In two and a half days, the Tennessee General Assembly nearly wrapped up a special session on education in a pandemic world, passing a literacy plan and slight pay increases for teachers and school staff.

Only legislation to fund the plan remains to be passed Friday morning.

The Legislature passed bills Thursday providing pay raises, setting up a new reading program and offering summer “camps” to help students catch up after nearly a year of being shuffled in and out of school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, teachers, students and schools won’t suffer any negative consequences for doing poorly on the state’s TNReady test.

The Legislature took action on bills that could have stripped funding from Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts if they fail to bring students back to classrooms this year and next. 

Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The Senate version of the legislation was filed late and could not be considered for passage Thursday. But Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said it could come back up in the regular session.

He declined to call the measure punitive, preferring instead to say it is designed to “encourage” Metro Nashville and Shelby County districts to put students in classrooms instead of teaching virtual classes exclusively. The bill would give the education commissioner discretion to cut state funding to school systems that fail to hold in-classroom courses for 70 days this school year and 180 days in 2021-22.

“If 70 is too many we’ll come up with another figure, something that’s reasonable. But they need to get their kids back in school,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican who sponsored the bill.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who is sponsoring the House bill, said it is critical for the Legislature to take up the measure whether in the special session or regular session.

“Most of our districts have figured out a way to have an in-person instruction option. We’re not saying every child has to be in school every day of that. It’s just for those parents and teachers who desperately need that opportunity to have an in-person instruction option,” said Lamberth, a Portland Republican.

Gov. Bill Lee didn’t broach the matter Tuesday when he introduced his legislative package because it didn’t come from his office. Nevertheless, he called out Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts in his opening speech, saying they caved in to pressure to keep students and staff at home.

As part of the governor’s proposal, the state will spend $43 million on one-time pay raises, providing teachers and certified staff with about a 1% increase this fiscal year. More money is to be placed in the fiscal 2021-22 budget, a 4% recurring increase in the salary component of the Better Education Program, which will amount to about a 2% pay increase.

Democrats contend this fails to reward teachers for their efforts this year, since many of them have been required to teach in the classroom and provide virtual instruction.

“I have significant concerns when this body imposes new requirements on districts without dollars to carry it out,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro. 

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The Nashville Democrat also argued that the Legislature rushed the bills to passage when more time was needed to hear from the public. But the Republican-controlled Senate moved ahead with consideration.

Opposition to the amount of the pay raise turned bipartisan, with Sen. Janice Bowling, a Tullahoma Republican, saying she has heard from numerous teachers who are calling the pay increase “an insult.”

Despite the pandemic, the state has a budget surplus. The Legislature cut about $113 million from the budget in March when the economy shut down.

School districts will not have to kick in a portion of the pay increase, a point Republicans reiterated during debate on the Senate floor.

“This goes a long way toward addressing (learning loss),” said Sen. Paul Rose, a Covington Republican. “Most of you want to see this money get into the teachers’ hands.”

Two-thirds of the state’s third-graders don’t read as well as expected, according to test results, and legislators are trying to get a handle on that shortcoming as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted school years for the last 10 months.

The Tennessee Literacy Success Act requires school districts to put new reading skills instruction in place, as well as support for students who struggle to read and a “universal reading screener,” or vendor, for K-3 students. 

School districts will need to adopt a new phonics reading program, including buying materials and hiring a vendor to test students and determine whether they’re improving. 

In addition, a literacy learning loss program is expected to cost about $108 million, with $35 million coming from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund and $13 million from a reserve for the unclaimed lottery funds. Teachers are to be paid $1,000 stipends to teach the summer camps and after-school camps to help students catch up. One-on-one tutors also could be ordered for children who perform poorly.

Besides concerns the plan could lead to an unfunded mandate, one of the biggest concerns among lawmakers, especially Democrats, dealt with holding back third-graders who fail to meet certain reading standards. Some educators say the state appears to be trying to bolster its national scores for fourth-graders by making third-graders repeat if they don’t perform well enough. One news report showed those third-graders would have to be on track to make a 22 on the ACT in order to advance to the fourth grade.

“We’re creating a high-stakes test for 8-year-olds,” Yarbro pointed out during Senate floor debate. He noted the Legislature is passing long-term legislation instead of attacking problems stemming from the pandemic.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown countered that schools must “intervene,” sometimes for years, when a child is young to make sure third-graders can learn to read.

According to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, third-graders who fail to score high enough wouldn’t be held back automatically. They could take the test again or go to the summer camps to move on to fourth grade.

The House version of the bill was amended to add an “appellate” process for children if their parents don’t want them to attend summer school.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, argued that the Legislature should not decide which children should be held back. Instead, the decision should be up to parents, teachers and schools, she said.

Rep. Mark White, however, said it is difficult to know whether children will be “damaged” by being required to repeat third grade, but he said the state could be doing “far more damage for a lifetime” by sending them on to fourth grade without strong reading skills.

Lawmakers want the governor’s office to come up with another $18 million to pay for bus service to summer learning camps, which would be made available through competitive grants. But that is likely to be dealt with in Gov. Bill Lee’s budget plan for fiscal 2021-22, senators said.

Some senators questioned whether TNReady results will be available soon enough for schools to identify the students who need summer help and tutoring. Supporters of the legislation pointed out teachers already know which students are struggling to read.

Earlier this week, a House committee refused to consider legislation by state Rep. John Ray Clemmons to increase the funding for teacher pay increases.