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Gov. Bill Lee addresses legislators during the January 2021 special education session. / Photo by John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

Influential state senators are leery about expediting legislation this year to alter the way Tennessee pays for K-12 education, potentially putting them at odds with Gov. Bill Lee, who is speeding ahead.

As the 112th General Assembly prepared to convene Tuesday, Sen. Jon Lundberg, acting chairman of the Senate Education Commission, said he's concerned about moving too quickly to change the formula that determines how the state divvies up nearly $12 billion in education funds, nearly a third of the state budget.

Lundberg, a Bristol Republican, said he agrees with the proposal to change the formula but noted the state needs to be careful about unintended consequences.

The state has 18 subcommittees and a steering committee chaired by the governor delving into the subject. Lundberg said he is concerned about the lack of depth coming out of his subcommittee so far.

"To bring something out in the next week or two that really hasn't been discussed by professionals across the state, much less legislators, and then to try to run it through, I would be very hesitant," Lundberg said Monday, "again because it takes such a huge part of the state budget."

Minor mistakes in the next funding formula could cause huge consequences, Lundberg added.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area residents seek smaller classes, more support, at education funding forum)

Lee wants to shift from what is termed a "resource-based" funding formula with 45 different factors to one that is "student-based" and would look at each child's needs in school districts statewide.

No details are available on the governor's pending plan. But any proposal considered by the legislature likely would have an eye toward the state's current formula and arguments made before the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools districts, joined by several other districts, are in the midst of a lawsuit against the state over education funding, contending the legislature doesn't provide enough money to meet the needs of their students, many of whom live in poverty.

Critics of the governor's proposal, mainly Democrats, believe this is an effort to link dollars to students and send even more money to private schools if the state Supreme Court overturns two lower court decisions and finds the governor's education savings account program constitutional. That program, which is before the Supreme Court, would enable low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County school systems to take state funds and enroll in private schools.

None of the senators interviewed Monday broached that criticism, but they expressed concerns about moving too fast to completely change the K-12 funding formula.

Sen. Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, indicated to Hamilton County officials last week he doesn't think the legislature will approve any new funding laws during the 2022 session. He confirmed that outlook Monday to the Tennessee Lookout, saying it doesn't have to be done this year.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee pushes for review of state's school funding formula)

"I give the governor credit because it's a heavy lift anyway, and to try to do something too quickly I just don't think the legislature's going to do that. There's just a lot to process and deliberate on," Watson said.

Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian group funded by conservatives David and Charles Koch, is backing the proposal to reform school funding and make the formula "student-centered and flexible."

Education funding town halls

In January and February, state Sen. Bo Watson is hosting a series of town hall meetings so Tennesseans can participate in a review of the state’s education funding formula and share what matters most to them, according to a news release.

The discussions will cover what the release described as a more student-centered funding approach designed to incentivize positive outcomes, ensure all students are served at a high level, empower parents to engage in their child’s education and reflect the values of the community.

The forums are Thursday evenings from Thursday through Feb. 3 at the following locations:

— 6-7:30 p.m. on Thursday at the Red Bank Community Center, 3653 Tom Weathers Drive, Chattanooga.

— 6-7:30 p.m. on Jan. 20 at Abba’s House, 5208 Hixson Pike, Hixson.

— 6-7:30 p.m. on Jan. 27 at The Commons – Entry Pavilion, Swinyar Drive, Collegedale.

— 6-7:30 p.m. on Feb. 3 at the Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department, 5402 Highway 58, Harrison.

Feedback is crucial to Watson in his role on the Funding Review Steering Committee, the release said. The funding formula hasn’t been updated in about 30 years.

The town halls are open to the public, and advance RSVP is requested for space considerations at bowatson.info/education.

Research shows Tennessee is one of only a handful of states using a "resource-based" formula, as opposed to "a student-based" method, Watson said. The senator, a Hixson Republican, also said the current funding formula is the product of a court decision involving small schools some 30 decades ago rather than "a deliberative process."

That doesn't mean the Lee administration can't put together a proposal for lawmakers to consider, he said. Watson said the legislature could take action depending on what type of plan the governor's office brings.

But Watson said the governor's office still has a lot to think through, then educate lawmakers and find the willpower in the legislature to pass such a bill. Watson still has four town halls to attend himself, including several in the Chattanooga area.

Some lawmakers are leery about changing the formula in an election year, and any lawmakers whose districts could lose funding – unless the legislature increases funding across the board – would oppose any new method.

Lee, however, has said he believes "now is the time" to set up a new formula, and he doesn't want the effort to take years.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County officials question impact of voucher program on local school funding)

Legislators such as House Education Administration Chairman Mark White, R-East Memphis, said recently, "If not this year, when?"

Other lawmakers, such as Democratic Sens. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, say the state needs to put more money into K-12 education, possibly $2 billion more. The state ranks 45th nationally in funding, according to the National Education Association.

Some senators are worried the Lee administration already has its plan set and is holding town halls and subcommittee meetings to create the appearance of good government.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire said Monday the legislature needs to move deliberately on any proposal the governor makes this year, "let everybody gripe about it, try to fine-tune it," then come back in 2023 to make changes "or not do it at all," he said.

Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, serves on an English language learner subcommittee and isn't impressed with its function.

"It's almost like the administration already has their template that they want to follow and have already decided what it's going to be, and we're just going through the motions of approving or picking out what they've already decided to do," Gardenhire said.

He said regardless of what funding mechanism the legislature ultimately adopts, the state will be sued "one way or the other."

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

 

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