Hamilton County School Board votes to explore lawsuit over underfunding of K-12 education

The Hamilton County school board has voted 8-to-1 to explore the idea of a lawsuit against state government for underfunding education, reports the Times-Free Press, hoping that school systems in Davidson, Knox and Shelby counties will join.

The Knox County Board of Education voted on Feb. 2 vote to explore the idea. The school boards in Nashville-Davidson County and Memphis have yet to vote.

The attorney for the Hamilton County Department of Education cited the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday night as an example of what might happen if the local school board joins a larger lawsuit to get the state to fully fund its Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula it uses to fund public schools.

“I liken it to Brown vs. Board of Education,” attorney D. Scott Bennett said, referring to the court’s second Brown ruling in 1955, in which it called for desegregation to proceed “with all deliberate speed.”

“I think we may have reached the point … this time [for a court] to say, ‘Fund this with all deliberate speed,'” he said.

Bennett said rural Tennessee school districts successfully sued the state three times over the BEP. Yet it’s still underfunded by as much as $515 million, according to a 153-page annual report released Nov. 1 by the Basic Education Program Review Committee.

…Greg Martin, who represents Hixson on the school board, was the sole opponent, and his questions about the lawsuit prompted Bennett to discuss the BEP’s history and make the Brown vs. Board of Education analogy.

“Help me understand why we’re going to win this,” Martin said to Bennett. Even if the lawsuit succeeded, Martin asked, couldn’t the state just get out of it by repealing laws?

“They can’t repeal the constitution,” Bennett told Martin.

The state constitution requires Tennessee to provide kindergarten through 12th-grade education as a “fundamental right,” Bennett said.

“The General Assembly is obligated under the state constitution to provide a system of education,” he said. It’s one of “only a few things that the General Assembly has to do.”

UPDATE/NOTE: The Shelby County School Board will take up the matter Thursday, reports the Commercial Appeal.