(The Center Square) – Top Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have filed a bill that would allow the state to withhold funding from school districts that refuse to provide an in-person learning option for students.
The bill, SB7024/HB7021, is sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. If passed, it would give the Tennessee Education Commissioner authority to withhold all or a part of state funding from school districts if they fail to provide a minimum of 70 days of in-person learning this school year and the full 180 days of in-person learning next school year for all kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
“It’s not our goal to withhold funds from any district," Lamberth told The Center Square. "It is our goal for every single district to provide that in-person learning option for those parents and students that want to take some care can take advantage of it.
“If most of our districts have figured that out, then all of our districts should be able to figure that out,” he said.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education school opening database, many districts have at least one school offering only virtual learning, but five districts currently offer only remote options for kindergarten through eighth grade: Metro Nashville Public Schools, Shelby County Schools, Montgomery County Public Schools, Overton County Schools and Washington County Schools.
Nashville and Shelby County school districts combined account for about one-fifth of all students in the state.
“I think every option should be available to parents and children that can possibly be made available at this juncture, so that each can chart their own pathway through just a very difficult scenario during a global pandemic,” Lamberth said.
The bill would not force districts to offer only in-person learning options, nor would it force children to be back in the classroom if parents do not feel it is safe.
Lamberth said the bill had been drafted for quite some time after ongoing conversations with Gov. Bill Lee’s office.
In a speech to lawmakers Tuesday, Lee touted the state’s record on in-person school reopening and took aim at districts resisting in-person learning.
“You can’t say, ‘Follow the science,’ and keep schools closed. You can’t say, ‘I believe in public education,’ and keep schools closed. And you can’t say you’re putting the needs of students first and keep schools closed,” Lee said, adding that his legislative proposals would be “paired with a full return to the classroom.”
The governor’s office did not return a request for comment on the bill.
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has testified before several House and Senate committees this week. Her office declined to comment on Lamberth’s bill specifically, saying her efforts are focused on other bills.
“The department is prioritizing the administration’s legislative proposals on learning loss, literacy, accountability and teacher pay,” department spokesperson Victoria Robinson told The Center Square.
Republicans’ push for in-person learning this week has drawn sharp criticism from Democrats and superintendents of school districts that would be impacted.
"This is the problem that continues to run in the [Tennessee Legislature]," Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, tweeted. "Less government lovers always wanting to control. We knew they were coming for our kids and today they made it clear."
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray called for officials to “step away from privileged podiums.”
“It is disingenuous to think that the children of poor families need any less protection than children in other settings,” Ray said in a statement. “We will continue to follow science and encourage others to review the impact of mask mandates while we wait for vaccines to be prioritized for educators.”
Lamberth said he welcomes any data to support the idea that students are unsafe in school.
“The concern that I think most of us had toward the beginning of this pandemic that schools would serve as kind of a super-spreader location if you had children in school, that fear has just not borne out into reality, thank goodness,” Lamberth said.
The bill was introduced in both chambers Wednesday and because of the late timing, it may not be taken up this week during the special session on education. If not, Lamberth plans to file it again.
“This is a conversation that we're going to have either during this special session or during regular session,” Lamberth said. “If their parents feel like it's a safe environment for them to be in, that option’s going to be available to them. So either this week, or later on during the regular session, this conversation is going to be had. It has to be.”