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Education Issues To Occupy Special Legislative Session

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

From State Sen. Joey Hensley, MD

The General Assembly will convene Jan. 12 to begin the 2021 session of the 112th General Assembly.

Recovery from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the top things on the agenda, along with education expansion, increasing quality healthcare services, and responding to the pandemic's effect on the state’s budget.

Below are some topics that the legislature will consider regarding education.

Recovering Learning Loss – Education is always a priority for the Tennessee General Assembly since that category receives about 40 cents of every state tax dollar. This year education will receive even greater emphasis due to the need to recover learning losses suffered by students due to COVID-19.

Gov. Bill Lee has called for a special session on Education for Jan. 19 to address issues facing Tennessee students and schools.

Data released in September estimated a 50 percent decrease in proficiency rates in third grade reading and 65 percent decrease in proficiency in math due to extended school closures and a move to online learning.

The learning loss impacts early grades and students with lower proficiency rates disproportionately, placing them further behind their peers.

Expect efforts to focus on how to bridge the learning gap and continue the forward momentum that has helped Tennessee become an innovator and leader in progress across math, reading and science the last several years. This could include efforts to make up losses through targeted summer school programs.

TN Ready Tests Lee has called for removing negative consequences for schools and educators associated with student assessments for the 2020-2021 school year due to the unprecedented disruption caused by COVID-19 and extended time away from the classroom. He said in October that he will work with the General Assembly to hold teachers, schools and districts harmless on the state’s annual assessment for the 2020-21 school year. Legislation will be needed to apply for a federal waiver.

Enrollment Impact on Local Budgets -- The negative impact of enrollment on local budgets could also be an issue for a special session as school districts have experienced a drop in the number of students attending due to the pandemic.

Such enrollment declines can reduce funding for the 2021-2022 school year, and legislation could be considered to hold district funding harmless.

Reading Literacy – Last year, Lee introduced a proposal to help ensure that third grade students are proficient readers and on grade level before they enter the fourth grade.

The legislation was set aside due to COVID-19 budget cuts and could be discussed either in a special session or regular session.

Studies show that if students are not prepared when they enter fourth grade, much of the curriculum will be incomprehensible.

A 2019 study showed that only 32.8 percent of third – 12th grade students were reading proficiently. Those numbers could have worsened with loss of learning due to school closures.

To see steady improvement, school districts must be equipped with high quality materials, implementation tools, shared learning networks, improved dyslexia screenings and high-quality professional coaching supports.

Expect a renewed and improved emphasis on literacy in the upcoming session as the governor and legislature look to fill education gaps and put students back on course for success.

BEP / Teacher Training – Education funding will be on tap for the regular session as the budget is discussed.

The state’s K-12 education funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools is generally on the legislative agenda every year.

The legislature has acted consistently to fully fund the formula and provide students and teachers with tools they need for academic growth. This year, the Department of Education estimates that an additional $70.9 million will be needed.

Vocational Education – Vocational education improvements will likely continue to be on the agenda in the 112th General Assembly with a focus on building tomorrow’s workforce. Vocational education has been the centerpiece of Lee’s education agenda, as the General Assembly passed several major laws to help prepare students for 21st century jobs.

This includes the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act to develop work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities through regional partnerships.

Expect the General Assembly to continue to enhance vocational, technical and agricultural education in Tennessee public schools.

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