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5 education issues to watch as Tennessee lawmakers return this week

The Tennessee State Capitol stands in downtown Nashville.

The 2022 session of the 112th Tennessee General Assembly convenes Jan. 11 at the state Capitol in Nashville.

Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat

One year after tackling pandemic-related school challenges during a special legislative session called by Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee lawmakers return to the Capitol this week with another major focus on students: how to fund public education.

Lee wants to overhaul the 30-year-old formula that determines how much money the state distributes to school systems, as well as how much local governmental agencies should contribute. He’s expected to work with fellow GOP leaders to offer a legislative proposal this month.

But some say the legislature shouldn’t rush that discussion, especially since it took years to come up with the current formula known as the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

“It’s OK to hold this and keep working on it if we need to,” said Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Maury County. “Let’s get this right.”

Lawmakers also aren’t inclined toward a lengthy session during an election year. They’ll look to pass a budget and wrap up by mid-April, if possible, so they can return home to campaign. 

Until then, here are five issues to watch:

Funding reform

Since October when Lee called for a review of the state’s funding formula, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has spearheaded the process that included eight town halls and dozens of meetings with policymakers and education leaders. 

Last week, she called the issue “the biggest policy decision we make” and said Tennessee should seize this “moment in time.” She also hinted a draft proposal will be unveiled early this week.

“There is funding that is potentially available, there is momentum. We see need across the state,” she told a forum hosted by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. 

The review, which aims to shift Tennessee to a more student-centered funding approach, has drawn public praise but generated private concerns about its intent. Many public school advocates worry the goal is to pave the way for a new private school voucher program halted by ongoing litigation, though the governor has denied that. 

“I’m trying to keep an open mind and not draw conclusions before getting all the information,” said Sen. Ferrell Haile, a Gallatin Republican who is on Lee’s 12-member review committee to create a new strategy.

Schwinn said any future formula must factor in the needs of individual children. That includes students who have disabilities, are English language learners, or come from low-income families. 

Currently, enrollment is the main component of the BEP, a formula with 46 components that determine how much school systems receive to pay for teacher salaries and other needs like textbooks, technology, and bus transportation. But districts have flexibility on how to spend that money, which explains why the BEP is considered a funding formula, not a spending plan.

“We want to put more money into education, but we want to make sure the money is being spent well,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs a House education committee and supports forging a new formula this year. “Let’s give it our best shot.”

More school nurses, counselors, pre-K

Whether the state revises its funding formula this year or not, the legislature must pass a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 — and is flush with cash. Tax collections during the pandemic’s economic rebound were higher than projected. The state also is sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants intended to help working low-income families. 

Meanwhile, Tennessee ranks 44th in the nation for student funding, according to the Education Law Center, which gave the state Fs last year for its funding level and funding effort.

The state’s BEP review committee, an influential panel of policymakers and education leaders, has urged the governor to prioritize more funding for school nurses and counselors to get Tennessee to nationally recommended ratios. A $110-million annual investment would fund 1 nurse for every 750 students instead of the current 1:3,000, and 1 counselor for every 250 students instead of the current ratios of 1:500 and 1:350 for elementary and secondary schools, respectively.

In addition to perennial discussions about raising teacher pay, there’s talk about expanding Tennessee’s pre-K program, which serves a fifth of the state’s 4-year-olds. Most districts have waiting lists.

During the pandemic, consensus has grown that pre-K and early grades are the best places for impactful interventions to address learning lag and social-emotional challenges.

“It’s a timely topic that is deserving of deep discussions,” Haile said.

Supplemental teaching materials

A controversial proposal to limit which supplemental materials teachers can use advanced last year in two House panels before stalling in the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, promised to bring her bill back for consideration this year and address worries that “good” materials from organizations like the Tennessee Farm Bureau could be excluded. 

The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver of Lancaster, would prohibit teachers from using materials that supplant state-approved textbooks unless district leaders approve those materials in advance. Any approved print or electronic materials would be listed on district websites.

“We absolutely need to do something,” agreed Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican from Germantown, “but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t have unintended consequences.”

The president of the state’s largest teachers organization called the proposal “demoralizing” for teachers and logistically impossible for school districts. For instance, a teacher couldn’t use yesterday’s newspaper in a current events class.

“This is a move toward completely scripted lessons,” said Beth Brown of the Tennessee Education Association, noting that a new Tennessee law already restricts what teachers can discuss in their classes about racism, white privilege, and unconscious bias.

Testing

State testing went well last year, with a 95% participation rate despite the pandemic. But lawmakers are still expected to bring several proposals to change when and how tests are administered.

Expect one proposal to require that testing occur during the last 20 days of the school year, instead of the earlier testing window set by the education department.

“That’s going to give our teachers an extra 30 days of instruction time, which is a lot,” said Cepicky.

Other likely legislation would require students in grades 3-8 to continue testing on paper, while local school systems could opt to move students in higher grades to online exams.

This school year, Tennessee high schoolers are taking their exams online under the state’s plan to transition back to computerized testing after several years of technical snafus.

Teacher evaluations

Should teachers be judged on how much their students know — or how much they grow?

Tennessee has mostly focused on the latter when evaluating their educators and schools through an academic growth model that measures learning over time, regardless of whether students are proficient. 

But the complexity and opaqueness of the state’s statistical growth method, combined with increasing frustration over low student proficiency, could renew that debate among lawmakers this year.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and where are we?” asked Cepicky, complaining that only a third of the state’s third graders are reading on grade level. 

“Meanwhile, we’ve created an evaluation system where a teacher can get an A in academic growth even if their students aren’t proficient readers. We’ve got to get that commitment back to getting our kids proficient,” he said.

Such a move would mark a dramatic change for Tennessee, considered a pioneer in using “value-added” measurements to judge teachers and schools. For a decade, the guiding principle has been that all students can advance, regardless of out-of-school factors like poverty that might hold them back.

Other issues are sure to surface before this year’s legislature, including more funding for charter school facilities and how to address the state’s worsening teacher shortage. The statistics on the teacher supply is especially troubling, with thousands of Tennessee educators expected to retire by 2024 and fewer candidates entering teacher training programs.

“We’ve got to be creating multiple pathways to teaching in our state, and we’ve got to have a competitive wage,” said JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

The 2022 session of the 112th General Assembly convenes at noon Central Time on Tuesday. Visit the legislature’s website to track legislation, livestream meetings, and contact legislators.

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