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Education Special Session Recap

This session started off different from most. Typically we are sworn in and followed with a couple weeks of recess to prepare for regular session. Instead, we started this week with an Extraordinary (Special) Session to discuss and vote on multiple education bills proposed by the Governor’s administration. The rushed session is being called to vote on proposed education legislation related to COVID and literacy including a bill to implement new after school programs to help remediate any learning loss due to not being in quarantine.

As a result, both the House and Senate chambers passed the Governor’s three education bills on Thursday with funding despite the concern I, my colleagues, our Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ray, SCS School Board, teacher and parents publicly expressed.

The first bill is the "Tennessee Literacy Success Act"; requiring Local Education Agencies (LEA)s to provide foundational literacy skills instruction, provide reading interventions and supports, and administer universal reading screeners to students in kindergarten through grade three to improve reading proficiency.

Simply, basic phonics education.

The next bill is yet another “hold harmless” bill that protects teachers from low TCAP test scores this year. This is very similar to previous bills that have passed due to problems in administering state mandated tests. The tests are used to evaluate teachers’ and students' performance and proficiency. The difference this year is that the tests would have to be administered in person and many students are learning virtually this year. While holding the teachers harmless is the right thing to do, I am concerned with executing in-person testing while we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would still require at least 80% of each district's students to test — in-person.

While we all want to get students back in the classroom, mandating in-person teaching while Governor Lee’s administration refuses to follow the science and implement a mask mandate is hypocritical and contributes to why students have been outside the classroom longer than necessary.

The final bill that passed Thursday was the "Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act" which requires local education agencies and public charter schools to implement a program of after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps, and summer learning camps to remediate student learning loss. Obviously, we don’t oppose any effort to provide help for children to learn.

HOWEVER!The big concern about this bill is that it would retain kids who do not read at third grade level to be held back if they are not reading proficiently. You could have a situation where we are holding back more students than resources can cover. In theory, the camps would provide aid for those kids to increase proficiency. Obviously, while the idea is great in theory, there are major problems in the details.

These camps would have to be held in-person, and while we are still in a pandemic.

We have major concerns about how to keep students, teachers and staff safe during the camps when the two largest districts have not even returned to in-person learning yet. We all agree that in-person learning is the best thing for our students, but it has to be done in a way that protects everyone involved and their families. Again! I want to get students back in the classroom but, mandating in-person teaching while Governor Lee’s administration refuses to follow the science and implement a mask mandate and other necessary COVID prevention tactics is hypocritical and contributes to why students have been outside the classroom longer than necessary.

Most importantly, major questions about the finances and potential abuses of the system. This legislation will cause major defunding and funding inequities for Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Why is it that when it comes to education funding and support, our two largest districts -Memphis and Nashville- historically remain the guinea pigs and targets of the administration’s unproven education initiatives.

This morning, the House passed the appropriations bill that would finance the programs and also increase teacher salaries. Tennessee’s teachers have been promised a raise for many years. The people of this state were told that teachers could expect a two percent immediate raise, with another two percent to follow in the middle of this year. BUT! As soon as this special session started, the Department of Education and the Republicans admitted that It will be a smaller raise. This ‘pay raise’ works out to around 1% of a yearly salary for Tennessee’s teachers. Frankly, that is insulting! Last February, the Governor committed to giving Tennessee teachers a four percent raise, and then withdrew that promise, even as the money was available.

We are again at a point where we have the money, the Governor called a special session and boasted of giving teachers this raise, and again the Governor and his party have muddied the waters and our teachers will once again be left holding the bag, while being held responsible for educating our children.

The House adjourned today following the passage of these bills.

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