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State Legislature Works to Help Teachers, Students, Schools

This information is provided courtesy of 28th District State Sen. Dr. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald.

The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned the 2021 legislative session May 5 after acting on major bills to increase scholarship opportunities for students and help turn around struggling schools.

The year began with passage of landmark legislation in a special session to boost student literacy and to recover learning losses suffered in one of the most turbulent school years in state history due to the pandemic.

The regular legislative session saw action to strengthen Tennessee’s economic recovery, expand broadband, prepare students for 21st century jobs, protect Second Amendment rights, support the state’s first responders, improve health care, and take care of some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Below are some key pieces of legislation passed during the 112th Session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Scholarship Opportunities for Tenn. Students -- “Senate Bill 229 was passed this session, which I sponsored in the Senate,” Hensley said.

This legislation requires the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to establish a four-year pilot program that awards grants to Tennessee Promise scholarship students who are receiving services as part of the college coaching initiative.

This initiative is delivered by partnering organizations to help students experiencing financial hardships that may prevent degree completion.

“It is hoped this legislation will be the impetus that gets these students over the finish line so they complete their degree.”

Rural Teachers / Salary Increases -- Legislation to improve the family budgets of rural teachers was approved by the Senate.

Senate Bill 1338 requires the State Board of Education to increase the minimum salary on the state salary schedule by the same percentage as any increase in funds made to the instructional component of the Basic Education Program (BEP).

By doing so, it will ensure the lowest paid teachers will receive the raises. The legislation now awaits Gov. Bill Lee’s signature.

“This legislation was important to pass to ensure hardworking teachers are getting the compensation that they deserve, and I was happy to sponsor it this session,” Hensley said.

Unemployment Benefits – The Senate approved legislation which gives more money to the unemployed, while giving businesses greater opportunity to attract workers.

Effective December 2023, Senate Bill 1402 raises unemployment benefits by $50 per week based on eligibility requirements. It also sets the number of weeks a person can receive them on a sliding scale based on the state’s unemployment rate. The legislation limits benefits to 12 weeks if the state’s unemployment rate is 5.5% or less to promote transition back to work.

The number of weeks benefits are available goes up one week per half percentage increase in the rate of the state’s unemployment rate up to 20-weeks maximum.

This action brings Tennessee in line with surrounding states in the benefit amount and the number of weeks a person qualifies to receive them. Several surrounding states have also indexed their programs based on their jobless rate to keep their unemployment trust funds solvent and make it less likely they will need to borrow from the federal government to pay for benefits.

Vaccine Passports -- The Tennessee Senate approved legislation to help ensure COVID-19 vaccines remain voluntary and that medical information reflecting the status of a person’s vaccination cannot be required by any state of Tennessee entities.

Senate Bill 858 prohibits a state or local governmental official, entity, department or agency from requiring or mandating a private business to require “vaccine passports” as a condition for entering their premises or utilizing their services.

The legislation also removes authority from county boards of health to enforce and adopt rules and regulations regarding COVID-19, preserving their role as an advisory body to the elected county mayor.

Only Hamilton, Shelby, Knox, Madison, Sullivan and Davidson Counties have independent county health boards which have the power to make final decisions on health-related restrictions during an epidemic.

County mayors already have the authority to make these decisions in the other 89 counties where health departments get their direction from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Critical Race Theory / K-12 classrooms -- The Senate and House of Representatives approved legislation prohibiting classroom instruction that teaches students the U.S. is fundamentally racist or that an individual’s moral character is determined by race. Instead, the legislation encourages curriculum that teaches impartial instruction on historical oppression of certain groups, while maintaining a belief in the constitution and American democracy.

Senate Bill 623 ensures that Critical Race Theory, which teaches that racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that the history of the country is defined by power relationships based on race, is not taught in Tennessee K-12 public schools. If LEAs violate this statute, state education funds shall be withheld until the LEA is no longer teaching Critical Race Theory.

General Assembly approves Medical Cannabis Commission -- The General Assembly approved legislation to create the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Commission.

Senate Bill 118 calls for the commission to recommend to the General Assembly ways to implement an effective, patient-centered medical cannabis program upon rescheduling marijuana from the Schedule I list of federally controlled substances. The current classification of marijuana by the federal government makes it illegal to use the drug, even for medicinal purposes.

In addition, the bill adds to the list of current patients who are legally allowed to bring .9% THC oil-only products into the state of Tennessee for personal use. Currently those with epilepsy and seizures qualify. Added are eight other qualifying conditions which includes cancer, ALS and Multiple Sclerosis.

Patients must have a letter from their physician indicating their condition. The bill awaits Lee’s signature.

Hensley represents Giles, Lawrence, Marshall, Maury, Perry and Wayne counties.

He may be reached at 425 Rep. John Lewis Way N., Suite 742, Nashville Tenn., 37243, at 615-741-3100, toll free 1-800-449-8366 ext. 13100, or faxed at 615-253-0231.

His local address is 855 Summertown Highway, Hohenwald Tenn., 38462; his telephone is 931-796-2018, cell phone is 931-212-8823, and E-mail is sen.joey.hensley@capitol.tn.gov

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Information in this column comes from the office of 28th District State Sen. Joey Hensley M.D., who represents Giles and five other counties. From school bus drivers to trucking, the lack of Commercia