More than $600 million in proposed funding invested in public education in Tennessee in the coming fiscal year.
In a speech that largely hit the same high notes as his State of the State address earlier this week, Gov. Bill Lee focused in large part on issues like education, mental health and criminal justice reform during his State of East Tennessee address at the East Tennessee State University Millennium Center Thursday evening. He’ll deliver a State of West Tennessee address Feb. 13 at Lane College.
“The reason we decided to do this, even though a lot of it is the same information, it’s important for me to be out there in front of and look into the faces of people in their communities and give folks in East Tennessee ... the opportunity to hear my vision and hear why it is I think we’re so fortunate to be Tennesseans,” Lee said.
Pointing specifically to East Tennessee, Lee highlighted the creation of nearly 4,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in capital investment last year stemming from 30 project commitments.
“And while we still have a lot of work left to do on rural economic development, I’m proud to say half of the commitments in the state were landed in rural communities,” he said.
Calling Johnson City a “jewel” in this part of Tennessee, Lee also touted the inclusion of $5 million in his proposed budget for the renovation of the 110-year-old Ashe Street Courthouse, which he hopes will serve as an economic driver for the community, and his announcement last summer of the creation of the new Center for Rural Health, which will be housed in the ETSU College of Public Health.
“I was proud to invest in this program because it’s going to identify mechanisms to improve health in rural and in non-urban counties not just in this region,” he said. “This partnership between Ballad Health and ETSU is exactly the kind of public-private partnerships that drive the innovation that we need to solve the problems that have been developing in rural America for decades.”
Lee also cited the state’s investment of $1 million in Northeast State Community College through a GIVE Grant for a new IT career accelerator, which is intended to increase the number of trained computer networking professionals to meet workforce needs. He said another $1 million GIVE Grant has been issued to increase STEM education for more than 300 high school students in Elizabethton.
In his first year as governor, Lee said the state invested $30 million in school safety and launched two educational choice initiatives. This includes the Tennessee Education Savings Account, which Lee said gives low-income children in low-performing school districts the “opportunity for quality education.” The program is the first voucher and second private school choice program in the state.
According to the Tennessean, the Nashville and Shelby County governments filed a lawsuit against the state Thursday over the education savings account program, calling it unconstitutional.
Responding to news of the lawsuit, Lee told reporters after his speech that school choice is important.
“I believe this education savings account program is going to, for low-income students in the lowest-performing schools, it will give them an opportunity for a higher education,” he said. “ ... That’s what most important, is making sure our kids have a good education. There are those who will challenge that, but we feel confidant that we’re going to get kids a high quality education in this state and do a number of things to move us in that direction.”
Last year, Lee said the state invested $70 million in teacher pay. Among his proposals for education funding, the governor is advocating this year a $117 million investment in additional dollars for teacher salaries, which he said amounts to a 4% increase.
Over the next two years, Lee is also recommending that the state move the minimum salary schedule for new teachers from $36,000 to $40,000.
“We’ve got to work harder to make teaching a more attractive profession for young people,” he said. “We know that our new teacher numbers are dropping, and as our economy becomes more prosperous and more competitive for jobs, investing in workforce development has to include developing the next generation of educators.”
Responding to pleas for assistance from teachers and principals, Lee the state will be expanding its school-based behavioral health liaison program from 36 counties to all 95 counties.
He’s also proposing the creation of a K-12 mental health trust fund of $250 million in one-time funds, which Lee said will support the growth and placement of mental health services in at-risk schools. Lee said private donations will grow the fund overtime.
Looking at the data, Lee said one in five children suffer from a mental health diagnosis in a given year, 60% of children who receive mental health services receive them in schools and the youth suicide rate has increased 56% in the last 10 years.
Based on recommendations from the governor’s Criminal Justice Investment Task Force, Lee said the state hopes to expand its recovery courts to offer specialized supervision for veterans and individuals struggling with addiction. He also hopes to improve the state’s use of community supervision.
The governor also wants to ensure people leaving prison can secure a job, which he said the state can improve by revising the occupational licensing process and encouraging employers to hire former inmates.
“We have had great success with that but we’ve got to double down on that because that’s how we’re going to lower the recidivism,” he said.