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Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State Address Monday, March 4, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, arrives in the House Chamber to deliver his first State of the State Address Monday, March 4, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Lee unveiled plans Monday night to raise public teacher salaries, boost the state's emergency reserve to a "record breaking" $1.1 billion and embark on what he called a "bold" program to create Tennessee's first education voucher program during his first State of the State address.

The annual address coincides with the release of the governor's proposed budget ,and this year Lee is recommending a $38.55 billion annual spending plan, a 1.1 percent increase over current year funding.

Lee is recommending the state put $25 million into an "education savings account" program that would allow low-income parents of students in the state's lowest-performing schools to attend "an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family."

"Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and we need a bold plan that will help level the playing field," Lee told members of the General Assembly and other top state leaders. "We need to change the status quo, increase competition, and not slow down until every student in Tennessee has access to a great education. 

"We're not going to get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges," Lee added. "That is why we need Education Savings Accounts in Tennessee, this year."

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State Address Monday, March 4, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

An estimated 5,000-student cap would be set for the first year and families would receive $7,300 per student to use to pay for private schooling. Similar cash award programs have run into problems involving fraud in Arizona, but a Lee administration official earlier told reporters "this is not an unaccountable system."

Some details are still being finalized. Lee administration officials said the money is over and beyond what the state now spends on public K-12 education and would not take money away from public education. 

But in an apparent effort to keep fellow Republicans in rural and suburban districts from opposing it, Lee is proposing eligibility for the Education Savings Accounts be limited to low-income students in districts with three or more schools 
ranked in the bottom 10 percent of schools. 

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State Address Monday, March 4, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

That list of districts impacted includes Hamilton County schools in additional to Davidson, Knox, Jackson-Madison, Shelby and the state's Achievement School District. The district was a brainchild of the Haslam administration that has largely failed to deliver the desired results.

During his speech, Lee outlined a number of recently announced initiatives, including his proposed GIVE program to expand high school students' access to vocational and technical training, mainly at the state's technical colleges, and put a dollar figure to teacher raises at $71.25 million for the state's K-12 teachers. That represents about a 2.5 percent increase but what educators actually see will depend on how local districts decide to award it.

Another $46 million goes toward the state's Basic Education Program funding formula.

That's part of an estimated $221.17 million in new education funding. Also included is an "education savings account program" totaling $25.45 million, in which parents of students in the bottom 10 percent of failing schools could use the funds to attend private schools. He's also proposing $12 million in new spending for a public charter schools' facilities fund. 

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State Address Monday, March 4, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown, a Grundy County High School teacher, said she welcomed the additional K-12 public school funding, including the money for teacher raises, although she wished there were more rules in place for how systems determine how the money goes to teachers.

But Brown voiced worries about the additional funding for public charter schools. And, the TEA president said, the educators' organization "has deep concerns about massive funding for Education Savings Accounts, which are vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse. 

"In a time when teachers across the state have to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm students in other states," Brown added, saying if the $37 million in combined spending for charter schools and the Education Savings Account proposal was redirected to teacher salaries, "the state could keep up with the cost of inflation and reimburse teachers for the hundreds of dollars they spend on classroom supplies."  

Of the state's $38.6 billion budget, the general state government portion amounts for $18.6 billion, while the federal government provides $14 billion. Other departmental revenue accounts for $3.9 billion, while higher education fees and tuition totaling $1.9 billion make up the remainder.

This year's budget represents a $423.8 million increase over last year. Meanwhile, federal revenue is down $210.07 million, largely due to a federal Medicaid reimbursement formula. Because Tennessee's per capita income has risen slightly, the state's losing some federal assistance.

State employees would be eligible for a 2 percent pay increase.

Lee, meanwhile, is proposing $10 million in ongoing funding and another $20 million in one-time grant funding for more school safety measures, including hiring of more school resource officers.

He also wants $37.5 million in new workforce development funding, including $25 million for vocational and technical school training for work-based learning programs and apprenticeships.

Other proposals include $20 million for continuing to spread broadband availability into rural areas and $35 million for more initiatives to combat Tennessee's opioid epidemic.

Another initiative is a major focus to boost pay for state correctional officers to the tune of $15.6 million. He also is asking state lawmakers for $2.4 million to provide an additional 40 probation and parole officers to decrease work loads and provide better oversight.

Early in his speech, Lee recalled a climbing trip he took last summer with his teen-age daughter at Grand Teton National Park where they climbed one of the high mountains. Using that experience as a metaphor, Lee told lawmakers, "the only way to get across it was to set your face forward against the mountain and step sideways across the gap — and whatever you do, don't look down. 

"As a state, we find ourselves in a very strong position, with a very nice view," the new governor said. "We can choose to sit here and enjoy it, or we can choose to step across the ledge and move to higher, better ground. But if we decide to go higher and farther, we must resolve to not look back, and not look down. If we lead Tennessee well, Tennessee may well lead the nation."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

