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Haslam expected to address education funding in State of the State speech

Gov. Bill Haslam
Gov. Bill Haslam

Gov. Bill Haslam entered office in 2011 saying that he wanted to be an “education governor” and since has spotlighted K-12 education in every State of the State address. On Monday night, he’s expected to continue that momentum by focusing on education funding when he delivers his sixth annual address to lawmakers.

The last few years, raising teacher pay and getting kids college-ready were focal points as Haslam outlined his priorities for education in Tennessee. This year, the governor is expected to talk more about funding in general, especially in light of the state’s budget surplus of up to $600 million and mounting statewide criticism from local officials that the state’s education funding system is flawed.

Speaking with reporters during budget hearings in December, the governor said that conversations with local school leaders about the state’s Basic Education Plan are influencing his thinking.

“We will definitely have part of our budget proposal address how we fund education,” he said.

The Basic Education Plan, or BEP, is the state’s funding formula for providing all Tennessee students with a “basic” level of education. It allots money based on dozens of factors such as recommended class sizes and typical administrator pay.

While the state has continually increased education spending because of its growing student population, the legislature hasn’t altered the formula since 2007 — even as inflation, a growing charter school sector, and new state mandates have added to local costs. Both small and urban districts say their needs aren’t being met by the state, and have charged accordingly in two separate high-profile lawsuits filed last year.

The governor also has hinted that he’ll propose increasing allocations for teacher pay as part of his pledge to make Tennessee the “fastest growing in teacher pay” in the nation. Right now, teacher pay varies significantly across the state, with some districts paying teachers below the national average. Last year, Haslam allocated an additional $98 million to raise salaries — an increase of about 4 percent — although the allotment didn’t trickle down to all teachers’ paychecks.

Haslam’s proposed budget for 2016-17 will serve as a starting spending plan from which state lawmakers will work during the next few months. It’s uncertain whether legislators will concur with his proposals for carving up the surplus.

The governor’s other education priorities are reflected in his legislative agenda, which includes several initiatives focused on higher education. But there are also K-12 bills backed by the Tennessee Department of Education, including one that seeks the release of test questions on the state’s new standardized TNReady test to help teachers, parents and students better understand how they’re doing. State leaders say such testing transparency is important, since state achievement tests dictate everything from students’ grades to teacher pay to whether a school is eligible for state takeover due to low performance.

As governor, Haslam’s impact on K-12 education has been undeniable, though opinions vary on whether his mark has been positive. Under his administration, Tennessee has seen the rollout of teacher evaluations, new academic standards and a new assessment, as well as the expansion of charter schools and a state-run school improvement district. Most of those initiatives were begun under the administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, as part of Tennessee’s participation in the federal Race to the Top competition, and Haslam has been unwavering in their implementation.

“The governor has been pretty hands-on with education policy from the minute he’s hit the campaign trail,” said Jamie Woodson, a former state legislator and director of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

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