This post is the first of two focused on recent legislation affecting education policy in Tennessee. First, we look at the effects to K-12 education. In part two, we examine legislation affecting postsecondary education 

When the school dismissal bell rang on March 13, most Tennessee districts were still planning to complete 60 more instructional days, enjoy field trips, compete in sports, administer statewide assessments, celebrate prom and spirit week, and hold a ceremony to honor their high school graduates. 

As the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continued to spread, state leaders took emergency action to protect the health and safety of Tennesseans. On March 16, Governor Bill Lee urged all districts to close school as soon as practically possible and the Tennessee General Assembly suspended normal activities in order to work on passage of an amended “bare bones” budget and roughly 30 critical pieces of legislation. All other budget and legislative items will have to wait until legislators return from recess (tentatively June 1).  

During this expedited timeline, the General Assembly passed legislation specific to education and a budget with substantial reductions from the governor’s original proposal. Here’s a look at how PreK-12 education will be impacted. 

Senate Bill 2672 (House Bill 2818 

This bill will have sweeping implications for PreK-12 schools related to assessment, accountability, instructional days, funding, graduation requirements, and emergency rule-making. The legislation includes the following: 

  • No statewide assessment, including portfolio, will be required for the 2019-2020 school year. However, local education agencies (LEAs) may administer an assessment if they choose. 
  • Calculations of teacher, school, and LEA accountability will only include data from the 2019-2020 school year if the inclusion would result in a higher score. This is also true for student spring grade calculations. No adverse action may be taken against a student, teacher, school, or LEA based on 2019-2020 assessment results. 
  • Graduation requirements, like the civics exam and the ACT, will be waived and all seniors who were on track to graduate will graduate.  
  • The requirement that LEAs provide 180 instructional days will be waived. LEAs may continue to provide instruction, and state funding will be dispersed to LEAs as was previously estimated.  

Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Budget 

In Governor Lee’s State of the State address on February 3, he presented an initial budget to the General Assembly that proposed a $600 million increase in the state’s investment in public education. Every year, near the end of legislative session, the General Assembly debates an amended budget that incorporates the governor’s proposals and funding for other initiatives prioritized by the legislature. This year, the amended budget was expedited due to COVID-19 and contained the following changes for key initiatives in education:

  • The increase to the instructional component of the Basic Education Program (BEP) was originally proposed at $117 million. In the amended budget, this proposal was halved to $58 million. This is the investment intended to go toward teacher pay increases.
  • The Mental Health Trust Fund was originally proposed at $250 million, but this line item was deleted in the amended budget. However, the amended budget preserves the original proposal for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse to increase the number of school-based mental health liaisons from 35 to 95 (one for each county).  
  • The legislation for a new statewide literacy initiative included close to $70 million in the original proposal. This would have created funding for high-quality instructional materials, implementation support, and teacher training. All new spending for that initiative was deleted in the amended budget, but $1.8 million in one-time spending remains for a literacy coaching pilot that started last year. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives. This year, the emergency response to COVID-19 impacted funding significantly for every state agency and policy area. As we enter a new chapter in education in Tennessee, we are thankful for our state and district leaders, policymakers, and education stakeholders who continue to serve the emerging needs of Tennessee students, teachers, and families.  

Aleah Guthrie is director of policy at SCORE.