Proposals that would target criminal justice, health care and education took center stage at Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address Monday night.
The governor also presented his first budget, which consists of $38.5 billion.
That budget includes $25 million for a school voucher program called Tennessee Education Savings Accounts. The pilot program is meant to target low-income students in school districts with schools in the bottom 10 percent. These school districts are Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Jackson-Madison and Shelby. It also includes the Achievement School District, which oversees schools taken over by the state.
“Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and we need a bold plan that will help level the playing field,” Lee said. “We’re not going get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges.”
Education savings accounts allow parents to use the money for anything education related, including homeschooling and online education.
Lee says the program will impact up to 5,000 students in the first year, with each eligible member getting approximately $7,300.
The governor also announced a couple of salary increases — 2 percent for government employees and 2.5 percent for teachers — and $30 million to increase school safety in districts without school resource officers.
Lee also proposed the establishment of a statewide independent authorizer to approve charter schools in the state.
On health care, Lee announced his plan to expand the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit by adding 24 positions.
He also proposed $20 million to boost broadband access and make telemedicine available in rural communities. He said this could address the closure of rural hospitals.
"There are many opportunities to transform care in these communities through smart reforms, increased innovation, and a new business model," Lee said.
Democrats respond to Lee's proposals
Tennessee Democratic Lawmakers said they are not buying Lee’s plan for school vouchers.
House Minority Leader Karen Camper gave the rebuttal to Lee’s State of the State address. She said she is saddened by Lee’s education savings account plan.
“Time and time again in other states we have seen the students who take vouchers have not performed at the level of their peers,” Camper said.
Camper vowed to continue to fight against what she calls “an attack" on the state’s public school system.
The Memphis Democrat also called on Lee and the Republicans in the General Assembly to expand Medicaid.
She says that’s the only clear solution to address the health care crisis in the state.