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Tennessee unveils new K-12 funding plan to lawmakers

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn unveiled a sweeping new rewrite of how the state funds its multibillion-dollar K-12 education system Thursday, saying it provides for more money per student and valuable services.

If approved, Tennessee would join nearly 40 other states in implementing a funding plan that attaches a set amount money per student. Currently, the state’s decades-old funding matrix is made up of about 45 different components that help determine what dollar amounts school districts receive. The districts serve nearly 1 million Tennessean students.

For months, Lee and Schwinn have highlighted the many meetings and town halls held across the state dedicated to collecting feedback from educators and families. And during his budget unveiling, the governor promised $750 million more annually to fund the new formula starting in 2023-2024. The money would first be available for other one-time education uses in the upcoming budget year.

But while many Tennessee education experts have criticized the current system as complicated and outdated, there has also been concern over rushing to replace it with another system that could create its own set of issues.

The proposal faces additional headwinds during an election year, when lawmakers are extra wary about votes that could be controversial in their districts, and they’re eager not to drag out legislative work so they can get out on the campaign trail.

According to the legislation introduced Thursday, schools would receive a base dollar amount of $6,860 per student with options to increase that amount depending on the student’s location and needs under a matrix known as “unique learning needs.” For example, schools with students with dyslexia or a disability would receive more funding — as well as those students in small districts or where poverty is concentrated, calculated using an algorithm outlined in the legislation.

Schwinn told reporters schools could receive as much as $15,600 per student depending on how many “unique learning needs” a student meets.

School officials and lawmakers are expected to get a breakdown of the new funding amounts over the next few days to learn more about how the proposed plan will affect them and their voters.

Schools will also have the option to receive more state dollars through “student-generated outcome” incentives, which will reward high reading scores or demonstrations that students have strong college and career readiness. The plan would allocate $100 million for such incentives. Stipends also would be provided to fast-growing schools.

Schwinn said another $125 million in the upcoming budget would be added to boost teacher salaries. And through the proposed formula, the minimum salary, which was $35,000 in January 2019, would increase to $46,000 by 2026.

School districts that receive low marks could be asked to defend themselves before the General Assembly and risk facing corrective actions handed down by lawmakers or be appointed an inspector general to oversee the school’s programming and spending.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally told reporters he’s concerned about the potential consequences for schools that “continue to underachieve” and added he expected some “adjustments” might be made by the Legislature.

Lee and Schwinn say the goal is to have the GOP-dominant General Assembly finalize the overhaul of the funding formula by the end of the legislative session. If approved, implementation would begin in the 2023-2024 school year. However, many lawmakers have not yet had a chance to examine the new proposal and it’s unclear how many are willing to take on the massive task before adjourning.

“Is there a determination to get it passed? I will tell you there’s a determination to get it right,” said Sen. Jon Lundberg, interim chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Scrutiny of Tennessee’s education system is at an all time high as lawmakers and families have called for more oversight of what concepts and discussions are being taught inside classrooms. Meanwhile, there’s also been a push to expand charter schools throughout the state.

Just hours before Lee’s administration dropped the school funding plan, Tennessee’s highest court was once again listening to arguments over the legality of the Republican governor’s school voucher law that he signed off on in 2019. That plan, which applies to only Nashville and Memphis’ Shelby County, remains blocked in court.