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Educational battles await lawmakers
State Rep. Judd Matheny

To hear state lawmakers describe it, Capitol Hill in Nashville is a geyser of cash with Tennessee experiencing a tremendous revenue surplus.
That extra money is going to be needed as the General Assembly convenes this Tuesday with a backpack full of educational priorities.
Legislators must find a way to shore up a higher education system that’s been flooded with new students thanks to Tennessee Promise, a program which provides two years of free tuition at technical schools and community colleges.
There are also forces tugging at K-12 education as there continues to be a push to funnel tax dollars from public schools to private schools in the form of vouchers.
Then there’s the matter of what to do about those standardized tests. They are considered the Holy Grail in determining a school’s worth, yet the tests themselves are kept mysteriously secret as students and parents aren’t given a chance to see the questions and what’s been missed.
“If these tests are important enough to give, parents should have the right to see them,” said state Rep. Kevin Dunlap. “The parents should be able to get that test, look at where their child is struggling, and determine where they may need some help. How do you improve if you have no idea what you missed?”
Fortunately, the state has a budget surplus in which to work. Sales tax collections for December were $99.3 million more than projected. Year to date, tax collections are $373 million more than budget estimates.
“Look for a lot of capital money to go into higher education,” said state Rep. Judd Matheny. “Thanks to Tennessee Promise, there are a lot more students. If we’re going to encourage students to come into the higher education system, we have to provide the ability to educate them.”
That means schools have to be kept up to date on their infrastructure needs and their faculty needs as more students translates to the need for more teachers.
Dunlap says the push to funnel money into a voucher program could become a messy fight as public education can’t afford to lose $300 million over five years if students are given voucher money to attend private schools.
“If that happens, some of our tax dollars will be going to fund education at religious schools,” said Dunlap. “That doesn’t mean just Christian schools. It means all religious schools. Some of the money could go to Muslim schools.”
As a low-tax state, Dunlap says there’s no way public schools can afford to lose so much funding.
“If we turn over $300 million to private schools, there’s no way to maintain our momentum,” said Dunlap, indicating Tennessee is making great educational leaps.
Matheny says funding to keep our Driver Testing Center will be one of his priorities early in the legislative session. He said he doesn’t believe Gov. Bill Haslam will try to rally support for Insure Tennessee, an expanded healthcare pro-gram that was defeated last year in a Senate committee.
“I think the legislature has made its mind up on that,” said Matheny.
He said the state will have to decide how to allocate its surplus revenue and make sure it doesn’t go into programs that create recurring expenses after the surplus is exhausted.
Matheny didn’t think there would be support for giving lawmakers money to spend in their district as they see fit. That happened about a decade ago when the state had a similar windfall and led to, most notably, the construction of a new Morrison Library.
“We have a pretty good read on the folks who need it and who may be left out in the cold when it comes to state funding,” said Matheny, “but I don’t know if we’ll revisit that again.”