The Tennessee Supreme Court decided in 1993 that the system of financing public education in Tennessee violated the provisions of the Tennessee Constitution guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all citizens. The court held that the Tennessee General Assembly must maintain and support a system of free public schools that affords equal educational opportunities to students in small counties as well as large, and rural counties as well as urban.
After the U.S. Supreme Court decided in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1971) that inequality in educational opportunity based on the unequal wealth of school districts did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, parents and school officials from poorer school districts across the country turned to state courts and state constitutions for relief.
Tennessee Small School Systems, an unincorporated association of seventy-seven rural school districts, filed suit against the State of Tennessee and Governor Ned McWherter on July 7, 1988, in the Davidson County Chancery Court to overturn the Tennessee system of financing local school systems (851 S.W. 2d 139). Memphis attorney Lewis R. Donelson represented the small schools, and Charles W. Burson, the Tennessee attorney general and reporter, represented the State of Tennessee.
After a six week trial, Davidson County Chancellor C. Allen High ruled on August 6, 1991, that the public education funding system violated the equal protection clause of the Tennessee Constitution. He found that students in rural school did not have equal access to science laboratories, computers, current and new textbooks, adequate buildings, foreign language courses, state-mandated art and music classes, and other curricular opportunities. When the state appealed, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and set the stage for arguments before the Tennessee Supreme Court.
While the Small Schools case was pending before the Tennessee Supreme Court, the general assembly passed the Educational Improvement Act of 1992 that contained a new formula, called the Basic Education Program (BEP), to replace the old statutory funding scheme. The general assembly, however, did not vote to fund the BEP until after the supreme court’s decision in the Small Schools case.
Chief Justice Lyle Reid, writing for a unanimous supreme court, agreed with the chancellor’s findings that the old system was inadequate and unequal. The court found that there was no legitimate state interest to justify a system that resulted in inadequate and unequal educational opportunities for children in small school systems and held that the existing statutory funding scheme violated the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee Constitution.