Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New School Funding Lawsuit Filed in Tennessee, Alleging Both Inequity and Inadequacy

Shelby County School District in Memphis, Tennessee, sued the state Monday, alleging the state's failure to properly fund schools violated both the state constitution and state statutes.  The lawsuit is interesting on several counts.  First, Shelby County has, by a significant margin, the largest population in the state.  Thus, the funding problems it faces cannot be written off as random.  As Shelby County goes, so to does the state.  

Second, the state experienced three rounds of school finance litigation a decade ago.  That litigation was brought by the small school systems in the state. The argument there was that salaries were so low in rural communities that they could not attract teachers.  Shelby County's complaint, in effect, suggests the problem is statewide and not limited to just teacher salaries.  It touches almost every aspect of education.  

Third, the prior litigation in the state was what school finance gurus would call "equity" litigation. The analysis in those prior cases was primarily in regard to making salaries equitable across the state.  Shelby County is raising both adequacy and equity claims.  In other words, the state's funding of schools is inequitable, but even putting that inequity aside, the funding level in Shelby County is too low to provide a basic or adequate level of education.  Plaintiffs have increasingly taken this approach over the  past decade to make sure all the bases are covered (assuming state law makes this approach colorable).

Shelby County's primary factual allegation is that the state has increased the financial burden that districts must shoulder while reducing its own.  In doing so, it has failed to comply with its own state statutes, which mandate that the state provide a certain level of funding for schools.  As a result of this funding failure, Shelby County has lost a large number of teachers and had to increase class sizes to 30 to 35 students in many instances, including in core classes needed for graduation.   As a district with a student population that is nearly 90% at risk, this underfunded and over-staffing is untenable.

Get the complaint here.

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