Our state budget is about more than tax revenue and allocating funding: it’s about our values and meeting the moment. Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and districts are still facing complex challenges while also setting up systems for recovery. We know that this moment is historic; meeting it requires a transformation of our education systems for the nearly 1 million students who attend K-12 public schools in Tennessee. Governor Lee’s budget proposal signals his commitment to them and to Tennessee’s future in several important ways.

K-12 Education

We are encouraged by Governor Lee’s proposal to provide an additional $1 billion in recurring K-12 education funding, and his commitment to replacing the Basic Education Program (BEP) with a new student-weighted funding formula. Many questions remain about the new formula, but we share the Governor’s belief that we must center students as we realign funding to match their needs, including those from low-income backgrounds, learning English, with a disability, or attending a rural school. After conducting statewide polling and focus groups with students, parents and caregivers, and other stakeholders, we found that Tennesseans prioritize increasing overall funding, closing funding gaps between high and low-wealth districts, and adopting a new student-based funding formula. Ambitious weights, coupled with a strong base funding allocation, will allow districts to provide the resources our students need to thrive. His investment to increase teacher pay, Grow Your Own programs, and expanded access to CTE programs are important elements of his proposed budget. Additionally, given the state’s increased contributions to education, we must ensure that all students have the social, emotional, and academic support they need to thrive and be seen, heard, and afforded access to enriching, affirming instruction, texts and curricula that reflect the diversity of the American experience in their classrooms.

Higher Education

The Governor’s proposals for higher education signal that postsecondary attainment is a vital part of Tennessee’s recovery and central to economic mobility for families. We are encouraged that the outcomes-based funding formula will be fully funded, with a $90 million investment that further spurs colleges and universities to retain and graduate students every year. The additional investments in the HOPE Scholarship, expanded CTE dual enrollment courses, lowering the age of eligibility to Tennessee Reconnect to 23, and $200 million in funding for TCATs are all critical strategies to removing barriers to postsecondary for Tennessee’s high school graduates. Finally, the long overdue payment of $250 million for infrastructure improvements is an important down payment on closing the state’s debt to Tennessee State University

But there is still work left to do. Families are counting on our state’s leaders to address the limited access to child care and early learning, which would lay a strong foundation for our youngest learners, and help their parents and caregivers enter and stay in the workforce. Our 70 partners in the TN Alliance for Equity in Education have laid out an ambitious policy agenda for 2022, and will be engaged at the General Assembly in the coming days. This time of extended disruption in K-12 and higher education, combined with our largest budget surplus in history, represents an opportunity to do things differently, particularly for our students most in need.  Tennessee has the chance to leverage these historic investments in education at all levels to close longstanding gaps in student access and achievement. Governor Lee’s budget is an important step in the right direction.