Tennessee Republicans, including Gov. Bill Lee, have said they want to prioritize education issues at the state legislature this year, including with a week-long special session in January. But Democrats in the minority say it’s still not enough.
Democratic lawmakers on Thursday rolled out a series of education bills they plan to push this legislative session, including those that would further increase teacher pay, reduce class sizes, offer grants for special education and boost funding for school nurses and social workers — in an attempt to elevate Tennessee out of the bottom 10 for per-pupil funding.
“We spend less to educate our kids than almost every state in the nation,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari said at a Thursday press briefing. “We should pass this legislation without delay.”
Stuck in the super-minority, Democrats in recent years have struggled to pass substantial legislation. They said Thursday that they hope to bring on some Republican support, including from lawmakers who have likewise been unsatisfied with existing public-school funding.
In his State of the State address earlier this month, Lee applauded the legislature’s approval during the special session of more than $40 million in teacher pay raises — previously abandoned in 2020 when lawmakers were rushing to leave Nashville as COVID-19 began to spread around the state. Lee also said he will push for more than $100 million in new raises this term.
“The work continues for teacher pay raises,” he said.
The governor also celebrated the full funding of the Basic Education Program, through which the state allocates money to local schools. But Democrats argue that full funding of the BEP is not enough to effectively educate Tennessee students.
Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) and Rep. Yusuf Hakeem (D-Chattanooga) both called the BEP formula “broken.” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro called it “inadequate.” Among Democratic complaints about the system are that many school districts around the state fund teaching and other positions beyond what the state budgets for.
Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) urged his fellow lawmakers to “reconsider what we’ve been doing with the BEP.”