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for Jesse Register and the Nashville school board,” said MNPS board member Will Pinkston.

“He early on flagged the information and shared it with the other districts around the state. The idea that he’s now back-peddling in a pretty extraordinary way is interesting,” said Pinkston, calling Register’s latest recommendation “an amazing flip-flop.”

Whatever the MNPS board decides, district advocates anticipate that leaders of other school systems will continue to explore their options.

“At this point, it’s all about gathering information,” said Robert Gowan, lobbyist for the Coalition of Large Area School Systems. “None of the districts that have voted so far have voted to authorize litigation. All they’re talking about is gathering information and getting legal advice. They want to move forward thoughtfully and determine how best to proceed.”

Contact Marta W. Aldrich at maldrich@chalkbeat.org

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