Democratic Lawmakers Roll Out Education Bills

Senator Raumesh Abkari has filed a bill to increase the state’s share of teacher salaries to 75%. Representative Harold Love Jr. has sponsored two bills to reduce class sizes and add more k-12 school counselors.

NASHVILLE, TN ­– Democratic members of the General Assembly have filed answers to three education bills passed by Republicans last month with 8 bills to fix the broken Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula that provides state funding to k-12 education.

The measures would boost the state’s share of teacher salaries, reduce class sizes in high-need elementary schools, increase the number of specialists to work with struggling students, and add more counselors, social workers and nurses in every school district. According to the National Education Association, Tennessee ranks 46th in the nation for funding per student. Democrats want to address chronic underfunding of Tennessee public schools.

“If Tennessee were to compete with the state that is closest in spending to us, which is Alabama, we would have to have an additional $560 million investment in our education system,” said Senator Raumesh Abkari. She also said that’s something the Governor and his administration don’t have the will to do.

So Democrats have prepared a package of bills dealing with specific problems in public schools like overcrowding, teacher pay, and special education funding. And a bill by Senator Jeff Yarbro aims to overhaul the Basic Education Program itself that even the bi-partisan committee of the Tennessee State Board of Education thinks is not working.

Democrats say the main reason Tennessee students are getting shortchanged is because the BEP is based on the number of students in each district. While that is supposed to provide adequate support, in many school districts, the formula doesn’t even account for the teaching positions that are required by state law. It falls on local school districts to provide a decent basic education and they must fight for a bigger share of local taxes to make up for chronic state funding shortfalls.

“We want to increase the state’s share of teachers’ salaries,”  Akbari said. The BEP funding formula generates 70% of teacher salaries. The Dems want to raise that to 75%.

“Previously the legislature funded teacher positions at 75% but that was adjusted down a while ago,”Akbari said. The bi-partisan committee of education experts has recommended for years that it readjusted back up but it hasn’t been.

A bill by Senator Heidi Campbell and Representative Harold Love Jr. would reduce class sizes for high-need elementary schools where 50% of third graders are not reading at grade level.

“Our own State Board of Education recommended that we make substantive changes to address problems with the formula and so several of the bills we filed came directly from their recommendations,” Campbell said.

They include increased funding for intervention specialists and increasing the number of nurses, counselors, and social workers in k-12 schools.

Campbell agrees with Republicans that too many 3rd-graders are not reading at grade level. One of the three Republican bills passed last month requires 3rd graders who don’t pass a reading assessment to attend summer school, take remedial reading classes, or get held back a year. That won’t solve the problem.

“Research definitively tells us that 50% of students who repeat a grade don’t do better the second time, and 25% actually do worse. Retention is strongly associated with the dropout rate in later years,” Campbell said.

“We are likely to see roughly 65% of 3rd graders held back in this coming year,” said Campbell. “My colleagues and I believe that rather than hold these students back and increase the likelihood that they won’t complete high school, it’s time we started investing in our elementary school children.”

Rep. Gloria Johnson noted that a $250 million mental health fund was cut last year and put into the $1.45 billion rainy day fund. She said that money could provide the support services Tennessee families need now.

But it’s not likely to happen. Governor Lee wants to add $50 million to the rainy day fund because budgets can go down. “We may need to utilize the reserve in the future, hence our priority to continue to invest in the fund,” Lee said.

Senator Jeff Yarbro likened the move to “stuffing money in the couch” and said Lee is just making excuses. “Because for the thousands of people who lost their job or lost their health insurance or are at risk of losing their home, those people need support and stability right now,” Yarbro said.