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Redistricting, schools cash formula anchor Tennessee session
school bus
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers kicked off their annual session Tuesday in Nashville with a focus on addressing how the state funds public schools, redrawing state legislative and congressional maps, and finalizing a new spending plan for the upcoming year.

The legislative session is expected to last several months. Among his priorities, Gov. Bill Lee has said he hopes to push legislation that would address how the state funds its public schools. The rest of his wish list will be unveiled in upcoming weeks. 

So far, the early priority will be redistricting, since candidates and sitting lawmakers are awaiting new boundaries as every U.S. House and state House seat goes up for election, as well as about half the state Senate. Lee is seeking reelection in 2022 as well, although no Republican challengers have created enough of a fundraising stir to cause much concern ahead of the August primary election. 

Lawmakers are also returning to the Capitol as COVID-19 cases are exploding in Nashville and across the state. The General Assembly has no plans for a mask mandate or social distancing requirements, which is similar to previous sessions during the pandemic.

Whether Lee can cross the finish line with a rewrite of how K-12 education is funded in Tennessee is still an open question. 

Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally said the goal will be difficult but not impossible. However, Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton said he's unsure a whole formula rewrite can be done during this year's legislative session.

"Whether or not we can do a total revamp in this session, I'm not sure," Sexton said. "I think we can at least look at increasing the base level of funding in K-12."

"We need to increase teacher pay because we increased correctional officers pay," he added, referring to a recent 37% pay boost in correctional officer salaries to help improve ongoing staffing shortages. 

Known as the Basic Education Program, Tennessee's school funding formula includes 45 components that are all used to determine how much funding each school should receive for teacher salaries and other expenses.

It's long been criticized for being complicated and outdated since it was first adopted nearly 30 years ago. It's even faced lawsuits led by school boards for falling short of Tennessee's constitutional obligation to provide students with a "free, adequate, and equitable education."

The governor's administration first unveiled plans to overhaul the system in October and has held multiple town halls across the state to collect feedback from teachers and families. Yet Lee has held off promising the new plan will include a bump in funding. McNally said he would need to see the particulars about how much funding would increase and how it would be distributed.

Sexton floated the idea of possibly tweaking the funding formula to reward schools that perform better than others, but said details about that proposal were still being discussed.

"In business, you're going to reward people who are doing great things, you're going to pay them more," he said. "We need to do the same in schools." 

Meanwhile, businesses have been seeking changes to a sprawling law enacted in November that in part largely prohibits them from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Exemptions are allowed if groups can show they would lose federal funding by complying with the state law, which conflicts with policies implemented by President Joe Biden's administration. But the exemptions at times have been on-and-off, changing based on new decisions and appeals in court challenges over Biden's vaccine rules for larger businesses, federal contractors and health care workers.

The governor has called broadly for seeing what needs to be changed in the law. But he has steered clear of specifically echoing the concerns of businesses that the law offers citizens new power to sue if they believe companies slighted them with coronavirus vaccination requirements.

McNally and Sexton have been cool to the idea of changing the law. 

"I think it probably could be revisited," McNally said. "As far as change, I don't know that it would change. At least now, it seems to be working in Tennessee."

One of the first tasks will be finalizing the once-a-decade task of drawing new legislative and congressional maps, expected to take two or three weeks, Sexton said.

Republican leaders have already raised eyebrows after announcing their intent to carve up Nashville's U.S. House seat into multiple districts, an area that has long remained a Democratic stronghold in a state overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans.

The maps must be approved by the House and Senate before they can go to the governor for approval. Lee has veto power over the finalized plan, but he's not expected to put up many objections.