By Sally Absher

When Tennessee legislators last took their Oath of Office, they solemnly swore that “I will faithfully support the Constitution of this State and of the United States, and I do solemnly affirm that as a member of this General Assembly… I will not propose or assent to any bill, vote, or resolution, which shall appear to me injurious to the people, or consent to any act or thing, whatever, that shall have a tendency to lessen or bridge their rights and privileges, as declared by the Constitution of this state.”

Article XI, Section 12 of the Tennessee State Constitution says, “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.”

But last week lawmakers took the “first step” toward amending the state constitution to remove the requirement that the General Assembly adequately fund schools, as a House education subcommittee adopted a joint resolution (HJR 493) by a 5-2 vote.

Rep. Bill Dunn, Knoxville, is the sponsor of the resolution. In last Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, he said the resolution is designed to protect educational policy from “activist judges” ruling against state governments on issues ranging from charter schools to adequacy of school funding.

Dunn’s resolution would amend Article XI, Section 12 to read:

“The General Assembly as the elected representatives of the people shall provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools in such manner as the General Assembly may determine.”

Per the 1993 Small Schools Systems lawsuit, the state Supreme Court held that the Tennessee Constitution requires the state provide an “equitable and adequate education to all children in the state for free.” Since 1993, the courts have ordered the legislature three times to provide more funding to rural school districts.

While the amendment doesn’t take away the requirement for an equitable education – fairly distributing the money across the state, the amount of funding available to spread around would be entirely up to the legislature. At issue is the adequacy of funding. Lawsuits seeking more school funding from the state are pending from Hamilton and Shelby counties and six other districts across the state.

Many have pointed out the inherent dangers of this amendment. In an email to legislators, former state senator Roy Herron, who is representing small school districts at the legislature, said, “The amendment would leave in the Constitution language that would provide the illusion, but remove the reality, of constitutional protection for public schools. If the proposed language were in the Constitution, school children would be doomed to whatever fate any future legislature decreed. And schools in your district could receive millions less in state funding, leading either to woefully inadequate schools or soaring property taxes or both. It’s hard to imagine anything that would adversely impact our students — or Tennessee’s future — more than stripping our children of their constitutional right to adequate public schools.”

According to Chalkbeat Tennessee, Dunn said that the courts potentially could order the state to increase its education spending by $500 million. He wants the constitution amended to curb the courts’ authority and ensure that the legislature controls Tennessee education policies. But so far, the legislature has refused to take up the funding inadequacy issues of BEP (basic education program) 2.0.

Local Education Agencies (LEAs – that’s your local school district or Board of Education) have been wringing their hands over the inadequacy of state funding for education under the BEP 2.0 formula for years. Roughly half of the nearly $500 in additional funding for schools was funded in 2007-2008, with plans to phase in the remaining dollars over time. That hasn’t happened.

Just how bad is Tennessee’s education funding? Last week, Drew Sutton, Government Relations coordinator for the Tennessee Education Association, was in Knoxville to discuss important issues facing local schools with educators, parents, and community members. The state’s lack of investment in students was a key issue.

No doubt you know that Tennessee ranks near the bottom in total per pupil funding – 46th, to be exact, with $9,290 average per pupil funding. Kentucky ranks 36th with $10,490 per pupil, yet Tennessee would need a billion dollar increase in education funding to equal Kentucky’s per pupil investment.

The shortfall is a state, not a local funding issue. Only 45 percent of education funding in Tennessee comes from the state. Compare that to Kentucky (55%), North Carolina (56%), Georgia (51%), Alabama (57%), Mississippi (51%), Arkansas (73%) and Missouri (52%), and it’s clear where the problem is.

In spite of this, Tennessee schools get the most of every tax dollar, ranking eighth in the nation in graduation rates.

Our legislators need to be held accountable to fully implement BEP 2.0 as well as stopping unfunded mandates. Our children deserve no less. And they certainly don’t deserve to lose their Constitutional right to an equitable and adequate free public education, which could happen under the proposed amendment.