By Steve Hunley

After forty-five days as governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee made his first State of the State address at the Capitol last Monday night.    Governor Lee brought legislators and guests to their feet some twenty times and his message throughout the evening was positive.   In fact, I suspect some who had classified the governor as a reactionary were a bit surprised by not only Lee’s tone, but also some of his proposals.   Tennessee’s budget increased by a billion dollars as proposed by Governor Bill Lee.  The governor was careful to point out his proposed budget met the criteria as expressed through the “Copeland Cap,” which was an amendment to the Tennessee State Constitution requiring “in no year shall the rate of growth of appropriations from state tax revenues exceed the estimated growth of the state’s economy as determined by law.”

The governor’s business experience was evident to me due to the fact Lee proposed that Tennessee’s “rainy day” fund be better funded than ever.  Lee’s proposals rang a bell with those who supported him during the recent campaign.  The governor stressed in his State of the State address health care, criminal justice reform, education and revamping the way government works.

The governor told the legislature he would like to see a program developed to reduce prison recidivism through education.  Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of Governor Lee’s speech was his school voucher proposal.  Throughout his campaign for governor, Lee stressed his support for vouchers and charter schools, yet before his State of the State address, he had not proposed any program relating to vouchers.  That changed last Monday night when the governor proposed an “education savings account” program, which would give students and parents more choices.  The pilot program would initially help 5,000 students from low-performing school districts across the state and would grow over time.  “Creating competition will provide new incentive for schools to improve and provide new opportunities for thousands of students,” Governor Lee told lawmakers during his State of the State address.  “Members of the legislature: now is the time.”  Under Governor Lee’s plan, students would get about $7,300 and the program would grow by approximately 2,500 students per year if there is a continued need.  The governor readily acknowledged the funding pool would also continue to grow in subsequent budget years.  Governor Lee told the legislature students in Shelby, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Madison counties would be eligible, as well as those students in the state-run Achievement School District for the new program.

“I believe highly accountable public charter schools are a great model for expanding choice without sacrificing quality, and I’ve seen firsthand how they can dramatically impact the life and trajectory of a student,” Governor Lee said.  Lee’s proposal would allow charter schools to petition the state directly for approval.

“Students have different needs and abilities, and our education system should mirror that diversity as best as possible,” the governor told his audience.

During the presentation of his program, Governor Lee also addressed what has been a source of bitter criticism from teachers, who are almost always against charter schools and vouchers.  “I know there’s a concern that programs like this will take money away from public schools,” Lee said, “but my ESA plan will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school.”  Under Lee’s plan, school districts would get “improvement grant” money, which would mirror the funding those students inside the program would have used elsewhere.  Governor Lee also asked the legislature for $12 million for public charter schools to purchase property, as well as make improvements to existing schools, bring the total to almost $38 million for Lee’s “student choice” initiative.

Lee also talked about his “GIVE” program, which would expand high school students’ access to vocational and technical training.  The governor also proposed giving educators in K-12 a 2.5% raise, which will cost taxpayers $71.25 million.  Altogether, Governor Bill Lee has proposed $221 million new dollars in education funding in Tennessee.

It did not take teachers long to express their horror over parts of the governor’s plan.  Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, naturally liked the raises for teachers, but expressed concern about funding charter schools and did not hesitate to resuscitate the usual worn out old arguments.  Brown also had even greater concerns about the governor’s ESA program.  “In a time when teachers across the state have to dig deep into their pockets for needed classroom supplies, it is discouraging to see funding going to something proven to harm students in other states,” Brown said.  Not surprisingly, Beth Brown suggested the new $38 million in spending for charter schools and the governor’s Education Savings Account proposal would be better spent if put directly into the pockets of teachers.

Brown went on to say by giving the $38 million new dollars to teachers “the state could keep up with the cost of inflation and reimburse teachers for the hundreds of dollars they spend on classroom supplies.”  I’m not at all surprised by Beth Brown’s argument at all; I’ve heard it all before and every year when teachers want a pay raise.  The idea tens of thousands of teachers are spending that much money out of their pockets for classroom supplies is preposterous on the face of it.  First of all, nobody is forcing any teacher to spend money out of his/her pocket for anything.  These folks are pretty well paid, working 181 days out of the year with thirteen weeks off annually.  Teachers in Knox County received a 13% raise over a year and a half; Governor Lee’s proposal would take that to more than 15% in a short period of time.  Of course the teachers’ union which staunchly protects the bad with the good and promotes the idea “one size fits all” can’t stand the idea of competition.  The only way it can prosper and survive is to promote and protect not the students, but government run schools.  It has never once entered the head of anyone belonging to the teachers’ union that the people who fund their raises – – – the taxpayers – – – have never likely seen a 15% raise ever without having gotten a promotion or a new job.

These folks have done, by and large, something less than a stellar job.  The preparation rates, meaning those students prepared to go on to further their education or get a job, are abysmal.  The graduation rates are utterly meaningless and the education bureaucracy seems to thrive on the lowest common denominator.

Governor Bill Lee’s plan is innovative, forward-looking, and courageous.  It deserves the support of the people of Tennessee and the General Assembly.