Published February 9, 2021
On Monday, as Tennessee Governor Bill Lee prepared for the annual State of the State address, teachers were putting pressure on Lee to give more funding to education during the 2022 fiscal year.
The Tennessee Education Association President, Beth Brown, also pointed out the $1 billion in unexpected tax revenue and fact that Tennessee ranks 46th when it comes to investment in students.
Brown wrote an opinion piece in which she said, “Our funding is so low the only neighboring state we beat is Mississippi. To meet Kentucky’s per-student investment, the state would need $2.6 billion; to match Arkansas, the increase would be $860 million; and to be on par with Alabama would require $560 million this year alone.”
Brown went on to say that the “pitiful condition of education funding is a state problem.”
Last week, Lee did not announce any specific amount that would be used for the K-12 education budget.
He said, “We are going to announce our initiatives and talk about them on Monday night in the State of the State. Our intent is to lay out those budget proposals then, and we expect there’ll be proposals through the legislature for additional pay for teachers.”
Earlier this month, Lee and other Republicans in the legislature passed several new laws in a special session held on education. During that special session, a bill was passed to give $43 million toward public education.
In 2020, and the first months of 2021, Tennessee has exceeded revenue estimates, so far totaling around $1.3 billion. The current budget for this year is $39.4 billion, with $14.6 billion coming from federal funding.
State Finance Commissioner Butch Eley said before the State of the State address that school administrators “will remain cautiously optimistic. Clearly, revenues have exceeded expectations; however, we are maintaining our practice of preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best – and beginning to turn our focus back on the governor’s priorities of economic growth even in the distressed areas, creating jobs and improving education.”
During the State of the State address on Monday night, Lee announced $341 million in new K-12 spending, which Brown said, “falls far short of what was possible with record state revenue surpluses and collections.”
Legislative Democrats said that Lee’s budget choices would not address concerns that many Tennesseans face, including child care, health care, and financial security, as well as education.
Senate Democratic Raumesh Akbari from Memphis said “We are missing an opportunity here, one where we can re-envision what it means to be a Tennessean. A Tennessean that knows they can send their kids to one of the best-funded schools in the country. A Tennessean that knows when they need health care, when they are in their lowest moment, they will have access. A Tennessean that knows that it’s not just a job in a warehouse or at a plant, but it’s a career where they can support their families and they can build and lift up that next generation.”
According to a report by the Education Week Research Center, Tennessee ranks 38th, 35th, and 40th respectively with an average “C” grade across the board for education quality according to their comprehensive national data.
Before pandemic-related school closures last spring, only 37% of Tennessee third-graders were reading on grade level.
“When only 34% of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by fourth grade – and that’s pre-COVID – something isn’t working and it’s time to get back to the basics,” Governor Bill Lee stated.
Last week, Lee signed a package of bills, valued at $110 million, aimed to address pandemic-related learning loss and low student literacy rates and to ensure teachers and districts are not punished based on standardized testing results this year.