FILE - Bill Lee

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks with House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.

(The Center Square) – Gov. Bill Lee has unveiled legislation to address learning loss among Tennessee students caused by pandemic-related school closures and extended time away from the classroom.

A series of Lee-backed bills include proposals to provide summer school and after school tutoring, require school districts to use phonics-based literacy curriculum and suspend test-related accountability measures for teachers and schools this year. Lee said he’ll also propose pay raises for teachers, but those details have not been released.

“COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of education and we are on the cusp of severe consequences for our students if we don’t act now,” Lee said in a statement.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 37% of Tennessee third-graders were reading on grade level. Lee’s administration released projections in October that said Tennessee third-graders would experience up to 50% learning loss in reading proficiency and 65% learning loss in math proficiency because of COVID-19-related school closures.

In response to pandemic-related learning loss, Lee’s administration proposes to establish a six-week, four-hour daily summer school program for 2021 and 2022, as well as extended learning hours and a four-week pre-back-to-school learning camp. The legislation also would create a tutoring corps to provide year-long learning support. Students with low proficiency in reading and math would be prioritized for such interventions, but they would not be required to use them unless the Tennessee State Board of Education adopts such a policy.

If passed, third-graders without reading proficiency would be held back from advancing to fourth grade, beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

The learning loss remediation programing would be funded in part by the Lottery for Education Afterschool Program (LEAP) grant fund and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. A separate appropriations bill allocates an additional $67 million to implement the learning loss proposal.

Another bill focused on addressing the state’s literacy crisis would require school districts to use phonics-based teaching methods in kindergarten through third grade. The bill also would require each school to screen pre-kindergarten through third-grade students for reading proficiency and notify parents of lower-proficiency students of reading activities to complete at home.

All kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers would have to complete a department-approved professional development course in literacy before August 2023, if the literacy bill becomes law.

Education advocacy group Tennesseans for Student Success is running ads encouraging Tennesseans to ask their lawmaker to support the literacy bill in exchange for a free book for their local school.

Another Lee administration bill proposes to move forward with standardized testing this spring to measure how much students have learned over the unusual school year. Accountability measures for teachers based on student test results and state-issued school ratings would be suspended for the 2020-21 school year.

Finally, Lee proposes a teacher pay increase, but details have not been released.

“Educators across the state are working tirelessly to turn the tide for their students and help them regain critical math and reading skills,” Lee said. “We believe they should be compensated for their efforts and look forward to working with the General Assembly to provide funding for our teachers.”

Lawmakers will gather Tuesday for a special session on education.

Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.