Education in virus era dominates Tennessee special session

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Posted at 6:37 AM, Jan 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-20 09:29:26-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF/AP) — Gov. Bill Lee addressed lawmakers Tuesday before the start of the state's special session, directing them to quickly pass measures in response to educational challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tennessee General Assembly is meeting to address student learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Bill Lee is wanting to pass three new bills to help with the problem.

Lee is asking lawmakers to take up five issues: learning, funding, accountability, literacy and teacher pay.

According to data released by the state, Tennessee third graders are facing an estimated 50% drop in reading proficiency and a projected 65% drop in math proficiency. These numbers have elected officials, teachers and parents concerned.

Gov. Lee’s office places most of the blame on the pandemic and virtual learning.

Research shows that students who do not achieve reading proficiency by third grade are more likely to drop out of high school, be incarcerated or experience poverty as adults.

Gov. Lee is hoping three new bills will address the issue: Intervening to Stop Learning Loss, Building Better Readers with Phonics and Accountability to Inform. Each bill is designed to help improve math and reading skills.

Also, they would strengthen laws around a third-grade reading gate so they no longer advance students who are not prepared.

Gov. Lee also had harsh remarks for schools that had rebuffed his push for in-person learning. The criticism has sparked objections from Democratic lawmakers and education advocates.

Read more: Teacher group reacts to Governor's special session

"Months ago, when critics were loud and the scare tactics were louder with all the reasons why we couldn’t safely return students and teachers to the classroom, we traded that speculation for science..." Lee said. "I commend those districts, those local leaders and educators for not settling for the path of least resistance and hiding behind month after month of virtual learning with no end in sight."

Watch Lee's full address below:

House and Senate Democratic leadership released the following statement Tuesday on Lee's saying virtual learning was to blame for learning loss in students.

"We are disappointed in Gov. Lee’s confrontational tone toward schools districts that chose virtual learning over in-person classes. More than 8,000 Tennesseans have died from the coronavirus, including school faculty, and every district has had to make tough calls when balancing student learning with health and safety.

Still our hope is that lawmakers of both parties can work together to invest in students. Tennessee is 46th in the nation for student funding and nearly every district is grappling with teacher shortages. These are shortcomings that send harmful ripple effects through all of our schools.

Instead we are hearing about efforts to illegally rob student funding from schools in Memphis and Nashville when the legislature should be working to address the broken funding mechanism that hurts us all.

To be clear: Our caucuses will work with anyone to invest in student learning and retain great teachers but we will also strongly oppose any legislation that punishes families and districts because their great need attracted federal grant funding."