The Center Square
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday called for the state legislature to convene on Jan. 19 for a special session to focus on urgent education issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, only a third of Tennessee third graders could read on grade level. In September, TDOE released projections estimating that reading proficiency among Tennessee third-graders will drop by 50%, and math proficiency will drop by 65% because of COVID-19-related school closures.
“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense disruption for Tennessee’s students, educators, and districts, and the challenges they face must be addressed urgently,” Lee said in a statement. “Even before the virus hit, and despite years of improvement, too many of our state’s students were still unable to read on grade level. I’m calling on the legislature to join us in addressing these serious issues so we can equip our hardworking educators and districts with the resources and supports they need to set our students on the path to success.”
In the coming weeks, Tennessee’s Department of Education will issue legislative proposals to address learning loss, education funding, accountability, literacy and teacher pay, which lawmakers will consider during the session.
The state Department of Education also will soon release plans for a new literacy program called “Reading 360” that will leverage one-time federal relief funding to support a phonics-based approach to literacy.
The department has secured $20 million from the U.S. Department of Education for use in the Comprehensive State Literacy Development program, and has earmarked a further $32 million in Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds, awarded through the CARES Act, for literacy programs.
“As we have heard from districts since March, students need their teachers and schools like never before,” Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said. “No child’s future should suffer academically because of COVID-19.”
Republican legislative leaders in the House and Senate voiced support of the special session on Tuesday. Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Raumes Akbari, D-Memphis, said that the special session will present an opportunity for the state to catch up on much-needed funding for public education.
“I hope the legislature takes this opportunity to unite around a bold agenda that invests in public schools,” Akbari said in a statement. “Tennessee was 46th in the nation for student funding before the pandemic hit. The coronavirus did not create inequities in education and it is not the cause of our teacher retention crisis, but it did make these problems worse.”
Leaders in the education community also voiced support for the special session.
“We are glad Gov. Lee will place a focus on education, and eager to work toward resolution on these critical issues,” said JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee. “It is important to get these issues right. Teacher salaries and BEP must be addressed. The literacy bill should have been addressed last session. Some of these issues will take time and input, cookie cutter solutions may not be the best solution.”