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NASHVILLE — Tennessee government and 147 local public school systems are projected to get an estimated $1 billion or so in one-time funding under Congress' $900 billion coronavirus relief legislation, a top state legislator said Wednesday.

The relief bill was signed into law Sunday by President Donald Trump as part of a $2.3 trillion funding deal that includes $1.4 trillion in funding for federal government operations.

"The stimulus was passed in the second CARES Act, it was for schools nationwide. It's like $54 billion," state House Education Committee Chairman Mark White, R-Memphis, said Wednesday in a Times Free Press interview, confirming an account by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, that she understood Tennessee's share would be some $1 billion. "Tennessee's going to get about $1.1 billion of that for all our public schools," White said.

White said his understanding is that some $900 million goes directly to school systems and will be distributed based on upon their numbers of low-income students, while the remainder goes to the state for education purposes.

"It has a lot of restrictions," White cautioned. "I don't think you can use it for salaries and things. You can use it for things such as COVID-related, whether that be a facility improvement, bigger classrooms which could be some capital improvements you might need that would fit along the guidelines. Or if you need things like HVAC, better ventilation systems, facility upgrades and maintenance, a lot of things like that."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, schools can use the relief to address learning loss, improve school facilities and infrastructure to reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus, and purchase education technology.

States must distribute at least 90% of funds to local education agencies based on their proportional share of ESEA Title I-A funds. States have the option to reserve 10% of the allocation for emergency needs as determined by the state to address issues responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money is playing a part in Republican Gov. Bill Lee's call for a special legislative session on education and the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee administration officials did not respond late Wednesday afternoon and early evening to Times Free Press requests about the specific amount of the anticipated federal funds.

But earlier Wednesday, Lee made a vague reference to the money during a conference call with reporters in which he and state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn discussed the special session slated to begin Jan. 19. Lee wants lawmakers to address a variety of COVID-19 related issues as well as Lee's phonics-based literacy initiative.

His phonics initiative stalled earlier this year, first amid lawmakers' concerns and then, once those were resolved, the growing pandemic and fears tax revenues would be crushed, leaving the state unable to pay for the estimated $68 million cost of the reading initiative.

"Learning losses are at record highs, we know that," Lee said. "It's not just a concerning data point, these are severe lifelong consequences for our kids if we don't take swift, corrective measures. We all know we haven't been making the strides in literacy that we should be making. COVID-19 has actually exposed just how poorly Tennessee students are doing, particularly our youngest students."

The special session "will be targeted at those things we can do to really give our kids a high-quality education in spite of the challenges of this pandemic," Lee continued before noting Schwinn's department "has work to do with some of the funding that will be coming federally."

Federal funds could pay for his phonics-based literacy and reading program called "Reading 360," the governor said. "We'll be announcing more about that, and the legislative package and the details of this special session as those details are hammered out in the coming days."

Lee also wants to either increase teacher pay or pay one-time bonuses to educators. Other issues include state testing accountability next year amid the ongoing pandemic.

White said there about five issues in total. He noted that lawmakers would like to do something for teachers after a planned 4% raise was withdrawn amid concerns of a coronavirus-induced revenue collapse that wasn't as bad as feared.

"Right now, it may be a one-time bonus," White said. "But the administration is looking at it to to see if they can also tie in a raise that is recurring money. That's why it's more difficult and especially when we're making sure our budget stays healthy due to the economic turndown, but so far we're doing OK. Definitely looking at a bonus or some kind of one-time appreciation for all the hardships that teachers have gone through in trying to do virtual [teaching] as well as some back-to-school or hybrid [education] and the whole nine yards."

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

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