Legislators file into the War Memorial Building on Jan. 19 for Gov. Bill Lee’s address at the start of a special session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Republican lawmakers filed legislation for the special session to take education funds away from school districts that don’t open for at least 70 days during the current school year and the full 180 days for next school year.
The late-filed bill was sponsored by state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, and state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. The partisan proposal, which would apparently only impact Davidson County and Shelby County school districts, has no support from Democrats.
With super majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans could take away the education funds despite Democratic opposition.
Although lawmakers were given a deadline of 4 p.m. on Jan. 15 to file their bills, Lamberth’s House version appeared to be filed on Tuesday and Johnson’s Senate version was not filed until Wednesday.
Lee bashed districts that haven’t offered in-person options for students during prepared remarks to mark the beginning of the special session on education.
“Months ago, when critics were loud and the scare tactics were louder with all the reasons why we couldn’t safely return students and teachers to the classroom, we traded that speculation for science,” Lee said. “We followed that science down a path that would make us one of the first states in the country to get students and teachers back in the classroom this fall across 145 of our 147 districts.
“Tennessee has thus become a national leader in embracing the courage to get back in the classroom and show that it can be done.”
The bills propose to give discretion to the Commissioner of Education to take away basic education program (BEP) funds from districts that aren’t open at least 70 days for the current year and 180 days for the 2021-22 year.
Metro Nashville Public Schools began the year completely virtual, but began in-person instruction for families that chose that option during the fall. Director Adrienne Battle made the decision to revert to completely virtual school around Thanksgiving as community spread of the virus was especially high.
Battle cited a lack of substitutes as a primary reason for choosing to revert to virtual school. Contact tracing forced staff members possibly exposed to the virus to quarantine, and there haven’t been enough substitutes to cover for those teachers and the teachers who asked to teach virtually due to pre-existing conditions that made them prone to severe cases of COVID-19. During multiple surveys of families, about half chose to remain in virtual school.
Battle bashed the legislation on Wednesday evening.
“Any proposal to take funding away from students and threaten the mass layoff of teachers in the 2021-22 school year is terrible public policy and does nothing to address any real learning challenges or gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, nor does it do anything to create a safer working or learning environment by slowing or stopping the spread of the coronavirus,” Battle said.“Metro Schools welcomed students for in-person learning in the fall before the spread of the virus reached its highest levels since the pandemic began, and we have presented a thorough plan for bringing back students into the classroom when the COVID-19 metrics in Davidson County return to safer levels.”
Battle said hard-working teachers are “teaching every day and our students are learning every day.”
“… and we will continue doing everything possible to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of the children we serve, whether we are in-person or in the virtual environment,” she added.
Rep. Mark White, an East Memphis Republican who chairs the House Education Administration Committee, said he understands the bill was put up to create debate because of the number of people statewide who believe all children should be back in school.
White said he understands the “challenges” for bigger districts, such as Shelby County Schools, with district officials opposing returning students to classrooms because of the potential for a spike in COVID-19. He declined to say where he stands on the bill.
“I’m going to listen to the debate. I want them back in school, but I know the issues they have with making that happen,” White said.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat who serves on the House Education Administration Committee, pointed out the legislation could affect rural districts that also use virtual instruction through a hybrid model.
“It also would bring on lawsuits left and right for these districts, should that decision be made for these districts that are getting less money than the rest of the state is getting. And we know that this is really targeted at Davidson County and Shelby County. Nothing new,” Parkinson said.
Parkinson said he hoped the legislation session, including this special session on education in a COVID world, could start without the same type of confrontation lawmakers have seen in recent years.
“But at the end of the day, there’s not a person in this state that can force me as a parent to send my child into a COVID environment,” he said.
Lee did not discuss the legislation when asked Tuesday whether school systems would be penalized for not returning students to classrooms.
“All districts know it’s better to get kids back to the classroom. So we’ll be working with every district in the state to try to get our kids back in the classroom,” he said. At that point, the legislation had not been filed.
(The legislation) also would bring on lawsuits left and right for these districts, should that decision be made for these districts that are getting less money than the rest of the state is getting.
– Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro also criticized the proposal, questioning the legality of targeting Nashville and Memphis schools, and slamming Lee’s response to the pandemic as the primary reason schools have chosen virtual learning.
“The administration has failed totally and completely at controlling the spread of COVID-19 and forced districts and families to choose between really bad options,” Yarbro said. “Rather than actually giving the guidance and support to districts to open safely, this is a push to reopen without regard to safety. It wouldn’t hold up legally and is really counterproductive at this point.”
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, called the legislation “more hypocrisy from Lee and his henchmen in the legislature.”
“Lee spent the whole year deferring to local governments so that he wouldn’t have to make or be held responsible for an unpopular decision, effectively throwing them under the bus,” Clemmons said, referencing Lee’s administration allowing county mayors to institute health orders like mask mandates or business restrictions. “Now all of a sudden, he wants to come all guns blazing at Davidson and Shelby counties for doing what they felt was appropriate and safest for our children and teachers.”
News of the legislation was embraced by the group Let Nashville Parents Choose, which tweeted, “In normal circumstances we’d vigorously oppose a heavy-handed tactic…But these are not normal times, and that is a perfectly reasonable proposition; it’s not too late to get 70 days in! #openschools.”
Lee’s first term track record with bold education reforms included pushing a vouchers bill that was struck down by the courts. News Channel 5 reported in 2019 the voucher bill was also under criminal investigation by the FBI for the way it was passed in the legislature. That bill singled out Shelby and Davidson counties.
The state’s urban school districts remain engaged in litigation with the state over the BEP formula, which they argue illegally under-funds the districts that educate most of Tennessee’s economically disadvantaged students.
In 2012, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration withheld $3.4 million in BEP funds from Nashville after the school board disregarded the state board of education and voted to reject an application from Arizona-based Great Hearts Academy to open a charter school that would have catered to mostly white and middle class families.
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