Tennessee Gov. Lee's education funding framework lands on first day of legislative session

Some lawmakers feel rushed, others say the draft is just there to stimulate ideas

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets, Oct. 27, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, file)

NASHVILLE - Some Tennessee lawmakers this week already were expressing concerns that Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to overhaul the state's education funding formula was moving too fast.

Then he released an initial framework for the plan at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday without much of a heads up to legislators. The release did not immediately quell their concerns.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican who is co-chairman of the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee, is serving on a subcommittee for the funding overhaul focused on English language learners.

"I've been disappointed in the exercise because we haven't finished our hearings, our committee work, and yet this week they're going to put out a proposal on it," Gardenhire said. "And I've always felt like they already had a pre-conceived agenda in that respect."

The new framework contains no numbers but suggests educator salaries, nurses, counselors and technology should be among the base elements of a per-student calculation for education funds, with weight given to students if they have unique learning needs, live in poverty or rural areas and if they attend charter schools.

"Something this major shouldn't be done in a six-month time period," Gardenhire said, "that will last us for 20 or 30 years."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who serves on a subcommittee for formula challenges and changes, said in an interview at the state Capitol on Wednesday that the framework is just designed to stimulate thinking about the funding formula.

"I don't view it as a 'done deal' kind of thing at all," Watson said. "I view it as, 'OK, we've been doing this since maybe the middle of November, and here's kind of what we've heard thus far. There's still more conversation, but start getting your mind around this because this is what we're hearing.'

"I don't think we're locked in," he said. "I know the legislature isn't locked in on any particular methodology."

Watson said that while it is conceivable the administration could bring a proposal for the legislature to review, he's not sure whether the legislature is ready to take action this year.

"I think it's a heavy lift," Watson said. "And you know, it depends on what other issues pop up during the session, whether we can focus on that or other things become important, too."

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said her understanding of what Lee is doing with the meetings is not a plan or proposal.

"I think what they provided is basically the input that they've collected as they've done these focus groups and these meetings across the state," she said.

She said she's not sure whether the plan will advance through the legislature this year.

"I think it depends on how much consensus there is around some plan or proposal or whatever," she said. "I know the governor's very focused on it. There are a lot of people working very hard on it."

But she said her concern and that of others, including Lee, is "this is really important. And we need to get it right. It hadn't been done in a long time. I don't think there's any question that there need to be adjustments and major changes. But we just really need to make sure that we're getting it right."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger in a Wednesday phone interview said he was not familiar with the details of the draft funding plan, but he is supportive of the concept of a student-based funding formula.

However, he added, if such a program were implemented, there would need to be a mechanism in place to make up for any money lost by public school systems as a result of a voucher program.

"The money follows the student as it should, so there should be additional funding to make up the difference," Coppinger said.

Lee has previously said his "Funding for Student Success" initiative would not provide funding for school vouchers. It would provide funding for public charter schools.

Hamilton County school board chairman Tucker McClendon said what he has seen thus far appears fairly vague but noted he hasn't yet had an opportunity to delve deeper into the issue.

"I have a lot of questions about it," said Beth Brown, a Grundy County school teacher and president of the Tennessee Education Association, who serves on Lee's working group. "There are a lot of good concepts, but without the numbers [on dollars], it's really hard to wrap your brain around what this is going to do and how it might realistically impact students."

Brown said in a telephone interview she's already hearing from teachers, noting the release went out Tuesday night and the administration is now seeking public comment until noon, Jan. 18. That comes following the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, with Monday being a state and federal holiday.

J.C. Bowman, executive director and CEO with the Professional Educators of Tennessee, also a member of the working group, said people "need to know the dollars" for the proposed new framework.

"Some of these items need to be clearly laid out," he said, citing areas such as "intervention services."

"What's that?" Bowman said in a phone interview. "What's 'intervention'? Specifically what do you mean."

The draft framework can be found at bit.ly/tn-ed-framework, and comments can be emailed to tnedu.funding@tn.gov.

Reporters Emily Crisman and Logan Hullinger contributed to this report.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow Sher on Twitter @AndySher1.