funding battle

After three years, the fight to spend more money on Tennessee schools inches toward trial

PHOTO: Jae S. Lee/The Tennessean
Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman looks over evidence during a 2015 trial. The Nashville judge is presiding over a school funding lawsuit that pits Tennessee's two largest districts against the state.

A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is one step closer to trial after a Nashville judge turned back the state’s second attempt in three months to derail the case.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman last week stood by her decision from July to deny the state’s motion to dismiss the suit on constitutional and legal grounds.

Her rulings mean that the case — which the state’s attorneys say “has few rivals in terms of its breadth and its cost” — is on track to go to trial next spring in Nashville.

If successful, the lawsuit could force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which at almost $5 billion already takes the largest chunk out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation last year.

Tennessee is among more than a half dozen states where lawsuits are winding their way through the courts over the quality of schools, the adequacy of funding, and whether some students are being shortchanged, especially as states raise academic standards without always increasing funding for resources and training to help students meet those benchmarks.

Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee has been an exception by adding $1.5 billion to the K-12 pot during his eight-year administration. But attorneys for Memphis and Nashville schools say the investment falls woefully short and that Tennessee isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”

Both legal teams are lining up expert witnesses, whose testimony will provide the meat of the case. They already have filed hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and are scheduled to take depositions this fall.

“This case has been pending for over three years with the ultimate goal of getting to trial to make a ruling, and we are closer now than ever,” said attorney Charles Grant, who represents both districts through the Tennessee firm of Baker Donelson.

Tennessee still could appeal to a state court in an effort to sidestep Bonnyman’s rulings, but that would be highly unusual. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Herbert Slatery said Tuesday that the state is evaluating its options under Tennessee law.

The question of adequate school funding is different from one posed by several previous landmark cases in the 1980s and ‘90s that focused on whether Tennessee was funding schools equitably. This litigation is about the size of the funding pie, not just how it’s carved up.

In documents, the state called the adequacy argument “extraordinary” since the court is being asked, in essence, to order the Legislature to boost its spending on schools, which would “require either raising taxes or redirecting existing revenue from other state services, or possibly both.”

"We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education."Lori Patterson, attorney

Tennessee’s two earlier funding cases ended up at the State Supreme Court and forced the state to change its funding formula so that smaller and rural school systems now receive a greater share of money than they previously were getting.

If the current legal battle mirrors those cases, litigation likely will drag on for years through trial and appeals and end up again in the state’s highest court.

A trial itself could take weeks and even months. A recent trial over the adequacy of school funding in New Mexico consumed two months in court. Another trial on an adequacy claim in Connecticut lasted five months.

The decision by Nashville’s school board to join in the Memphis lawsuit slowed the process but also made the plaintiffs’ case stronger, said Lori Patterson, another attorney representing the school systems.

“They’re joining together to say education is not adequately funded from a constitutional standpoint,” she said. “We don’t think the state has ever measured what it would actually cost to provide an adequate education.”

Theirs is not the only funding lawsuit pending in Chancery Court. Months before Shelby County Schools went to court, Hamilton County’s school board and six other districts in southeast Tennessee filed their own suit asking the court to order the Legislature to address a funding formula that they say leaves schools chronically underfunded. That case appears to have stalled, however, and representatives for the state and Hamilton County Schools had no comment on its status.

You can follow our coverage of this topic here.

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”