Local lawmakers discuss Tuesday’s special session on education

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — One day before the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in a special session dedicated to education, local state lawmakers spoke about what will take place during the upcoming session.

Gov. Bill Lee called the special session to address learning losses caused by the pandemic, improving students’ reading skills, and preventing students, teachers, and schools from seeing negative impacts associated with student assessments.

Lawmakers will also consider giving teachers a raise.

“We need to pay competitive with teacher pay just like any other profession,” said Rep. Bud Hulsey (R-Kingsport).

While some will advocate for one-time bonuses, others say a pay raise is overdue.

“We have nine states that touch us and most of those states pay on average about $10,000 more for teachers,” said newly-elected Rep. Tim Hicks (R-Gray). “It is time, I think, to definitely bring teachers’ pay up.”

The governor announced three pieces of legislation last week, including a bill that “ensures local education agencies (LEAs) use a phonics-based approach for kindergarten through third grade reading instruction.”

“They’re going to start going back to the common-sense way of teaching kids using phonics and I believe that’s a great idea,” Hicks said. “It’s proven and it’s an effective way especially for teachers to teach in early education.”

The governor is also proposing summer school options to make up for learning losses caused by students being out of the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As summer school is expected to be needed more than ever this year, some worry about being able to staff it.

“My concern is, they’re so worn out, I don’t know how many teachers are going to get to volunteer to do that extra duty,” said Hulsey. “I hope there are some.”

Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) hopes the proposed pay will help.

“The proposed stipend is $1000 a week,” Hawk said. “It is substantial for those who are interested in teaching in summer school.”

Another proposal “extends hold harmless provisions from the 2019-20 school year to the 2020-21 school year so that students, teachers, schools and districts do not face any negative consequences associated with student assessments.”

“Because of all the mess we’ve been going through, they’re going to hold teachers ‘harmless’ with the test scores…if they’re beneficial they can use them, if they’re not beneficial it won’t punish them,” Hulsey said.

Legislators also hope the assessments give insight into where learning gaps are.

“What we’re looking to do here is to see that the children are tested so we know exactly where things stand and that’s imperative in this entire process,” said Rep. Scotty Campbell (R-Mountain City).” You have a lot of different accountability measures at the state level, some at the district level and we need to keep as much of that in place that we possibly can as we go forward.”

Lawmakers will also discuss how much federal money the state will get under the most recent stimulus package.

“Anytime I hear of a substantial amount of federal money, I always come in with cautious optimism because you never know what they’re going to expect with the dollars that are being sent,” said Hawk who is a member of the Finance, Ways, and Means Committee.

Whatever lawmakers approve, it is expected to be a statewide approach to assisting local school districts.

“This isn’t singling out school districts in Northeast Tennessee or West Tennessee or elsewhere,” Campbell said. “It seems to be a process being established for equal application to try to see if the teachers, parents, and students have exactly what they need for the rest of 2021 and beyond.”

One topic that is expected to come up but not an item of legislation- the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Over the next two or three weeks, you’ll see a big difference as we get more and more folks vaccinated,” said Hicks as Washington Co. Schools in his district have been completely virtual most of the school year. “I think it will really make a big difference in when we go back to the classroom.”

While teachers were moved up in the state’s vaccination plan, lawmakers do not anticipate requiring it.

“I hesitate to say there won’t be a mandate but it would be completely opposite of Governor Lee and his style if there were to be a mandate of this nature,” said Hawk.

Rep. Hulsey is working on a bill in hopes of making sure teachers, and anyone in any other profession will be able to receive unemployment if they resign over vaccine requirements.

“It will come up,” said Hulsey. “This particular bill that I’m running too, if I can get it passed, a local school board wouldn’t be able to do that.”

The special session will get underway Tuesday afternoon.

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