FILE: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) (Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

Seven Tennessee school districts have sued state officials over what they say is inadequate school funding, charging that by shorting schools by hundreds of millions of dollars, the state has “breached its duty under the Tennessee Constitution to provide a system of free public education.”

The complaint, posted online by the Tennessean newspaper, says that in affluent communities, parents have stepped into the funding void, paying hundreds of dollars in fees to support extracurricular activities and buy educational technology. But in poorer communities, where parent can’t pay such fees,  “there are insufficient resources available to operate a school,” the suit says, and districts have been forced to cut core educational services.

“Neither alternative is appropriate in a State that recognizes a free public education as a fundamental right,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit comes as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has sought to highlight inequitable education funding around the nation, arguing that states’ unwillingness to properly fund education has resulted in “school systems that are separate and unequal.” Nearly two dozen states, including Tennessee, spend less per pupil in their poorest school districts than they spend in their most affluent districts.

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The differential in Tennessee is relatively small — the state’s poorest school districts get about 1 percent less per student than its richest school districts, according to federal data from fiscal year 2012. But that year, Tennessee also dedicated an average of only $7,037 per student in local and state tax dollars — substantially less than the national average of $9,210.

In the suit filed this week, the seven Chattanooga-area school districts — including Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga itself — are seeking to force the state legislature to spend more.

“The General Assembly has been aware of its obligation to fund a system of free public education across the State for more than 20 years and yet has been deliberately indifferent to its constitutional duty,” the complaint says. “ln view of the General Assembly’s persistent failure to provide Tennesseans with this fundamental right, this Court must order the State to fund the true cost of public education with all deliberate speed.”

The so-called “Basic Education Program,” the state’s school funding formula, underestimates the cost of teachers’ salaries and benefits by nearly $600 million per year, according to the lawsuit. And it underestimates other classroom costs by more than $130 million, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs also argue that Tennessee has chosen to starve schools of funds at the same time that it has instituted a series of costly reforms. The state has adopted new Common Core standards and is giving new online tests, for example, but the districts argue that schools don’t have money to train teachers in new curriculum or to buy computers that students can use to take new tests.

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The seven school districts filed their suit Tuesday, a day after superintendents from four large school districts, including Hamilton, met with Gov. Bill Haslam (R) about boosting state investment in public school, Chalkbeat Tennessee reported. Haslam is named as a defendant in the case, as are speakers of the state house and senate, the state commissioner of education and members of the state board of education.

Haslam spokesman David Smith did not respond to a request for comment. 

But Chalkbeat reported that Smith said the governor was “very disappointed” about the lawsuit, given that he had committed to superintendents that he would work on the problem. “Litigation will obviously decrease potential for collaboration,” Smith said. Haslam’s budget proposal includes an additional $170 million for K-12 schools this year, according to Chalkbeat.

But the plaintiffs say they are tired of struggling to provide the most basic resources for their students, according to local news reports. One school board member cited a high school in Polk County that has had trouble buying toilet paper for its students as one reason for going ahead with the lawsuit.

“We have to realize that kids need toilet paper in Polk County,” Jonathan Welch said, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.