Lee: Education funding review not related to school vouchers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee denied Tuesday that his plan to revamp how Tennessee funds its multibillion dollar K-12 education system will make it easier to implement school voucher programs while responding to concerns submitted by the public following the process.
“I think it’s important to address that,” Lee said. “This public school funding is not connected to choice issues. ... They’re two entirely different things and we need to make sure people understand that.”
The governor’s administration first unveiled plans to overhaul the system in October and has since held multiple town halls across the state to collect feedback from teachers and families. On Tuesday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn gave the governor a public update on the meetings, where she said they have received concerns about school vouchers but did not give specific examples.
Lee, a Republican, has been an outspoken supporter of increasing school choice since taking office in 2019. Most recently, he sent millions of coronavirus pandemic relief dollars to charter schools, institutions that are publicly funded but operate outside traditional school districts. Lee’s administration dedicated $10 million to charters out of the nearly $64 million the state received in discretionary pandemic education money.
Lee also signed off on a contentious school voucher program that allows eligible families to use thousands of public tax dollars on private schooling tuition and other pre-approved expenses. However, the program has never been implemented due to multiple legal challenges questioning the constitutionality of the initiative.
That case is currently scheduled to go before the state’s Supreme Court once again in February. Attorneys initially argued the case before the high court earlier this year, but one of the justices died before a ruling was issued. Lee has yet to fill the open justice seat; instead, the court has temporarily designated an appeals judge as a stand-in justice.
“While I’m an advocate for school choice, I’m a strong advocate for public education and we need to fund our schools appropriately,” Lee later told reporters.
Known as the Basic Education Program, Tennessee’s school funding formula includes 45 components that are all used to determine how much funding each school should receive for teacher salaries and other expenses.
It has long been criticized for being complicated and outdated since it was first adopted nearly 30 years ago. It has even faced lawsuits led by school boards for falling short of Tennessee’s constitutional obligation to provide students with a “free, adequate, and equitable education.”
Democrats and the Tennessee Education Association have argued that any reform should increase school funding, but Lee has held off promising the new plan will include a bump in funding.
The governor says he hopes to have a proposal during the 2022 legislative session.