USA/January 23, 2021/By: Meghan Mangrum Natalie Allison Nashville Tennessean/Source: https://www.tennessean.com/
The Tennessee General Assembly approved a $160 million package of bills Thursday night and Friday morning, legislation aimed at tackling student learning loss during the pandemic, the state’s stagnant literacy rates and how schools will handle standardized testing after a year of academic disruptions.
The education initiatives, introduced by Gov. Bill Lee, were finalized in a whirlwind, four-day special session that allowed lawmakers to quickly approve major programs for schools before taking on other bills. It was the third special session Lee has called since taking office in 2019.
But the warp-speed approval meant significantly less time to iron out the legislation and a truncated budget process compared to bills taken up during regular session.
“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 children back on track,” Lee said during a news conference with Republican legislators at the conclusion of session.
The governor and legislative leadership previously said this week’s bills on literacy, upcoming standardized testing and summer remedial programs needed to be in place to allow school districts time to plan.
“There were some comments made that seemed like we were rushing it,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. “Well, maybe we were, but it’s because it’s urgent. What we’re doing here, there’s an urgent need.”
Johnson argued “the policy was not rushed,” and had been in the works “for weeks and months.”
But House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said Democrats were not brought in to meetings where the education policy was being developed.
In three separate bills, Lee and his Department of Education pushed to implement a new phonics-based reading program to help boost literacy rates; allocate resources for tutoring and summer programs to catch up children who are behind after months away from the classroom; and attempt to ensure educators aren’t punished for potentially poor standardized testing scores this year.
A separate budget bill allocated funding for the new programs, including giving districts money to provide 4% raises for Tennessee educators. Teachers are to receive a 2% raise in the meantime, ahead of the full increase set for later this year. The pay increases amount to $43 million.
Lee said the General Assembly would work to ensure that those raises reach teachers, though additional legislation may be necessary.
While Lee opened the special session with a speech to lawmakers lambasting schools that don’t have classrooms open, the governor this week repeatedly declined to say whether he believed those districts should be punished if they don’t hold in-person class, as some Republicans in the legislature are proposing.
Schools must begin teaching phonics-based reading
The new legislation lawmakers approved requires local school districts to use a phonics-based approach for teaching children to read. It also provides training and support for educators to teach phonics-based reading instruction.
The literacy measure marks a victory for the Lee administration after a similar $68 million proposal ultimately failed last year, though the updated version is significantly scaled down.
The legislature has approved roughly half of the $1 million in funding for the new program, while the rest is set to be included in the state’s final budget this spring.
According to House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, $40 million in other federal grants will supplement initiatives in the bill, but those are separate from the legislation lawmakers passed.
Most legislators applauded the bill, which is the latest effort in the state’s decades-long attempt to improve reading scores.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said for years lawmakers have known what could be done to tackle reading instruction, including implementing phonics-based approaches like the science of reading, but have failed to execute it.
“This is the first time we can actually get off of talking about strategy and begin talking about the execution of the strategy,” Watson said.
In the House, Democrats pressed Republicans about whether hidden costs would emerge for schools as a result of the program.
Lamberth maintained the funds the state is budgeting for literacy and other new education programs would sufficiently cover schools’ costs.
“Not only is there not an unfunded mandate, we have funded it well above anything we did last year,” Lamberth said. “Our kids don’t know how to read. If they don’t know how to read well, they can’t do anything else.”
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, raised concerns about how quickly lawmakers passed the legislation this week with little time for the public to study the bills and offer feedback.
“We need to make sure our local leaders actually own this and believe in this and support this, and I think we get off on the wrong foot with a top-down approach,” Yarbro said of the new literacy initiative.
The governor and Republican legislative leadership have frequently cited data showing just one-third of Tennessee’s third-graders are on reading level.
“We said we’re no longer finding that acceptable behavior moving forward and acceptable results,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said of the legislature approving the literacy program.
‘Summer camps’ to be held to catch up students
In an effort to make up for anticipated pandemic-related learning loss, the state will also now require school districts to offer a series of summer camps offering intensive support for students who are behind, especially in literacy and math. The camps would begin this summer and would include both four- and six-week sessions, as well as additional after-school opportunities.
The legislation also creates the new Tennessee Accelerated Literacy and Learning Corps to provide high-quality tutors to help bring students back up to speed.
The bill strengthens a 2011 law requiring third graders be held back if they aren’t reading on grade level, a measure that drew criticism and ultimately an amendment to provide parents an appeal process for their children.
Students could opt to retake the assessment and attempt to score on grade level, attend a four-week summer program, commit to a year of intensive tutoring and other interventions or repeat the third grade.
“Every 8-year-old is going to be in danger of being forced to repeat third grade if they don’t score enough on the first standardized test they ever take,” Yarbro said after Republicans’ celebratory news conference. “That is god-awful policy, and anyone who pays attention to these things knows that. Now the reason the legislature doesn’t know it is we didn’t talk to any educators this week.”
Yarbro said he never once heard testimony from school superintendents, principals or teachers about the policies voted on this week.
Despite the $116 million cost, some lawmakers have questioned whether the training and resources provided by the state would essentially force districts to use a one-size-fits-all approach, but most have been in favor of the effort.
Others have raised questions about whether the funding will be sufficient for the new afterschool and summer camp programs and whether every district will receive adequate resources to cover transportation, food, staffing and other related costs.
“We are extending a six-week period for every school district in the state for a lot of students and we are not sending anywhere near the resources to pay for it,” Yarbro said. “I understand we do have to respond aggressively in a pandemic, and we are doing that but we are doing that on the cheap.”
The programs could target more than 40% of the state’s elementary school students, though recent data shows that only about 36% of Tennessee third graders are reading on grade level.
Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, attempted to introduce a late-filed amendment Friday morning to prevent state funding from being allocated to a program that requires holding back third- and fourth-graders based on a standardized test reading score.
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.