Education dominated legislative debate last year under Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, and it’s likely to be a front-burner issue again as lawmakers return this week in the second year of his administration.

But don’t expect the ferocity sparked by the 2019 voucher bill, which squeaked through after a decade of being rebuffed in the legislature. While several Democrats are attempting to rescind that controversial law, new House Speaker Cameron Sexton has signaled that this year’s focus should be on new initiatives to improve public schools. 

Meanwhile, the Republican governor has promised a spending plan that will take a “multi-faceted approach” to education investments. Those will run the gamut, he said, from traditional public schools to charters to his education savings account program for students receiving private education services.

Likely to lead the 2020 agenda will be proposals to improve students’ reading skills and increase teacher compensation, two needs that most every lawmaker can agree on.

But it’s also an election year, and legislators will be anxious to wrap up early to start campaigning. All 99 seats in the House of Representatives, and half of those in the Senate will be up for grabs this fall.

Here are five issues to watch for on K-12 education:

1. Reading. With just over a third of the state’s third-graders reading on or above grade level, Tennessee has worked for five years on ways to improve literacy rates, especially for its youngest students. Progress has been slow, leaving a steep climb to reach the goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders proficient by 2025. During budget hearings in November, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn asked Lee to set aside $15 million for a new reading initiative, but it’s uncertain what that would look like.

In recent months, Schwinn has emphasized the need for high-quality instructional materials, and there’s also talk of a new drive to instruct teachers in the “science of reading.” Both would be natural progressions of work done through Read to be Ready, a major initiative launched by former Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration in 2016. Watch to see if Lee or legislators will rally to continue one of the initiative’s more popular components: summer reading camps for Tennessee’s youngest students. A related network of reading coaches under Read to be Ready already has been dismantled.

2. Teacher pay. Lee set aside an extra $71 million last year for teacher pay and is expected to propose additional funding for that purpose this year. Tennessee’s base pay for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $36,000, and the average salary is $53,980. But half of Tennessee’s eight border states pay more, and the national average is $60,477, according to the latest rankings by the National Education Association. As a result, Tennessee struggles to retain teachers, stay competitive, and lure candidates, even with over $370 million in increases since 2016.

On a related matter, frustration has grown over complaints that state boosts aren’t reaching teachers’ paychecks. That’s because districts can funnel the additional money toward benefits or hiring more teachers and instructional staff, as long as their average teacher salary is at or above the state’s average. One option would be to give educators a one-time bonus instead of allocating more for salaries, but that wouldn’t up their annual pay. Expect more efforts to improve reporting and transparency around how districts are spending money intended for pay increases.

Gov. Bill Lee (left) and his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn (right), visit Clay County High School in Celina in October.
PHOTO CREDIT: TN.gov

3. ‘Whole child education.’ The Department of Education has been exploring options to enhance the social and emotional well-being of its students since Schwinn identified mental health as the top concern she’s heard from educators. Last fall, she made “whole child” education one of three priorities in Tennessee’s new five-year strategic plan. But the blueprint was sparse on action steps, and Schwinn promised that those details would be revealed when the governor proposes his 2020-21 budget.

Districts have long clamored for more money to hire school-based counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists. But the administration could opt instead for a less expensive rollout of a new character education and citizenship program, since that idea has been lumped into discussions about whole-child investments. However, districts already are required to provide character education, and another iteration would be a letdown for schools desperate for more support personnel.

4. School turnaround. The department’s recent proposal to transition all 30 schools out of the faltering Achievement School District by 2022 has raised another question: Where would they go? Legislative action wouldn’t be required if the schools are returned to their local districts in Memphis and Nashville, where they operated before being taken over by the state for low performance. School operators could apply to keep their charters and, if denied, appeal to the new Tennessee Charter Commission, which could end up housing those schools in its own state-run district.

But Rep. Mark White, who chairs the House Education Committee and co-sponsored legislation last year to create the charter commission, wants charters leaving the achievement district to be entrusted directly to the new body. That change would require legislative action — and stir up debate from numerous lawmakers exasperated with the generally poor performance of state-run schools.

5. Education funding. An important backdrop for all K-12 policy discussions is the state’s level of funding for schools, especially since Tennessee is being sued by districts in Memphis and Nashville over whether it allocates enough money to provide their students with an adequate education.

The case, now in its fifth year, likely will go to trial in 2020. The state spends $9,225 per student and ranks 45th in the nation in per-pupil funding, according to the latest NEA list.

“Tennessee likes to use data to measure how our teachers and schools are doing, but this is one data point that we don’t like to talk about, even when we’re enjoying a time of unprecedented revenue collections,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher organization. Her group is making school funding its No. 1 issue with lawmakers.

Research is increasingly clear that more funding consistently leads to better outcomes for students — higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and sometimes even higher wages as adults. Tennessee now spends about $6 billion on schools out of its annual $38.5 billion budget.