Who Is In Charge

Lawmakers: Increase education spending, but keep courts out of school funding debate

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State legislators easily passed a bill Tuesday to increase funding for public education next year, while also voting narrowly in favor of a constitutional amendment that would give judges less say over school funding.

The House Administration and Planning Committee unanimously approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget plan, which would increase education funding by $261 million including more investments in technology, teacher salaries, and English language learners. The bill also would codify the state’s funding formula, which has been in flux for more than two decades, with three court decisions spurring the legislature to overhaul the way it funds public schools.

The committee then voted 7-5 in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution to emphasize the General Assembly’s role in setting education policy. The sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, says the amendment, which eventually would require a referendum vote by Tennesseans, is designed to block “tyrannical” judges from demanding certain education policies, including possibly more funding.

Dunn cited Kansas as an example of courts overstepping their bounds. There, a 2014 State Supreme Court ruling identified unconstitutional disparities among school districts and ordered the legislature to address them by a July 1 deadline. Then a lower court recently ruled that the law put in place by the Kansas legislature to fix the disparities is inadequate.

“We see across the country that there are judges stepping in saying no, we’re going to make the policy for our school system,” Dunn said.

Dunn was pressed on students’ rights to an equitable education by Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a Democrat from Rock Island, who credits his public school education in part to increased school funding that resulted from court orders. Dunn responded that he supported past lawsuits that led the legislature to boost education funding, but is concerned about potential judicial overreach in the future.

It’s not clear how either the proposed constitutional amendment, or the governor’s proposed budget, would impact two current school funding lawsuits against the state filed by school boards in Shelby and Hamilton counties, along with six smaller districts.

Dunn said he has not yet received a response from the state attorney general about how the proposed amendment would affect the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which was key in a court ruling that led the legislature to craft Tennessee’s Basic Education Plan (BEP) in 1992, as well as the 2002 lawsuit that prompted BEP 2.0.

The legislature passed BEP 2.0 in 2007 but, because of the Great Recession, it has never been fully funded. Instead, Tennessee has been using a hybrid of the two BEP formulas. The administration’s bill, based on two years of review, proposes to stick with that hybrid.

“We’ve taken a really focused effort to look at the way we distribute the dollars,” said Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of education. “In the end, when we looked at the outcomes, we really feel like what we’ve been doing the past nine years is an appropriate way to distribute the dollars.”

But that likely won’t appease districts seeking more money and changes to the funding formula. In March, seven school districts in southeast Tennessee, led by Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, filed a lawsuit charging that the state has created a system that shifts the cost of education to local boards of education, schools, teachers and students, resulting in education inequality across the state. The state has urged dismissal, arguing that the legislature has leeway in funding K-12 education, an argument that likely would be bolstered under the proposed constitutional amendment.

Shelby County Schools’ lawsuit maintains that the state doesn’t provide enough funding for its most vulnerable students.

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Despite the legal questions, Smith told lawmakers that districts should rejoice over education spending increases. Districts would get $178 million more for teacher salaries than the amount guaranteed by BEP 2.0, he said. Smith added that the budget bill mandates that districts who pay teachers below the state average spend money allotted for teacher pay on actual salaries, not insurance costs, so teachers can feel the difference.

“This is a record investment for education,” Smith said.

Both Dunn’s amendment resolution and the budget proposal will be heard next in the House Finance Committee.

Tennessee Votes 2018

Early voting begins Friday in Tennessee. Here’s where your candidates stand on education.

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Tennesseans begin voting on Friday in dozens of crucial elections that will culminate on Aug. 2.

Democrats and Republicans will decide who will be their party’s gubernatorial nominee. Those two individuals will face off in November to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Tennessee’s next governor will significantly shape public education, and voters have told pollsters that they are looking for an education-minded leader to follow Haslam.

In Memphis, voters will have a chance to influence schools in two elections, one for school board and the other for county commission, the top local funder for schools, which holds the purse strings for schools.

To help you make more informed decisions, Chalkbeat asked candidates in these four races critical questions about public education.

Here’s where Tennessee’s Democratic candidates for governor stand on education

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley hope to become the state’s first Democratic governor in eight years.

Tennessee’s Republican candidates for governor answer the big questions on education

U.S. Rep. Diane Black, businessman Randy Boyd, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and businessman Bill Lee are campaigning to succeed fellow Republican Haslam as governor, but first they must defeat each other in the 2018 primary election.

Memphis school board candidates speak out on what they want to change

Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Shelby County Schools board this year. That’s much higher stakes compared to two years ago when five seats were up for election with only one contested race.

Aspiring county leaders in charge of money for Memphis schools share their views

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners and county mayor are responsible for most school funding in Memphis. Chalkbeat sent a survey to candidates asking their thoughts on what that should look like.

Early voting runs Mondays through Saturdays until Saturday, July 28. Election Day is Thursday, Aug. 2.

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Adams 14 votes to appoint Sen. Dominick Moreno to fill board vacancy

State Sen. Dominick Moreno being sworn in Monday evening. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

A state senator will be the newest member of the Adams 14 school board.

Sen. Dominick Moreno, a graduate of the district, was appointed Monday night on a 3-to-1 vote to fill a vacancy on the district’s school board.

“He has always, since I have known him, cared about this community,” said board member David Rolla, who recalled knowing Moreno since grade school.

Moreno will continue to serve in his position in the state legislature.

The vacancy on the five-member board was created last month, when the then-president, Timio Archuleta, resigned with more than a year left on his term.

Colorado law says when a vacancy is created, school board must appoint a new board member to serve out the remainder of the term.

In this case, Moreno will serve until the next election for that seat in November 2019.

The five member board will see the continued rollout of the district’s improvement efforts as it tries to avoid further state intervention.

Prior to Monday’s vote, the board interviewed four candidates including Joseph Dreiling, a former board member; Angela Vizzi; Andrew LaCrue; and Moreno. One woman, Cynthia Meyers, withdrew her application just as her interview was to begin. Candidate, Vizzi, a district parent and member of the district’s accountability committee, told the board she didn’t think she had been a registered voter for the last 12 months, which would make her ineligible for the position.

The board provided each candidate with eight general questions — each board member picked two from a predetermined list — about the reason the candidates wanted to serve on the board and what they saw as their role with relation to the superintendent. Board members and the public were barred from asking other questions during the interviews.

Moreno said during his interview that he was not coming to the board to spy for the state Department of Education, which is evaluating whether or not the district is improving. Nor, he added, was he applying for the seat because the district needs rescuing.

“I’m here because I think I have something to contribute,” Moreno said. “I got a good education in college and I came home. Education is the single most important issue in my life.”

The 7,500-student district has struggled in the past year. The state required the district to make significant improvement in 2017-18, but Adams 14 appears to be falling short of expectations..

Many community members and parents have protested district initiatives this year, including cancelling parent-teacher conferences, (which will be restored by fall), and postponing the roll out of a biliteracy program for elementary school students.

Rolla, in nominating Moreno, said the board has been accused of not communicating well, and said he thought Moreno would help improve those relationships with the community.

Board member Harvest Thomas was the one vote against Moreno’s appointment. He did not discuss his reason for his vote.

If the state’s new ratings this fall fail to show sufficient academic progress, the State Board of Education may direct additional or different actions to turn the district around.