The public schools enroll 994,000 students: 66% White, 23% African American, and 8% Latino, with 58% living in poverty and 4% learning English. The State spends $8,588 per pupil. (Most recent NCES data)
“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.” Tenn. Const. art. XI, § 12.
“The Legislature shall have no power to…pass any law granting to any individual or individuals, rights, privileges, immunities or exemptions other than such as may be, by the same law extended to any member of the community, who may be able to bring himself within the provisions of such law.” Tenn. Const. art. XI, § 8.
“[N]o man shall be taken or imprisoned, or disseized of his freehold, liberties or privileges, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed or deprived of his life, liberty or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land.” Tenn. Const. art. I, § 8.
In 1993, in Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that, “The constitution imposes upon the General Assembly the obligation to maintain and support a system of free public schools that affords substantially equal educational opportunities to all students.” The Court declared that the State’s school funding system, which caused substantial disparities across school districts, violated the equal protection clauses of the constitution, quoted above.
The Legislature revised the funding system, but in 2002, the Court held that the State had not made enough progress and ordered more complete equalization. After further legislative action, the trial court closed the case.
In 2009, in Board of Education of Memphis City Schools v. City of Memphis, Memphis City Schools sued to compel the city to fund its share of the school budget as per the State school funding formula. The trial court, affirmed by the appellate court, ruled that the city had a legal obligation to fund its schools at that level. The city then complied.
In 2015 and 2016, several county school districts filed lawsuits against the State, beginning with Hamilton County Bd. of Education v. Haslam. The districts maintain that the State school funding system violates the state constitution’s education clause because it provides inadequate funding. Court rulings are pending.