Tennessee's Republican-dominated General Assembly neared the finish line Wednesday of an overhaul of the state formula for funding its multibillion-dollar K-12 education system, angering Democratic lawmakers who were abruptly blocked from floor discussion of one of this year’s most sweeping pieces of legislation.
The state House and Senate each passed versions of the plan Wednesday, and would need to sort out differences as they near an anticipated end of their monthslong session.
Rewriting Tennessee's school funding system has been a priority for Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who urged lawmakers to sign off on his plan this session. Republicans jumped to the task, but some education advocates and Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully pleaded for more time to flesh out the details involving the state's most expensive budget item.
GOP House leaders infuriated Democrats on Wednesday by blocking floor debate on the school funding mechanism being proposed. At the time, Democratic lawmakers were attempting to pass a long list of possible amendments, some of them submitted by lawmakers’ constituents.
Earlier in the week, Republican House members used similar procedural maneuvers to cut off debate on several controversial LGBTQ-related bills.
While such maneuvers are allowed, lawmakers generally shy from doing so in order to provide transparency to the public wanting to know what their General Assembly is approving or spiking.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, quickly called his Republican peers “cowards” in a tweet and said they were “too scared” to defend their bills.
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The school formula measure passed 65-27 in the House with Republican Rep. Mark White, the bill's sponsor, later quipping he had prepared remarks to defend the overhaul but didn't have an opportunity to give them.
The Senate went through a lengthier debate before voting to pass the bill 26-5.
Under the new school funding plan, Tennessee would join nearly 40 other states that attach a set amount money per student. This has alarmed critics who argue the plan could potentially punish school districts because they might receive less funds over time. However, supporters counter the current decades-old funding mechanism — made up of about 45 components — is overly complicated and makes it difficult to track how the money is spent.
The bill states that schools will 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.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has said schools could receive as much as $15,600 per student depending on how many “unique learning needs” a student meets.
So far, Lee is expected to sign off on giving $750 million more annually to fund the new education formula starting in 2023-2024. The money would first be available for other one-time education uses in the upcoming budget year. Another $100 million has been allocated to give schools incentives to reward high reading schools and students who have strong college and career readiness. An additional $125 million will be added to boost teacher salaries, moving the minimum salary from around $35,000 to $46,000 by 2026.
Other bills still pending include a proposal to regulate delta-8 THC, which is a psychoactive chemical cousin of marijuana’s main intoxicating ingredient. The Senate and House are currently at odds over the bill's details with some encouraging an outright ban as concerns have been raised about its explosive popularity in a state where recreational marijuana is not legal. Others say regulating the product will better help reduce the risk of children being exposed to it.