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Gov. Lee pitches $1B more for Tennessee education in address

Governor Bill Lee giving his State of the State address in the House chambers on Monday, January 31, 2022.
Blaise Gainey
Governor Bill Lee giving his State of the State address in the House chambers on Monday, January 31, 2022.

Gov. Bill Lee is proposing a nearly $53 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. This includes major changes to how the state funds education as well as earmarking money for law enforcement and infrastructure.

The first-term Republican detailed his priorities during his annual State of the State address on Monday night, his final ahead of a re-election bid in November.

Gov. Lee dedicated much of the speech to his top priority: revamping the state’s K-12 funding plan with an approach that would set aside dollars for each student based on their individual needs. With that plan comes the price tag.

“I am proposing $1 billion in new, recurring education spending for our public schools across Tennessee,” said Lee. “The proposal will be finalized in the coming days, and I look forward to working with you, the members of the General Assembly, to get this done.”

He also wants to raise teacher pay by $125 million. He plans to answer a big ask from Tennessee State University, a historically Black college, setting aside $250 million to upgrade the infrastructure on campus.

Acknowledging the state’s rapid population growth, the governor pledged more investment in public safety. He plans to add more than 100 Highway Patrol Troopers and 50 agents to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.

“Our funding commitment shows a respect for the rule of law but a rejection of the defund the police movement that we have seen across the country,” said Lee.

In remarks delivered ahead of the governor’s speech, Democrats dismissed the governor’s budget priorities as insufficient. They say the state would need to invest far more into public education to make a substantial difference. Tennessee is in the bottom 10 states for per pupil spending.

Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, speaking on behalf of the Democratic caucus, called out Lee and other members of the Republican Party for using their supermajority to stoke the culture war. Dixie said time that could be spent focusing on making life better for Tennesseans is used to talk about legislation that isn’t needed. 

“Led by the governor, we waste days and weeks and months on radical, dog-whistle politics and culture war bickering,” said Dixie. “They invent fake causes like ‘illegal protesting at the Capitol.’ But we know there is no such thing. And ‘critical race theory,’ which is only American history they’re too fragile to hear.”

In his speech, Gov. Bill Lee said he wanted to “empower” parents to look into what their children are learning. He’s backing a proposed law that would let parents review teaching materials offered in school. 

Gov. Lee outlined a number of other conservative initiatives he’s backing as he seeks a second term as governor this fall. That includes an expansion of civics education in public schools to promote what he called “informed patriotism,” a term coined by President Ronald Reagan.

Additionally, Lee called for $6 million to establish an “Institute of American Civics” at the University of Tennessee.

But this is the governor’s wish list. What makes it in the final budget will be determined by the General Assembly. And while an overwhelming majority share the same party as Lee, they don’t all see eye to eye.

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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