NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says his task force studying Tennessee's school funding formula will focus primarily on whether the money is distributed fairly under prior court rulings and not whether an injection of new cash is needed.
"We're doing this because the formula hasn't been reviewed in seven years," Haslam said Monday after the panel held its first meeting. "And no matter who you ask, everybody feels they're treated unfairly on this, or almost everyone does."
As a result, Haslam said, "I think it's important that we consistently review it. Third, we just want to come up with something that is as equitable as it can be and meets our kind of court-imposed restrictions."
Haslam, a Republican, formed the task force as criticism has stepped up over the state's current Basic Education Program funding formula. The BEP provides the lion's share of funding for most of Tennessee's 137 local school systems based on a formula and seeks to take into account local counties' ability to raise taxes for their share.
Rural districts and their urban counterparts like Hamilton County's schools are griping about the formula for different reasons, and there's been an uptick in sabre-rattling over potential litigation.
"That's a very real possibility," Haslam said. "We think right now you're getting complaints from the small systems, who've sued us twice in the past. And you also have the large school systems, the four big systems, saying the same thing."
"All we can do is try our very best to make it equitable among very different school systems," Haslam said, noting state revenues are running well below estimates.
The formula was born in 1992 in the midst of complaints about inequity and a lawsuit charging the then-formula violated the Tennessee Constitution's requirement for a free system of public education.
In anticipation of an adverse ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court over a lawsuit filed by dozens of rural school systems, state lawmakers hiked the state sales tax to pay for an expanded formula intended to provide schools the basic funds to provide a K-12 education.
The court later ruled the old formula was unconstitutional but decreed the new BEP resolved that -- at least temporarily.
Rural schools later sued twice more successfully on issues related to funding for teachers.
Coming under pressure from urban systems, including Hamilton County's in 2007 with Mayor Claude Ramsey talking legal action, state lawmakers approved a revamp of the formula proposed by then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Known as BEP 2.0, it addressed inequities and was accompanied by a 42-cent per pack hike on cigarettes. But the Great Recession hit shortly after and the revised formula has only been half implemented.
Officials estimated it would cost about $147 million to fully make the transition to BEP 2.0. But while it helped some urban systems, many rural and some suburban systems have cried foul over the changes.
Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said the task force's purpose "is not to say Tennessee needs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more of money that we may or may not have. The purpose of it to look at are the right components included as part of the formula, and given a fixed pie, how would you distribute that pie based on capacity."
Huffman said there "may be pieces that surface" on adequacy of funding in specific areas such as technology.
During the initial meeting, a Metro Nashville schools representative raised questions about funding for teaching English as a second language to foreign-born students. Representatives for rural schools had their own issues, saying they were treated better under the original BEP.
All agreed they'd like more transparency in the formula.
The task force is expected to report back by year's end.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.