Local Reactions to State of the State

"The Tennessee Education Association is pleased to hear Gov. Bill Lee intends to build on the substantial investments made in recent years to increase state funding of our great public schools. TEA supports his commitment to increasing career technical education programs, STEM initiatives and teacher salaries. The teacher salary funding is substantial at $71 million, making it approximately a 2.5 percent increase. The key will be to ensure that money actually ends up in teacher paychecks. Additionally, if the $25 million going to vouchers and the $12 million earmarked for privately owned charter buildings were redirected to teacher salaries, the state could keep up with the cost of inflation and reimburse teachers for the hundreds of dollars they spend on classroom supplies. We have concerns about Lee's proposal to increase funding for charter schools and pave the way for rapid charter school expansion. Charter schools are proven to destabilize public school budgets and damage existing classrooms where there is rapid expansion. Charter schools need to be a local decision, because local taxpayers bear a majority of the costs. The Tennessee Constitution clearly states that we have a responsibility to provide a quality public education for every student in Tennessee. Improving public schools requires more money, not less, to provide a well-rounded education for students. TEA also has deep concerns about massive funding for Education Savings Accounts, which are vouchers with less accountability that are more susceptible to fraud and abuse. In a time when teachers across the state have to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm students in other states. Let's support Tennessee students and teachers by directing taxpayer dollars to our public school classrooms, not vouchers that harm student achievement. There are many proven ways to improve public schools, such as reducing class sizes so educators can spend more one-on-one time helping students. We should invest in what we know works, including recruiting and retaining qualified and committed educators, creating inviting classrooms, supplying students with modern textbooks, and providing the other resources that can set all students off toward a great future. That's how taxpayer funds should be spent. I believe we have common ground with the governor around the state TNReady assessment. While we welcome his commitment to ensuring students and educators do not experience the system failures of years past, it is important to recognize that even in a year where there are no issues administering the test, standardized test scores of a test like TNReady are not valid measures of student achievement, teacher effectiveness or school performance. Students and teachers benefit most when tests are used as diagnostic tools to identify where students may be struggling and need extra instruction. The high-stakes TNReady system we have in place does not equip educators to diagnose and teach. TEA wants to see educators involved in the design and implementation of accountability alternatives, including a proper pre-test/post-test system, creative use of benchmark testing, and other accurate gauges to ensure student progress. TEA members statewide are committed to working with Gov. Lee's administration and the General Assembly to advocate for legislation that is in the best interest of all Tennessee children."

- Beth Brown, Grundy County High School teacher and Tennessee Education Association president

"In his first State of the State address, Bill Lee rightly pointed out the successes of the past while charting a new course for the future. His words tonight lived up to the promise of his campaign. Governor Lee laid out a clear, coherent and conservative message which will resonate across all three grand divisions. I appreciated his emphasis on fiscal responsibility noting the importance of keeping debt low, savings high and our budget balanced. He is committed not just to growing our prosperity but sharing it with those portions of our state most in need. I am committed to working with him to expand educational opportunity, redouble our efforts on mental health and reform our approach to criminal justice. Together with Speaker Casada and the State House, we will help Tennessee lead the nation."

- Lt. Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge)

"While we can support some measures introduced by Governor Lee during the State of the State Address, such as an emphasis on Vocational Education, increased civics courses, more STEM training and resources, restorative justice practices in schools, and meaningful criminal justice reform, we stand on the position that we and dozens of like-minded groups across the State and nation have conveyed in being adamantly opposed to education savings accounts and other forms of neo-vouchers because of their lack of accountability, the siphoning of funding from school districts, and a growing amount of evidence that suggests racial isolation is enhanced under these flawed measures. It is unfortunate that the announcement of a $25 million education stimulus mentioned could not have been allocated for other more productive purposes, such as increasing the number of African-American and minority teachers which is well below the demographics of the State's rapidly diversifying student population and is a critical area of need. Thirty-seven percent of Tennessee's students are students of color, but teachers of color represent only 13 percent of the teacher population. All of Tennessee's children should be afforded the opportunity to receive a free, fair and appropriate public education because education should be a right for all and not a privilege of the few."

- Unity Group of Chattanooga

"It is admirable for Gov. Lee to lift up the nearly 300,000 Tennesseans facing serious mental health challenges whom he describes as 'slipping through the cracks.' We ask that Gov. Lee not overlook the roughly 163,000 Tennesseans caught in the coverage gap who are also slipping through the cracks because Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid. When Gov. Lee was elected he assured us that he would be 'the governor of every Tennessean.' To honor this promise, he must govern in a way that also protects the least of these, our brothers and sisters, as Jesus taught us. Expanding Medicaid would be in accordance with this promise and the Christian faith."

- Lenda Sherrell, state director of the Southern Christian Coalition

"I don't know which part of Tennessee Governor Lee is seeing with his 'own eyes,' but he's got on some rose-colored glasses. He's not seeing the Tennessee where disparities in income and public education are growing wider. He's not seeing the Tennessee where rural hospitals are collapsing. He's not seeing the Tennessee where a staggering 40% of cannot pay for the basics of a middle class life. Governor Lee needs to ask the people of Ducktown and Copperhill, who are living without an emergency room for the first time in 50 years, if they are feeling 'hopeful, prosperous and strong.' Instead of making a commitment to heal our dysmally-funded public schools, he made commitments to undercut public school funding with a private school voucher program. Lives have already been lost due to our unsustainable rural hospital closure crisis. The overwhelming majority of states have prevented the same crisis that is devastating our rural communities by expanding Medicaid under Democratic and Republican governors. Instead of following their lead, he revealed tonight that appeasing State House Republican lawmakers is more important than making sure their rural constituents have access to a nearby emergency room. Don't say you want to improve our mental health system, opioid epidemic, and healthcare outcomes as long as you reject viable answers just to preserve political capital."

- Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini

"In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee cited his past as a businessman to establish credibility for his budget as a public servant. As a small business owner, a budget for my business has nothing in common with a budget that benefits all Tennesseans. The former is profit-driven to maximize business; the latter should be people-driven designed to maximize the well-being of all Tennesseans. Lee explains that his budget prioritizes 'what is needed.' We applaud Lee's plan to allocate funding to help Tennesseans struggling with mental and behavioral health issues. However, we have to ask: Why stop there? Is there not a need to ensure every Tennessean has access to health care?"

- Peter Calvet, owner of Fantasy Flora / Tennessee Small Business Alliance

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