Tennessee lawmakers question Gov. Bill Lee's education budget


Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Governor Bill Lee’s massive spending on K-12 education drew more questions Thursday from Tennessee lawmakers, and it was not just limited to Democrats.

The minority Democrats were most critical, with Senate Democrat Leader Jeff Yarbro fearing too much money would end up in the state education department instead of with teachers and students.

“What we need is a record investment in classrooms.” said Sen. Yarbro at a Thursday morning news conference. “What we are still trying to do is drill down on what exactly the investment is and where its going.”

An hour later, Republican Bo Watson, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, raised his own questions while being less critical.

“There are some very innovative things here being discussed in very general terms,” Sen. Watson told reporters. “There will be some clunkiness to it cause this is a new and innovative approach and you never get something this large perfect the first time you do it, but I think it is a positive step to what everyone recognizes as a significant problem.”

Somewhere between $400 and $650 million dollars—depending how you calculate the proposal this week from Governor Bill Lee—makes up what would be a record one year state investment in education from Tennessee lawmakers.

Two senators from each party symbolized the questions raised in various degrees—beginning with the $250 million dollar endowment to help school kids with mental health issues.

The yearly interest off the $250 million investment is envisioned going to schools.

“It will end up being around $8 million dollars a year maybe in a good year,” said Sen. Yarbro who tosses out another number about what’s needed. “If you are just trying to get a counselor in every classroom you are talking about $75-$100 million dollar proposition.”

That would be yearly, says the Senate Democrat leader, but the Senate’s Republican finance chair maintained the school mental health endowment is innovative, while raising some questions.

“You recognize a need. You fund it,” added Sen. Watson. “And then sometimes you have to figure out your way on how you are going to execute the funding you have and i think that is where we are with this kind of innovative approach.”

Questions have also been raised specifically about if the money proposed for 4 percent k-12 teacher raise is really enough to reach that amount, or if the amount proposed for the raises will all get to teachers.

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