Governor Lee delivers his 2020 State of the State Address as Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, left, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, right, listen.

The budget proposal Governor Bill Lee unveiled during his State of the State address on February 8 included significant initiatives for Tennessee education. If approved by the General Assembly, the appropriations will respond to several data-driven K-12 and higher education priorities identified by SCORE in the 2021 State Of Education In Tennessee report and the Driving Forward digital report.

Both SCORE reports emphasized the importance of stable education funding this year. The State Of Education report said, “Research from around the country demonstrates the negative impact of state funding cuts on student outcomes.” The Driving Forward report examined the impact of the two previous recessions on higher education and found, “When state support decreased, the student share of college and university revenues skyrocketed, resulting in a decrease in college affordability.”

Governor Lee said in his State of the State remarks that he wanted to ensure Tennessee students are “put in the best possible position to recover from the pandemic.” His budget proposal accounts for all growth and inflationary costs in the existing Basic Education Program formula for K-12 districts and Outcomes-Based Funding Formula for higher education institutions. SCORE is pleased to see this support for the basic funding mechanisms of education. Unlike many states, Tennessee consistently has invested in education over the course of three different administrations. The budget proposal also provides funding to address other key education priorities for 2021 identified by SCORE:

Learning loss: Extended learning time is one of the most promising remedies for the learning loss students have experienced during the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Lee budget would allocate $86.6 million for supplemental programming for students.

Early literacy: Tennessee’s low early literacy proficiency rate – nearly two-thirds of third-graders are not meeting expectations – is a crisis requiring urgent action. Appropriations totaling $2.8 million would support the implementation of the Tennessee Literacy Success Act that passed in the January special session and continue literacy coaching for a third year. This is in addition to the $100 million Reading 360 program funded by federal grants.

Charter school facilities: The State Of Education report highlighted charters as critical to efforts to improve equity for low-income students, Black students, and Latino students. “… The state can advance a more equitable education system by creating the environment that supports the state’s public charter schools to serve students – and expanding the number of high-quality charter schools,” the report said. The governor’s budget would support charter expansion by allocating $24 million, including $12 million in recurring appropriations, to the Charter Facilities Fund.

High school to postsecondary transition: The Ayers Foundation has demonstrated the value of high-intensity advising and coaching in helping rural students enroll in and complete higher education. The governor proposes to create the Rural Education Partnership with a $5 million investment to expand the Ayers college enrollment and completion efforts.

Career readiness: “A postsecondary education – whether in the form of a technical certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree – is increasingly necessary in a rapidly changing economy,” the State Of Education Report said.  The administration wants to spend $10 million to expand the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) project by 10 sites. The Lee budget would also cover the third year of the Governor’s Future Workforce Initiative that supports CTE and STEM training for teachers, AP computer science courses, and other resources for STEM classes.

Digital divide: The digital divide facing rural and economically disadvantaged students was starkly outlined by the pandemic school closures. Next year’s budget would make an historic investment of $200 million to increase access to broadband internet with grants and tax credits. “One major reason broadband expansion is important is to improve educational outcomes in rural areas,” Governor Lee told lawmakers.

The annual State Of Education In Tennessee reports aim to set the statewide agenda for advancing student success in the year ahead. The state spending plan now being considered by the General Assembly directly addresses many of the 2021 policy priorities, and SCORE will be advocating for those and other measures that will better support students from kindergarten to career.

Teresa Wasson is director of strategic communications at SCORE and Madeline Price is the K-12 policy analyst at SCORE.

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