Nashville sues state over education funding

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville is suing the state over what it says is inadequate funding of public education, in violation of the Tennessee Constitution.

Nashville joins Shelby County and a cluster of seven counties that includes Hamilton, which have filed their own lawsuits over the state’s funding of the Basic Education Program, or BEP. That’s the method the state uses to meet its constitutional obligation to provide free K-12 public education.

According to the Nashville lawsuit filed Thursday, lawmakers have not provided enough money for the school system to hire the legally required number of teachers and translators for its English language learners.

Nashville has the highest number of students who come from a non-English language background in the state, according to the lawsuit. They make up about a quarter of total Metro Nashville Public School students and include more than 16,000 Spanish speakers, more than 3,000 Arabic speakers and more than 1,000 Kurdish speakers.

“Education is a unique area of governance where the State simply does not have the option to provide only partial funding,” the lawsuit states.

Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday he was disappointed in the lawsuit, saying that suing is “never the right answer.”

He also disputed the idea that the BEP is not fully funded.

“We put record amounts of money into the BEP,” he said in an interview.

Tennessee Department of Education spokeswoman Sara Gast said in an emailed statement the state this year provided $220 million in new funding, including $14 million in new funds for English language learners.

“This increased ELL funding benefits MNPS more than any other school district in the state,” she said. “MNPS’ use of taxpayer dollars to sue the state only serves to remove funds from classrooms and the very students the district is attempting to help.”

Nashville School Board Member Will Pinkston has been involved with a statewide effort to increase school funding.

“Tennessee has underfunded education for years and years and years,” he said, and the new money is “not significant.”

He pointed out that Tennessee has received an “F” in school spending in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report for eight consecutive years.

The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, asks for a special court order called a writ of mandamus that is used “to compel government officials to perform an act which they have the legal duty to perform.”