Special session ends with Tennessee Legislature approving pandemic learning loss, literacy bills

Tennessee Senate approves TennCare block grant authorization

The Tennessee General Assembly approved a package of bills over Thursday and Friday that establish a framework for students to make up COVID-19-related learning loss, address the state’s low literacy rates and ensure teachers and school districts are not punished based on standardized testing results this year.

The Senate and House also approved $43 million for teacher pay, meant to be used for salary raises. The sum is equivalent to about a 4% increase for teachers whose salaries are funded through the state’s funding formula.

“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 students back on track,” Gov. Bill Lee said Friday during a news conference with Republican leaders after the session concluded.

Lee called the special session on education in December, allowing the General Assembly to consider priority bills on an accelerated timeline instead of the usual weeks-long process bills would go through during a regular session.

During the whirlwind four-day special session, lawmakers almost exclusively considered bills proposed and defended by the Lee administration. The governor pitched the bills to members of the General Assembly in a joint address Tuesday. Throughout the week, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and her staff testified before House and Senate committees, presenting the details of the legislation and answering lawmakers’ questions.

House Democratic Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said Friday minority leadership was not invited to be involved in development of the policies.

“Almost two million that we represent in the minority didn’t have a voice in the development of the plan, of the legislation,” Camper said.

The Republican majority approved the governor’s proposals with few changes.

“The legislators came in and rubber stamped the agenda of the governor, and that agenda is sorely lacking for the moment,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said during a news conference Friday morning. “Schools do need help. And we leave this special session just as we entered into it, with Tennessee investing less in education per student than almost every state in the country.”

The Legislature considered and passed three bills, aimed at addressing Tennessee’s low literacy rates, pandemic-related learning loss and accountability for teachers and districts based on standardized testing.

Both chambers passed a bill that would, with Lee’s signature, require school districts to use phonics-based teaching methods in kindergarten through third grade. Kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers would be required to complete a professional development course in phonics-based instructional training and receive other support. The bill also requires pre-kindergarten through third-grade students to take a reading screener.

“This is a bill that is providing a framework for what literacy instruction and how we train our future teachers will look like in years to come,” Schwinn said Friday.

The new requirements follow a $100 million literacy initiative called Reading 360 announced by the Tennessee Department of Education earlier this month. It provides additional resources, training and support networks for teachers and parents.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 37% of Tennessee third-graders were reading on grade level. Lee’s administration projected last fall that Tennessee third-graders would experience up to 50% learning loss in reading proficiency and 65% learning loss in math proficiency because of COVID-19-related school closures.

“We can no longer say one-third is acceptable to be proficient in reading and one-third to be proficient in math,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said. “We said, ‘We’re no longer finding that acceptable behavior as we move forward.’ ”

To address pandemic-related learning loss, the Legislature passed a bill that, with the governor’s signature, will establish a summer school program for this summer and next, as well as after-school programing throughout the summer and a four-week back-to-school learning camp. The bill also would establish a statewide tutoring corps to provide after-school help to students who need it.

Third-graders without reading proficiency would be held back from advancing to fourth grade, beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

Both chambers also approved a measure to move forward with standardized testing this spring to see how much students have learned over the pandemic-ridden school year. However, the bill ensures teachers and school districts are not punished based on students’ test scores.

“Tennessee has made tremendous improvements in education over the last decade. The coronavirus public health crisis began to put all of that at risk,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a statement. “The steps we took this week will reverse the learning loss that has taken place and prevent any further erosion of our progress.”

The Legislature will take a two-week break until Feb. 8, when Lee is scheduled to present his State of the State address and additional legislative proposals.

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