McCormick balks at handling Haslam BEP bill

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick says he believes an education bill pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration adversely impacts Hamilton County schools and thus may step down from sponsoring the measure, reports the Times-Free Press.

Haslam’s amendment would stop phasing in a nearly nine-year-old reform of Tennessee’s massive Basic Education Program funding formula. The 2007 reform is known as BEP 2.0 and it was intended to benefit urban school districts like Hamilton County, which had threatened to sue the state.

The governor’s measure would eliminate a requirement directing the state to continue implementing the BEP 2.0 with available funds until it becomes the entire formula.

Tennessee’s original BEP was enacted in 1992 in response to smaller systems, which had sued the state charging unequal treatment. They eventually won victories in three separate suits.

Right now, the $4 billion school funding formula is split 50/50 between the original BEP, which was funded by a half-cent sales tax increase, and BEP 2.0, which was partially funded with a cigarette tax hike. And, thus, it would remain under Haslam’s proposal.

The main difference between the two formulas is over how they gauge local systems’ ability to fund their share of educating Tennessee’s estimated 1 million students.

“He [Haslam] is concerned about a small schools’ lawsuit coming in front of the state, and he feels like we need to recalculate the amount,” McCormick said in an interview Thursday.

McCormick said Hamilton County Schools and some of the state’s other large school systems would be adversely impacted by the change. Hamilton County and six nearby systems last year sued the state, charging among other things that because BEP 2.0 has never been implemented, schools are being shortchanged.

“The issue is that under current law we’re supposed to do 2.0,” said McCormick, who voted for the cigarette tax increase in 2007. Shortly after, the Great Recession struck and then-Gov. Phil Bredesen never fully funded BEP 2.0.

Haslam hasn’t increased its proportion of the formula since he took office, and now he’d like to get rid of the provision.

Asked whether he would carry the governor’s bill, McCormick responded, that’s a good question.

“I think I have an obligation to the governor to make sure his bill gets a fair hearing,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I need to personally carry it. And I think this would be a situation where I would not personally carry it and would try to affect the outcome of it, but in a way that does not harm Hamilton County and some of the other large counties.”