Andy Holt / AP file photo

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said Monday the state so far has awarded $7.2 million out of a $20 million pool to assist local school systems in hiring resource officers to protect students.

But despite hiring an additional 206 school resource officers across Tennessee, a state lawmaker called on colleagues to pass a law allowing interested teachers and coaches to carry firearms in schools, calling it a lower-cost alternative.

"There is in my opinion an answer to address school safety," said Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, as the House Finance Committee kicked off hearings on next year's state budget. "And that is allowing teachers and coaches to voluntarily go armed in schools."

Holt said education officials can then "put up an abundance of signs around those schools saying that students on that campus are protected by teachers and coaches that are on that campus.

"This is not a foreign idea, this is not a new idea," added Holt, a staunch gun rights advocate. "Other states have gone down this path and they've seen success. I would definitely say it's time for us to look at that, especially in view of how much school safety's costing."

Following the hearing, Schwinn sidestepped reporters' questions on arming educators, an issue that has previously failed to win legislative approval.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn speaks during a Partnership Network Advisory board meeting at the Hamilton County Department of Education board room on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I'm not in a place to comment on that at this time," she said. "We're focusing on the budget hearing."

Last year, Holt sponsored a controversial law that allows Tennesseans to forego extensive live firearms training and obtain a state-issued concealed handgun carry certificate. Residents now can get certified after watching a 90-minute video, taking a written test and undergoing a criminal background check.

Following up on a 2018 initiative started by his predecessor in the wake of mass shootings at schools, including the Lakeland, Fla., attack that left 17 students and others dead, Republican Gov. Bill Lee this year successfully sought $30 million for school safety initiatives, with a heavy emphasis on resource officers.

The resource officers have police-level firearms training. About 500 schools statewide at the time didn't have a campus resource officer, Lee said.

Lee's program allows systems that already have SROs to use the money for other security purposes such as video monitoring and electronic door locks.

The House this year is getting a head start on budget hearings, scheduling meetings through Thursday and another week's worth of hearings in December in advance of Lee submitting his annual spending plan to the General Assembly in January.

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