Tennesee courthouse file photo

By Marta W. Aldrich    

A lawsuit charging that Tennessee underfunds its schools by hundreds of millions of dollars has been dismissed, while a separate education funding case is inching closer to trial in 2020.

Hamilton County Schools quietly dropped its 5-year-old lawsuit against the state last week in a Nashville court. The school board for the Chattanooga-based district voted unanimously in October to pursue the dismissal after commending legislators for working to improve the level of state education funding. The case had been inactive in recent years.

“This is something that certainly this board and previous boards have had in play for a long time,” board member Tiffanie Robinson said before that vote, “and I think that this is a good time to maybe start fresh.”

The suit, which was joined by six smaller districts in southeast Tennessee, questioned the adequacy of state allocations through the funding formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP. It charged that the state was significantly underestimating the cost of teacher salaries and other needs, shifting the burden to local districts and creating unequal opportunities statewide.

But the state has made substantial new investments in public schools in recent years, including $1.5 billion during the administration of former Gov. Bill Haslam and $211 million last year under new Republican Gov. Bill Lee. Attorney General Herbert Slatery III cited those investments as evidence that Tennessee is moving in the right direction as he welcomed Hamilton County’s decision.

“Education funding is a profoundly important issue for the state and our children, but is best addressed by the other two branches of government, not the courts,” Slatery’s spokeswoman said in a statement this week.