The Tennessee General Assembly passed a series of legislation to reopen schools and improve learning losses and literacy. The measures passed will establish phonics as the primary method for reading instruction, mandate third-grade students read on grade level before graduating to fourth grade, establish tutors and summer learning camps for students who fell behind in certain subjects, and remove accountability for standardized testing results. An additional bill concerning the state budget will fund 4 percent teacher raises.
As reported previously by The Tennessee Star, the General Assembly convened the special session to prioritize the state’s flagging education system due to pandemic-related closures. The session was called per the request of Governor Bill Lee last month.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) praised the expedited legislation as a step toward becoming the preeminent state for education.
“Momentous day in education for Tennessee!” wrote Sexton. “Our General Assembly has drawn a line in the sand, and we have said we can no longer accept that only one third of our students are proficient in reading and in math. We expect to be number one in education.”
State Senator Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) likened the bills to a “straight slap in the face” to educators. He criticized the speed at which the bills were passed, and some of the bills’ impacts. He added that the funding allocated to initiatives and teacher pay raises outlined in the bills – altogether totaling over $165 million – was insufficient.
“We passed some underfunded summer camps based on zero evidence they’ll improve reading and a 3rd grade retention law more likely to hurt than help. We passed a puny raise that too few teachers will feel, and we directed the state department of education to enter into a bunch of high $ contracts to support literacy. It would’ve been much better to support literacy initiatives at the district & school level,” wrote Yarbro. “Improving literacy is a priority worth more than 3 days of the legislature’s time. And we shouldn’t pretend that jamming through these bills without hearing testimony from a single superintendent, principal, or teacher is a good way to make public policy.”
Tennessee entered the special session investing less in our students than 45 states. We leave still ranked 46th.
We passed some underfunded summer camps based on zero evidence they’ll improve reading and a 3rd grade retention law more likely to hurt than help. /
— Jeff Yarbro (@yarbro) January 22, 2021
Yarbro conceded that the pause in accountability weighed against schools and students for standardized testing was a positive. He criticized the push to return to in-person learning, and alleged that discussing teacher vaccinations and COVID-19 safety measures would’ve been a better focus for the legislature.
Even without the support of some of the Democratic legislators, Lee expressed his gratitude to the entire General Assembly for the passed legislation in a press conference on Friday.
“It’s safe to say that we have been the most aggressive state in the country when it comes to turning the tide on this important issue for our children and for getting our students back on track,” asserted Lee. “What was accomplished here is remarkable. What’s remarkable is the way we came together on behalf of our children in this state, recognizing that our kids needed us to be urgent and they needed us to work together and they needed us to get this work done.”
In a subsequent press release, the governor described the special session as “historic.”
“COVID-19 has severely disrupted education in Tennessee. Our decisive action to intervene on behalf of Tennessee students will equip them for success, educating our kids better in the future than before the pandemic,” stated Lee. “I thank the General Assembly for their swift passage of legislation that will benefit our students.”
COVID-19 has severely disrupted education in Tennessee. Our decisive action to intervene on behalf of Tennessee students will equip them for success, educating our kids better in the future than before the pandemic. https://t.co/Cf5JLpVGA7
— Gov. Bill Lee (@GovBillLee) January 22, 2021
The Star reached out to the governor’s office regarding school district concerns over repercussions for not opening schools according to legislative directives for holding standardized testing in-person. Their spokespersons didn’t respond by press time.
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