The following offers education-related highlights of the recent legislative sessions. The enrollment figures are based on estimated fall 2000 data reported by the National Center for Education Statistics for prekindergarten through 12th grade in public elementary and secondary schools. The figures for precollegiate education spending include money for state education administration, but not federal, flow-through dollars, unless otherwise noted.
'Bare-Bones' Budget Passed
Tennessee's fiscal battle went into overtime in July as the governor vetoed a hard-fought budget that used up four years of the state's tobacco- settlement funds and did not provide money for a package of education initiatives he has championed.
But the legislature promptly came back on Aug. 7 and overrode his veto, cheered on by anti-tax protesters outside the state Capitol in Nashville.
The lawmakers, who needed only a simple majority to buck the governor, took their action by votes of 66-33 in the House and 19-12 in the Senate.
Gov. Don Sundquist expressed dismay at the $19.6 billion plan, which allots about $2.6 billion for precollegiate education. ("Education Funding Looms Large in Tenn. Budget Fight," Aug. 8, 2001.)
The governor's education plan, which was passed with bipartisan support in June, including funding to set up early interventions for students. It would establish a preschool program for all 4-year-olds and for 3-year-olds deemed at risk of school failure, hire reading specialists for elementary schools, and offer training in reading instruction for other teachers.
But without the more than $60 million each year needed to put those programs in place, the plan has been put on hold indefinitely.
The budget included a 2.5 percent pay increase for teachers, university professors, and state employees. But most other education programs saw no increases, or at best, minimal increases to meet court-ordered levels for educational services.
On Aug. 23, the governor announced $15 million in cuts to the state education department, including the elimination of 16 positions, homebound instruction for pregnant students, grants to fast-growing districts, and a summer program for gifted students. In response to the announcement, Commissioner of Education Faye Taylor called those cutbacks "regrettable," but noted that they would not affect court-ordered funding levels that the state is required to provide Tennessee's school districts.
Facing budget shortfalls and a lackluster economy, Tennessee has been considering new revenue sources for several years. But in June, the legislature voted down plans to raise the state's 6 percent sales tax or institute an income tax.
In November 2002, residents will vote on whether to amend the state constitution to allow a lottery, with proceeds going to education programs.
Jerry Winters, the government-relations director for the Tennessee Education Association, said the legislature had only created more problems for itself next year by opting against new or higher taxes. "The long- term prognosis is bleak," he said, arguing that legislators "are going to have to take a look at doing something that isn't politically popular."
—Joetta L. Sack
Vol. 21, Issue 1, Page 30