The Tennessee General Assembly concluded a four-day special legislative session Friday, passing several bills addressing education policy in the state.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee called the special session to focus on the effects of COVID-19 on Tennessee schools, and some of the more than $100 million in legislative initiatives did that. One in particular will eliminate penalties for schools and teachers related to poor standardized test results this year, when many students around the state have been in and out of physical classrooms or spent the whole year learning from home.
“We cannot wait, because our students cannot wait,” Lee told a joint session of the General Assembly on Tuesday. “It would be much simpler to hope or to assume that disruptions to school caused by COVID will just come out in the wash. But unfortunately, the data — the science — tells us that isn’t true.”
Other initiatives were holdovers from before the pandemic, though. The governor’s literacy proposal, which passed both the House and Senate, includes several prongs, including summer reading programs for struggling students, a change in the way educators teach reading to young students and a steeper hurdle to advancement for third-grade students who don’t meet literacy standards. Lawmakers also passed a pay raise for teachers after dropping such a plan in the rush to leave Nashville at the start of the pandemic.
Republican leaders abandoned a threat to defund school systems that do not return to in-person learning, which Nashville and Memphis officials saw as a direct attack on their school leaders’ decisions to keep students home during the pandemic. Leadership in both chambers filed a bill that would allow the Department of Education to strip funding from those districts should they not return to in-person learning this semester, but it never came to a vote. House Majority Leader William Lamberth said after the conclusion of session that he hopes to bring the bill back during regular session.
With most members recognizing the need for improved literacy rates in Tennessee schools, the week turned into a proxy war, with the mostly Democratic lawmakers from Nashville and Memphis defending local leaders’ COVID decisions. Lee, in his joint address, offered direct criticism of the two school systems.
“You can’t say ‘follow the science’ and keep schools closed,” he said. “You can’t say ‘I believe in public education’ and keep schools closed. And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed.”
In Nashville, schools reopened for some students in the fall before closing again as COVID case numbers spiked in the city and across the state. School leaders say they’re following a different type of science that considers the risks of bringing potentially vulnerable students, teachers and staff into congregate settings.
“The most significant actions Gov. Lee could take to encourage in-person instruction would be to implement a statewide mask mandate and increase the vaccine supply to Davidson County,” Metro Schools Director Adrienne Battle said through a spokesperson. “The guidance and scientific advice that came from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and many of our hard-working Tennessee doctors was clear that something so minor as a statewide mask mandate could make a significant difference. While students may currently be attending school virtually, learning continues to take place. We are committed to providing students with an in-person learning experience when it is safe to do so and look forward to Gov. Lee taking any steps to help move our state towards being a place where staff, parents, and students feel safe.”
With the special session concluded, the lawmakers now turn their attention to the resumption of the regular session, which got underway earlier this month with a rush to accept an agreement with the outgoing Trump administration that would convert the state’s billions of dollars in annual Medicaid funding to a block grant.
But putting the special session behind them does not necessarily mean a fresh start: Many of the issues and debates from this week will bleed into the regular session, as will the realities of the COVID pandemic, which kept multiple lawmakers home — including Republican Sen. Ed Jackson, who tested positive for the disease this week after attending meetings on Tuesday.