Governor Lee to introduce overhaul of Tennessee’s public education funding during Monday’s speech
Note: This story was updated on January 30 to correct the State Collaborative’s advocacy stance on education reform.
NASHVILLE — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee plans to make the case to state lawmakers as well as the public Monday night for his plan to overhaul the state’s 30-year-old school funding formula. for public education during his state of the state address.
The Republican governor also plans to double down on his priorities in several other areas, including massive new investments in infrastructure and economic development during his annual address, an event that allows governors to lay out their priorities and message in an unfiltered fashion. before a joint televised convention of the General Assembly.
Lee, who is seeking a second term this year, previewed parts of his platform last week in a speech to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. In it, the governor made his case for a top priority for him: to perform major surgery on Tennessee’s $5.6 billion funding formula for K-12 education. The formula must move from a “systems-based” model involving categories of need to a “student-based funding formula” in which dollars follow the student, the governor said.
“I didn’t know much about public school funding when I walked in the door, but I do know that a 30-year-old formula no one likes should probably be redone,” Lee told members. of the Nashville Chamber, adding that he knows a lot more about school funding now.
Education is “Tennessee’s future and I believe now is the time to make the appropriate changes to the funding of our schools,” Lee said.
Lee also touted what he considers some of his top first-term accomplishments, citing investments in vocational education, infrastructure and announcing the three biggest economic development projects in state history in 2021. — among them Ford Motor Co.’s planned $5.6 billion truck and a battery plant in West Tennessee — and his steps toward criminal justice reform.
“Last year we passed an Alternatives to Incarceration Act, and the success we’ve had with it… [was] a very exciting thing for me,” said Lee, a businessman and religious conservative who, before becoming governor, was heavily involved in prison ministry efforts.
“We still have work to do, we should invest even more, not just in our criminal justice system…but in our law enforcement system,” the governor added.
In a “prebuttal” video released Friday, State House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville accused the governor of “failing to address the crisis at our public school.”
Dixie also said that while Democrats have sought to focus on rebuilding Tennessee’s middle class, Lee and his fellow Republicans are “moving mountains for the wealthy, while refusing to address issues affecting ordinary families and people who strike a clock”.
Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, in October announced a review of the state’s K-12 education funding formula and named dozens of people, including a number of lawmakers, to lead the effort.
Democrats criticized Lee’s “student-based” funding formula which, among other things, would include students attending public charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated schools.
It could also turn out to be expensive. The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, which advocates for traditional K-12 public schools and public charter schools, called on Lee to inject an additional $1 billion into K-12 public education.
Other concerns are that it would open the door to private education vouchers, which Lee and Schwinn say is not the intention. In 2019, Republican lawmakers approved Lee’s plan to offer voucher-like “education savings accounts” to low-income families. He had to compromise with the law affecting only Nashville Metro and Shelby County schools, omitting other districts, including Hamilton County, in order to gain approval. But the later challenged law has yet to be implemented.
A number of Lee’s Republican colleagues, including several from Hamilton County, are unsure whether to move this year to pass Lee’s proposal, saying Lee’s subcommittees continue to meet and things don’t have to. be rushed.
“We’ve already been sued,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, alluding to the school voucher law. “Somewhere someone – and that’s just the nature of the beast – is going to be wronged or not have enough in their mind. And someone somewhere is going to sue and we’ll be back in court and the courts will decide all of this. And we will pay a lot of attorney fees.”
Gardenhire, who along with several other members of the local delegation sits on at least one of the 18 sub-committees of the Lee Task Force, said: “Hopefully we will come up with a proposal, that we will publish it. Let everyone review it summer and fall bring it up as a bill next year…
“At this point we can refine it, add more, throw some away. But something that big shouldn’t be done in a six-month period that will last us 20 or 30 years,” Gardenhire said. .
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said: ‘Whether the legislature is ready to act or not is, I think, it’s a heavyweight. And you know, it depends on the other issues. that arise during the session, whether we can focus on that or other things becomes important as well.”
Watson, who sits on Lee’s Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group — which determines how the state should spend billions in federal stimulus money — noted “we’re dealing with all the federal funding and what all of that means and so I think it’s is just a heavy lift.”
Lee and other members of the Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group recently agreed to give $1.35 billion of the $3.9 billion in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to local governments in the form of grants. infrastructure in hopes of persuading cities and counties to invest millions of their own stimulus funds in improving drinking water, wastewater and stormwater.
“But again,” Watson said of Lee’s actual education formula changes, “we need something to be able to deliberate instead of just talk in concept…even if they give us something thing, we can spend the whole session deliberating about it and not taking action, because there aren’t enough people working in this space to know all the possibilities.
House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, issued similar caveats.
“I know the Governor is very focused on this. There are a lot of people working very hard on this, but I think my concern, and I know the Governor and the Legislature, we share this, it’s really important . And we need to get it right. It hadn’t been done in a long time. I think there’s no doubt that there needs to be some major tweaks and changes. But we really need to make sure that we do things right. no matter how long it takes. If we can get it done this session, great. If not, we have to come back. I think more important than the rush is to have a good result, a good product.
WPLN, Nashville’s national public radio station, reported that Lee said last week “the pieces that come together this week will allow us to make a proposal in a short time to the legislature that they can then act on. Yet another times, that’s our hope, and we’re hopeful that it can happen this session.”
Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.