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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Lodge Fall Creek Falls in Spencer, Tenn., on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

Note: This story was updated on Jan. 30 to correct the advocacy position of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee plans to make the case to state lawmakers as well as the public Monday night for his plan to overhaul the state's 30-year-old school funding formula for public education during his State of the State address.

The Republican governor also plans to double down on his priorities in several other areas including massive new investments in infrastructure and economic development during his annual speech, an event that allows governors to set forth their priorities and message in unfiltered fashion before a televised joint convention of the General Assembly.

Lee, who is running for a second term this year, previewed portions of his agenda last week in a speech to the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. In it, the governor made his pitch on a top priority for him: Performing major surgery on Tennessee's $5.6 billion funding formula for K-12 education. The formula needs to move from a "systems-based" model involving categories of need to a "student-based funding formula" in which dollars follow the student, the governor has said.

"I didn't know a lot about public school funding at the time when I walked in the door, but I know that a 30-year formula that nobody likes probably ought to be redone," Lee told Nashville chamber members, adding he knows much more about school funding now.

Education is "the future of Tennessee and I believe now is the time to make the appropriate change in funding for our schools," Lee said.

Lee also touted what he sees as some of his major first-term achievements, citing investments in vocational education, infrastructure and announcing the three largest economic development projects in the state's history in 2021 — among them Ford Motor Co.'s planned $5.6 billion truck and battery plant in West Tennessee — and his steps toward criminal justice reform.

"Last year, we passed an alternatives-to-incarceration act, and the success that we had with that ... [was] a very exciting thing for me," said Lee, a businessman and religious conservative who before becoming governor was heavily involved in prison ministry efforts.

"We have more work to do, we should invest even more, not only in our criminal justice system ... but in our law enforcement system," the governor added.

In a "prebuttal" video released Friday, state House Democratic Caucus chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville charged the governor with having "failed to address our public school crisis."

Dixie also said that while Democrats have sought to focus on rebuilding Tennessee's middle class, Lee and his fellow Republicans "move mountains for the wealthy, while refusing to address problems that affect everyday families and people who punch a clock."

Lee and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, announced in October a review of the state's K-12 education funding formula and named dozens of people, including a number of legislators, to lead the effort.

HOW TO WATCH

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s fourth State of the State address is scheduled for 7 p.m. EST Monday. It will be carried live on public television stations across the state as well as on the governor’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts and the General Assembly’s House website page.

Democrats have criticized Lee's "student-based" funding formula which among other things would include students attending public charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run schools.

It also could prove expensive. The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, which advocates for traditional K-12 public schools and public charter schools, has called on Lee to inject an additional $1 billion into public K-12 education.

Other concerns are that it would open the door to private school vouchers, which Lee and Schwinn say isn't the intention. Republican lawmakers in 2019 approved Lee's plan to offer voucher-like "education savings accounts" to low-income families. He had to compromise with the law affecting only Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools, omitting other districts, including Hamilton County, in order to win approval. But the subsequently legally challenged law has yet to be implemented.

A number of Lee's fellow Republicans, including several from Hamilton County, aren't sure about moving this year to pass Lee's proposal, saying Lee's subcommittees continue to meet and things shouldn't be rushed.

"We're already being sued," said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, alluding to the school voucher law. "Somewhere, somebody — and this is just the nature of the beast — is going to get short-changed or not get enough in their mind. And somebody somewhere will sue and we'll be back in court and the courts will decide all this. And we'll pay a lot of attorney fees."

Gardenhire, who along with several other local delegation members serves on at least one of the Lee task force's 18 subcommittees, said "I'm hoping that we come up with a proposal, put it out there. Let's let everybody look at it over the summer and the fall, introduce it as a bill next year ...

"At that point, we can fine-tune it, add some to it, throw some out. But something this major shouldn't be done in a six-month time period that will last us for 20 or 30 years," Gardenhire said.

Senate Finance Committee chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said "whether the legislature's ready to take action on it or not is, I think, it's a heavy lift. 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."

Watson, who serves on Lee's Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group — which is determining how the state should spend billions of federal stimulus funds — noted "we're dealing with all of the federal funding and what that all means and so I think it's just a heavy lift."

Lee and others in the Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group recently agreed to give $1.35 billion of the state's $3.9 billion pot of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to local governments in the form of infrastructure grants in hopes of persuading towns, cities and counties to invest millions of their own stimulus dollars for drinking water, wastewater and stormwater improvements.

"But again," Watson said of Lee's actual education formula changes, "we need something to be able to deliberate on instead of just speaking in concept ... even if they bring us something, we may spend the whole session deliberating on it and not take action. Because there are not enough people who work in that space to know all the possibilities."

House Finance Committee chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, voiced similar cautions.

"I know the governor's very focused on it. There are a lot of people working very hard on it, but I think my concern, and I know the governor and the legislature, we share this, 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. So whatever time it takes. If we can get that done this session, great. If not, we need to come back. I think more important than haste is having a good outcome, a good product."

WPLN, Nashville's National Public Radio station, reported Lee saying last week "the pieces that come together this week will allow us to make a proposal in short order to the legislature that they can then act on. Again, that's our hope, and we're pretty hopeful it can happen this session."

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

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