Gov. Bill Lee addressing legislator’s during the January 2021 special education session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
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 wants to speed ahead.
As the 112th General Assembly prepares to convene Tuesday, Sen. Jon Lundberg, acting chairman of the Senate Education Commission, said he’s concerned about moving too quickly to change the Basic Education Program, a complex 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 “very careful” about causing “unintended consequences.”
The state has 18 subcommittees and a steering committee chaired by the governor delving into the subject. Lundberg 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.
Gov. 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. Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools districts, joined by 80 other districts, are in the midst of a lawsuit against the state over the BEP, 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 2020 session. He confirmed that outlook Monday to the Tennessee Lookout, saying it doesn’t have to be done this year.
“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.
Research shows Tennessee is one of only a handful of states using a “resource-based” formula, as opposed to “a student-based” method, he pointed out. Watson, a Hixson Republican, also noted the Basic Education Program 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 added. And, he left an opening, saying the Legislature could take action depending on what type of plan the governor’s office brings.
But Watson pointed out 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. A town hall is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday with Department of Education officials and Metro Nashville Public Schools leaders at the district’s central office on Bransford Avenue.
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.
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 national in funding, according to the National Education Association.
It's almost like the (Lee) 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.
– Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally appears to be OK with the debate but isn’t chomping at the bit to adopt a new formula this session.
“Starting a discussion over BEP reform is one of the governor’s chief priorities and Lt. Gov. McNally looks forward to continuing that discussion as the legislative session unfolds,” said spokesman Adam Kleinheider.
Americans for Prosperity is backing the proposal to reform school funding and make the formula “student-centered and flexible.”
But some senators are worried that 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.”
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 points out that regardless of what funding mechanism the Legislature ultimately adopts, the state will be sued “one way or the other.”
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