NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Lee declared Monday that his proposal to funnel an additional $117 million to K-12 teacher salaries would be the largest investment in teacher pay in Tennessee history.
Lee made the announcement during his second annual address in front of lawmakers, detailing his top legislative and budget priorities — several education-related initiatives as well as criminal justice reforms and economic development proposals — for the 2020 session.
“Make no mistake: We’ll do whatever it takes to make Tennessee the best state in the country to be a student, and that means making Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher,” Lee said.
Under Lee’s proposed teacher pay plan, the starting minimum annual salary for teachers would increase from $36,000 to $40,000 over the next two years.
“Our moonshot is that people are moving to Tennessee not because their spouses or partners got jobs at Amazon, or with a law firm, or whatever else, but that people are moving to Tennessee because they can think of no better place to become a teacher and remain a teacher in this country,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said.
The teacher pay proposal is part of several large education measures Lee is hoping to pass inside the GOP-dominant Statehouse during an election year.
Schwinn detailed proposals to train more Tennessee teachers, help cover their cost of schooling and offer them paid work under mentor teachers while they’re still in school; encourage teachers to stay in classroom positions through higher paid senior specialty categories; and offer coursework in high school that focuses on teaching as a profession.
However, education advocates caution that even with a $117 million boost, it may not be enough to help teacher salaries.
“While that is a large yearly increase, it breaks down to about $1,450 per teacher, or approximately $28 a week,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, when talking about the state’s approximately 80,000 instructional staffers.
Democratic lawmakers also pushed back against Lee’s announcement.
“The reality is, what was announced tonight is an early and modest step on a long road to doing right by our schools,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat. “It’s only a record-setting investment because Tennessee has a really bad record when it comes to funding education.”
Lee said he wants to allocate approximately $70 million on improving school literacy rates by investing in elementary teacher training and coaching, and instructional materials.
He also announced a proposal to put $250 million into an trust fund dedicated to mental health in K-12 schools. The state would first assess each districts’ needs before deciding how to spend it.
After spending most of last year barely passing a contentious voucher initiative anticipated to go into effect later this year, Lee is now focusing on spending more funds on not only teacher pay, but also improving literacy rates and teacher retention.
Lee’s voucher program, known as education saving accounts, will cost an estimated $37 million to allow some parents to pull their students out of public schools and use taxpayer dollars on private education. The budget also calls for an additional $24 million would go toward the state’s charter school facilities fund and another $25 million to fund services for Tennessee’s lowest performing schools.
The total budget plan under the governor’s spending plan would be $40.8 billion for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 — which begins in July — or about 3.7% more than the year before.
Lawmakers are expected to pass legislation that the first-term governor promised would create some of the strictest abortion laws the nation, which would include banning women from undergoing the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
The legislation — which has not yet been finalized — is also expected to be challenged in court.
At the same time, Lee says he wants to expand a pilot program that would extend postpartum coverage or women on TennCare — the state’s Medicaid program — from 60 days to 12 months.
As he did in first State of the State address, Lee stressed his commitment to investing in Tennessee’s rural areas. He highlighted that his budget would create a $100 million fund to be split between counties and cities in grants for one-time projects.
A similar $4 million grant fund was created last year as Lee sought support for his voucher bill, but the fund was immediately put on hold after some lawmakers raised questions about how the money was approved and how it was meant to be spent.
As anticipated, Lee also made sure to focus on upcoming criminal justice measures that will be introduced later this legislative session. A task force dedicated to studying the issue recently released 23 recommendations — ranging from improved community supervision to encouraging employers to hire former inmates.