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Gov. Lee proposes $1 billion boost for Tennessee education

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee wants to add $1 billion to Tennessee’s nearly $6 billion education budget. Lee announced the proposed increase Monday night during his annual State of the State address, where he shared his 2022-23 priorities and the highlights of his proposed budget. The proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 is $52.6 billion, with 41 cents out of every dollar spent on education.

Some top lines for K-12 education include:

  • $32 million for charter school facility funding.
  • $125 million to increase teacher salaries.
  • $200 million to relocate public schools in flood plains, including schools in Shelby County.
  • $550 million in career and technical education grants.
  • $750 million toward additional education investments.

The money for the proposed raise for teachers received some of the loudest applause of the night.

“Historically, funds put into the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers, and when we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that,” Lee said. “So in our updated funding formula, we will ensure that a teacher raise is a teacher raise.”

The infusion of money for teacher salaries and education is part of Lee’s plan to overhaul Tennessee education funding. The Education Law Center gave the Volunteer State an F for its funding level in its Making the Grade 2020 report.

Last year, Lee ordered a review of the Basic Education Program, a funding formula with 46 components that determine how much money the state sends to districts for textbooks, technology, and other needs. Under the proposed student-centered funding formula, districts and charter schools would get additional education investments to assist students who are managing issues such as learning disabilities and the challenges of living in poverty, and that should translate to more help for teachers in the classroom, said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

“Some of the things we’ve heard the most about are things like counselors and nurses and supports for students who need those supports and ensuring our teachers can focus on the academic instruction,” Schwinn said in an interview before Lee’s speech. Schwinn added that teachers have been asking for additional support for high-needs students.

“It’s time to do right by them, and I think this is a good first step,” she added.

Pointing to a 2020 report by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relation, some education advocates say that Tennessee schools need an additional $1.7 billion of state money, so even with the billion-dollar-boost proposed Monday night, Tennessee education would still be underfunded.

Other organizations praised the governor’s announcement.

“The priorities laid out in the State of the State, including an additional $1 billion investment in education, an increase in teacher pay, and dedication to expanding career and technical opportunities for students, if adhered to, will make the 2022 legislative session a success for Tennessee’s students and their futures,” Adam Lister, president and CEO of Tennesseans for Student Success, a middle Tennessee-based nonprofit organization, said in a statement.

“Governor Lee’s call for the General Assembly to overhaul and improve the way the state funds education is a transformational moment,” Lister added.

Lee also weighed in on the culture wars in the classroom in the wake of anti-critical race theory laws and national debates about when and how to teach children about or protect them from learning the harsh realities of U.S. history.

Lee highlighted recently introduced legislation to ban some books from Tennessee libraries. He announced a state partnership with Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian college in Hillsdale, Michigan, to expand civics education in Tennessee that promotes “informed patriotism.” He also announced that the state would give $6 million to create the Institute of American Civics at the University of Tennessee, a center that would combat what he described as “anti-American thought” in higher education.

A replay of the governor’s speech is on his YouTube channel.