Senate attempt to challenge Basic Education Program formula fails

Senate attempt to challenge Basic Education Program formula fails

April 14th, 2016 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, speaks to colleagues at a House Republican Caucus meeting in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Dunn is the main House sponsor of a proposal to create a limited school voucher program in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Photo by The Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - A legislative effort to keep state courts from deciding questions regarding the adequacy of state financial support of public education appears dead for the year in the Tennessee Legislature.

The proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution, if ever approved by state voters, would have effectively granted sole authority to state lawmakers on whether the state's Basic Education Program formula is sufficient.

It failed Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee. The vote was 4-1 with three abstentions. But because the measure needed five votes to move through the panel, the measure failed.

While a House version sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, remains alive in committee, Dunn essentially threw in the towel for this year.

"I'm disappointed and next year we'll see where we are on it," Dunn said Wednesday night.

Dunn and Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, introduced their separate versions of the resolution in the wake of a pending lawsuit by Hamilton County and six nearby counties' school systems challenging the BEP funding scheme.

Schools charge state funding is inadequate to do the task of educating an estimated 1 million Tennessee public school students. Shelby County schools have filed a similar lawsuit. 

The lawsuits seek to strike new ground in Tennessee education's quarter century of school funding litigation where courts have previously ruled on equal protection issues but not adequacy. 

Tennessee's Constitution specically requires state lawmakers to maintain and provide for a system of free public schools. Gresham and Dunn want to make it clear the Legislature is in sole charge of deciding how much money that takes. 

A Tennessee Attorney General opinion says Dunn's version would not impact equal protection provisions of the state Constitution.

Dunn said he told senators that the legislative branch is the state's policy-setting branch and not courts.

"It's upon us to defend ourselves," Dunn said. "If we're not willing to do it, then shame on us, then we deserve everything we get."

Getting the initiative before state voters required majority approval in the current 109th General Assembly and two thirds approval in in the Legislature that takes office in 2017 before going on the 2018 ballot with a gubernatorial election.

Because the Tennessee Constitution requires amendments only be considered by voters in elections where governors are elected, the soonest the proposed amendment could go before voters would be in 2022.

Senate Education Committee members voting Gresham's resolution included Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who along with several other Hamilton County GOP lawmakers has been critical of the county schools' lawsuit.


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