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School vouchers will dominate Tenn. legislative session. What other education proposals are lawmakers pursuing?

Gov. Bill Lee announces his support for "Education Freedom Scholarships", which would give state funds to families to send their children to private schools, religious schools or homeschool.
Alexis Marshall
Gov. Bill Lee announces his support for "Education Freedom Scholarships", which would give state funds to families to send their children to private schools, religious schools or homeschool.

Tennessee lawmakers are returning to the capitol after a week-long closure due to snow and frigid temperatures. As the session gets underway, education issues will be a top priority. Especially Gov. Bill Lee’s universal school voucher proposal.

Lee unveiled the broad strokes of the plan last fall at a highly produced event, complete with a video presentation and guest appearance from Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She called the voucher program part of a “conservative education revolution.”

The proposal, which proponents are calling “Education Freedom Scholarships” would greatly expand capacity and eligibility for vouchers, allowing families to use public dollars to pay for the costs of attending non-public schools.

“Parents know best what’s best for their child as it relates to education. And that’s the underlying factor and the premise that we operate from today,” Lee said at the announcement event.

What’s in the proposal?

The state’s current pilot program allows low and middle income families in Shelby, Davidson and Hamilton County to use the vouchers for certain authorized private schools. The pilot program suffered a legal blow early this year, when an appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against it can move forward.

If passed, the new program would begin in the 2024-25 school year with 20,000 seats. Half of them would go to students who qualify for the current pilot program, students with disabilities, and kids from families that earn 300% of the federal poverty level or less. The other 10,000 seats would be open to any student.

Then, during the next school year, all 20,000 grants would be available to anybody, regardless of families’ income levels — or whether they were already enrolled in private school without state help. The governor said the state would prioritize students with the greatest need.

Many aspects of the plan, including funding details, are still unclear. Republicans have said money for the program would not come from the state’s school funding formula.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, said he supports separate funding sources. “Let’s provide the opportunity for both avenues of success for our students, and let’s make sure we keep investing in both of them.

Still, as Democratic Rep. Ronnie Glynn of Clarksville notes, public schools in Tennessee get funding based on how many students enroll and their specific needs. If a significant number of students left for private or home schools, public schools could see a decrease in funding.

“It’s still money lost in the public school system,” Glynn said. “So it doesn’t matter how they try to spin it, it’s still the same. At the end of the day, public schools will suffer.”

Retention debate shifts to fourth grade

Last year, parents, teachers and administrators asked lawmakers to change the state’s third grade retention law before it took effect. Legislators passed a few tweaks, but none that applied to last year’s third graders. Now, students who advanced to the fourth grade by participating in summer school or a full academic year of tutoring must show “adequate growth” on the English Language Arts section of this year’s TCAP test. As the law is written, students who don’t meet that threshold will have no choice but to repeat fourth grade.

Senators discussed the policy last week with Education Commissioner Lizzette Reynolds and other Department of Educations officials. Some expressed concern that the law may be punishing students even after participating in all the required learning interventions. But Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who chairs the Education Committee, said he’s opposed to letting fourth graders move on if they haven’t demonstrated adequate growth.

“We’re not going to have a fifth, sixth, seventh grade pathway,” Lundberg said.

The Tennessee Board of Education has yet to finalize the definition for “adequate growth.” The proposed measure would vary from student to student depending on how far away from proficient they scored on last year’s test. You can read the draft here.

School safety

In a release from the Senate Republican Caucus, school safety was the second priority listed for education. Last year the legislature approved grants that would fund a School Resource Officer in every public school in the state. They also changed rules about locking doors and how future schools should be built with security in mind.

This year, the release said, lawmakers will consider “investments in new technology and communications systems that could enable teachers to immediately alert SROs and local law enforcement to active threats of violence in their classrooms.”

The legislative preview also said lawmakers may pick up school safety bills leftover from the August special session. One of those proposals would require schools to develop policies about how to react when a fire alarm is activated in case it was set off by an active shooter. House Majority Leader Rep. William Lamberth introduced a similar bill this month.

The August special session on public safety resulted in no gun reform. But Glynn said he hopes it’s possible this time around.

“I think many of the Republicans didn’t want to deal with that issue, but they’ve been back home. They’ve talked with their constituents. I think they heard loud and clear that their constituents want something done,” Glynn said.

The Clarksville Democrat said he hoped the legislature could pass a law requiring safe gun storage and a measure separating people deemed a threat to themselves or others from firearms. However, the governor has said he will not push for extreme risk protection orders this session.

Culture wars are back (again)

As in previous years, Republican lawmakers have begun introducing bills targeting the LGTBQ+ community, including representation in schools.

One bill would effectively ban public schools from displaying LGBTQ+ pride flags. That bill would outlaw any flag other than the United States and Tennessee state flag on school grounds.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Gino Bulso of Brentwood told the Tennessean he wants to remove “political statements” from school so that children aren’t being “indoctrinated.”

As it’s written, Bulso’s flag bill would also outlaw displaying the Gadsden flag, thin blue line flag, and the flags of other countries.

Another proposal would remove language that explicitly protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation. It would replace that with more general protections for anybody in a state or federally protected class. The same bill would delete the definition of gender identity from Tennessee’s family and life curriculum law.

A different proposal from Bulso would give parents legal standing to sue a school district if they think it’s violating the state’s Age-Appropriate Materials Act — even if their child isn’t enrolled in that district.

If passed, this could escalate book challenges into the courtroom. 

And another bill from Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, would open a new pathway to banning books at public libraries across the state. Under HB 1661, residents could petition libraries to restrict materials for minors that don’t meet “contemporary community standards.” The number of people determining those standards could be as few as 2% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

Cepicky floats a math bill

In recent years, Tennessee has overhauled the way it teaches children to read. The shift puts more focus on decoding words by sounding them out.

During this legislative session, Cepicky hopes to achieve a similar change in the way students learn to do math. He wants Tennessee students to become fluent in the subject.

“If I ask a student, two plus two equals what? And they say four, that’s numeracy,” Cepicky said. “Fluency is ‘Okay, what are other ways to get four?’ which causes them to have to manipulate the math, understand the math and give us depth, knowledge and comprehension of the math.”

But don’t expect immediate changes to classroom instruction.

Cepicky said this year’s bill will focus on finding best practices. It tasks the state’s department of education with convening a panel of math educators, and experts from Tennessee and across the country.

He hopes next year is when the state can work on implementing changes.

Dems want reform on how to deal with misbehavior

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said her party will “have to play defense” against Republican policies she says will be “detrimental for children.” But she also mentioned an education bill of her own she hopes to pass this session.

I tried to pass legislation to stop kindergartners and pre-K students from being suspended, unless they were a danger to themselves or others,” Akbari said.

Akbari said she got buy-in from the Department of Education last year when she introduced a bill limiting what’s known as exclusionary discipline for young students, but got pushback from teachers and superintendents.

“We ended up creating a study where we got all sorts of good information about exclusionary discipline, not just pre-K and kindergarten, but pre-K all the way through 12th grade.” Akbari said she’ll be working to get the bill through committee this session.

Similarly, Rep. Glynn is focusing on student discipline. He plans on introducing a bill that would require more detailed reporting when students get in trouble for behavioral issues. He’s hoping it could reveal why students are acting up.

“If we can get that kind of information and that kind of data,” Glynn said, “then we can put programs in place that can address a lot of those issues that are affecting behavior with a lot of our kids.”

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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