Live from Music Row Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed State Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) to the newsmaker line to explain the Age-Appropriate Materials Act and his stance on whether or not the State of Tennessee should continue to receive monies from the federal Department of Education.
Leahy: We are joined on the newsmaker line right now by our friend State Senator Joey Hensley. Good morning, Senator Hensley.
Hensley: Morning, Michael. How are you this morning?
Leahy: Well, I am delighted to be represented by you in the state Senate. I live in that little bit of Williamson County that you now represent.
Hensley: Well, thank you. It’s an honor for me to be your representative, Michael.
Leahy: So we want to talk to you a little bit about the Age-Appropriate Material Acts. This was passed in 2022 by the general assembly. And according to the article, I think that you wrote, it enhances transparency and oversight of books and other materials in school libraries and ensures those materials are appropriate for the age and maturity levels of students who may access them. Now, the problem is this has been misrepresented in the media. Tell us a little bit about this.
Hensley: This act was actually supported by the governor and the general assembly, but there are actually two bills that were passed. One required that schools list all the books that they have in the library and put all the books online so that parents and students can know what books are in the library.
Another bill that went along with that would ensure that parents or our students had a way they could remove a book if it was inappropriate for the library. So there were actually two bills, but they were both trying to ensure that books in our school libraries are appropriate for the age and the content of the books are appropriate for the students.
A book that’s appropriate for a high school library may not be appropriate for a middle school library. So both of these bills are just trying to add transparency to the books in our school libraries to make sure that they’re appropriate for the students.
Leahy: You’re right. The law does not ban books, nor does it compel any school to ban any book. Instead, it establishes a collaborative process that is determined by each district for parents to voice concerns and weigh in on the content available in schools.
Parents have every right, you write, to know and influence the materials in their child’s school library. Tell me a little bit about why this bill came about.
Hensley: Because there were parents that were seeing some books in their school libraries that they did not feel were appropriate for their students. Some of them had sexual content that they didn’t think was appropriate. Some of them had other content that was just not age-appropriate.
I think a lot of this came to light during the pandemic, while parents were seeing more about the books and the teaching material in the schools, and they hadn’t seen some of that in the past.
And there are not many books in the school libraries. It’s not like there’s an overwhelming number. But there are a few books that are in some of the school libraries that parents don’t think are appropriate.
Now, what one parent thinks is appropriate, of course, another parent may think it’s not appropriate, but it sets up a process where they can appeal to the school board and to the superintendent and ask them to take a look at the books and then they can remove the book after that process.
It’s not just that a parent cannot remove a book, but certainly, if a school board or superintendent feels like a book is inappropriate, they can remove that book.
And then if a parent does not get satisfaction, so to speak, from the school board, they can appeal to the state textbook commission, and then they can look at the book and they can remove a book for the whole state yet.
Leahy: So the Tennessee General Assembly will convene again in January. Do you have a particular agenda of legislation that you’re interested in pursuing?
Hensley: Well, certainly I’m on the education committee, education is very important. We’re going to be looking at the funding formula we passed last year and some of these bills we passed we’ll certainly … sometimes you have to come back and change legislation or amend it or tweak it.
But certainly, criminal justice is becoming at the forefront now, with a new committee that was set up by the Speakers, and we’ll be looking at that. So we’ll just see what happens. I don’t really have an agenda personally, but being on finance, health, and education, a lot of bills come up.
And I serve as vice chairman of the finance committee, so I’m looking at a lot of financial issues, we will be looking at a $4 billion surplus this year. So we’re looking at how to give some of that money back to the people like we did this past session, had several tax cuts and tax breaks.
Tennessee is very fortunate to be business-friendly and attract a lot of business, and we have a budget surplus, so we’ll be looking at that.
Leahy: I’m told that several state legislators are going to introduce legislation to tell the federal Department of Education we don’t want any of your money because with your money comes strings. Would you be receptive to such a bill, should it be introduced?
Hensley: I’d certainly be receptive to looking at that. And we don’t receive as much federal money as people think. I think Williamson County only receives about 4 percent of their education budget that comes from the federal government. Overall we have about 10 percent.
Most of our education budget comes from the sales tax. So we could certainly in many instances tell the federal government we don’t want the money because of all the strings that are attached to it.
And we’re seeing, overwhelmingly, things come down from the federal government that we do not think is appropriate in Tennessee. So I’d certainly be willing to look at that and see if we can do away with federal money that would come to our education department because of all the strings attached to it.
Leahy: You’re on the education committee. We’ve been very critical here on this program of the policies of the Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.
Leahy: What kind of contact do you have with Commissioner Schwinn?
Hensley: Serving on the education committee, I have a lot of contact during the session with her and with her department. And certainly, the education department is a big department and deals with a lot of issues.
But being on the education committee, education is very important to me, and so I do deal with the education department quite a bit, and the commissioner quite a bit. So I understand people’s concerns with some issues. The commissioner is appointed by the governor.
We’ll see what happens. The governor will be starting a new term in January. A lot of commissioners may leave on their own or the governor may replace them. But she has had some issues in the past that people in the legislature wre concerned about.
Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:
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