by Vivian Jones
Tennessee lawmakers will return to Nashville to begin the 2021 legislative session this week and soon will take up legislation on key education issues.
House and Senate speakers will gavel in the new session of the Tennessee General Assembly at noon Tuesday. The first week of session largely will be organizational, with House and Senate speakers swearing in newly elected legislators and announcing committee chair and committee assignments.
It will be an unusual session, beginning just four days after FBI agents searched three Republican lawmakers’ offices connected with an ongoing investigation.
The Cordell Hull legislative office building and the state Capitol complex are operating under strict COVID-19 protocols. Tables, chairs and benches usually in common areas of the building have been removed, and guidance for social distancing has been posted throughout the building.
The primary focus of early weeks of the session will be on education, as Gov. Bill Lee called a special session to begin Jan. 19 to address key education issues.
Lee’s team has not revealed details of the education-related legislative package, but it is expected to propose bills addressing pandemic-related learning loss, school funding and teacher pay, literacy and teacher accountability measures.
Lee called in October for teacher and school accountability measures tied to standardized testing to be suspended for the 2020-21 school year, and he said his administration would work with the Legislature to pass a bill to that effect. Legislators, including Senate GOP Caucus Chairperson Ken Yager (R-Kingston) pledged support at the time.
The Lee administration also is expected to propose a literacy bill, continuing legislative discussions from last year. The Department of Education announced a $100 million phonics-based literacy initiative last week to provide optional tools and resources to school districts.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn told The Center Square she sees the initiative as “completely separate” from any literacy legislation the Legislature would consider, but she is “very hopeful” the Legislature will pass a literacy bill.
Teacher pay and funding for school districts also will be discussed, Lee said.
“We don’t just want to hold steady, we want to accelerate,” Schwinn said. “We’re not going to hunker down like we’ve heard from a lot of other places. In Tennessee, we’re going to continue to accelerate, and I think special session is really a very strong, both simple and practical, application of our commitment to do that.”
In addition to education issues, the Legislature will take up many other topics; more than 100 pieces of legislation already have been filed in the House and Senate.
Rep. London Lamar (D-Memphis) has filed legislation that would require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate any Tennesseans “suspected” of participating in the riots at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
Legislation to add right-to-work laws to the Tennessee Constitution passed the Legislature last year and has been filed again by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, for a required second passage.
Sen. Mark Pody (R-Lebanon) and Rep. Jay Reedy (R-Erin) have filed a bill that would reinforce individuals’ ability to object to receiving vaccinations, medical examinations or treatment in the event they have a religious or conscientious objection.
A bill to remove power from Tennessee’s six Metro Health Departments to implement public health orders and give that authority to county mayors has been filed by Rep. Jason Zachary (R-Knoxville) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairperson Mike Bell (R-Riceville).
Renewing efforts from last year, Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) has filed legislation that would exempt feminine hygiene products from sales tax on Tennessee’s annual sales tax holiday. Kyle also has introduced a bill that would require the Tennessee Department of Human Services to administer child care services for children of state employees.
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Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.