The Tennessee School Systems for Equity, a coalition of 84 small Tennessee school districts, recently filed a complaint joining the Shelby County and Metro Nashville school districts as plaintiffs in Shelby Co. Bd of Educ. v Haslam. a lawsuit the challenges the adequacy of the state’s public education funding system.
This was a major development in the lawsuit. By joining the case, the small school districts underscored the argument that the problem with Tennessee’s education funding is not just that it is inequitable for the urban school districts, which educate a disproportionate percentage of poor students, English-learning students and disabled students. They claim that the state’s funding formula, the basic education program (BEP), is inadequately funding all public schools, thereby burdening the finances of local governments and leaving educators vastly underpaid. The genesis of the BEP was, in fact, a lawsuit filed by the small school districts in the 1980s over the equity of education funding. The small schools claimed at the time that the state’s funding strategy was unfair for rural schools.
Originally filed in 2015, the case has been gridlocked in recent months in a contentious discovery phase, including the depositions of public officials and a bevy of document requests. The lawsuit was finally headed for trial in October, but after her involvement in a politically charged election law ruling last year, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle recused herself from the case. The case was reassigned by the Supreme Court to state Senior Judge Don Ash. It is not clear whether the case will still be ready for trial in October.