By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE – Governor Lee wants schools to end remote instruction, return to phonics as a way to teach language skills and proposed remedial programs in an address to the Tennessee state legislature on Tuesday. Lee stated that COVID-19 has created a “sweeping disruption” in education, and that Tennessee’s students are “staring down record learning losses” because students have been “without the routine of learning in a classroom with classmates and with a trusted teacher.”

Lee praised the 145 out of 147 school districts in the state who have resumed in-classroom teaching. The two that have not — Davidson County and Shelby County–are still teaching remotely. Within hours of the meeting, the Democratic caucus issued a strong rebuttal to the implied criticism that Nashville and Memphis were harming students by continuing remote instruction.

“We are disappointed in Gov. Lee’s confrontational tone toward school 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,” read a press release by the Democratic caucus.

Governor Lee used national data to forecast consequences for keeping students out of the classroom.  “Nationally, that looks like a 50 percent reduction in reading proficiency, a 65 percent reduction in math proficiency in 3rd grade students. That sort of forecast is forcing an unacceptable future on our kids,” said Lee.

Governor Lee argued that virtual learning and resulting learning losses may mean higher rates of incarceration and higher rates of poverty in the long term. Lee cited a survey of 20,000 school kids across 9 states, where only 39% of students in grades 5-12 self-reported that they learned a lot almost every day during shut down.

Lee did not address health concerns of exposure to the COVID-19 among teachers and students and the fact that many counties have not yet begun vaccinating teachers.

Lee’s proposed legislation also advocated a return to teaching phonics in the state’s reading programs in elementary school.

“When only 34% of Tennessee students are proficient or advanced readers by the 4th grade – and that’s pre-COVID– something isn’t working and it’s time to get back to the basics,” said Lee.

“We need to teach our kids to read with phonics – that’s the way we learned to read . . . and with this proposal, kindergartners through third grade will be taught phonics as the primary form of reading instruction. We’ve developed a screening tool to help parents and teachers identify a struggling student more quickly. Simple methods like phonics serve our kids better. Commission Schwinn knows it, I know it, and that’s what we should be doing and will be doing in Tennessee,” said Lee.

To enforce reading competency, elementary schools in Tennessee soon will impose a ‘gate’ on students that will stop them from advancing to fourth grade until they pass reading competency tests if a Senate Bill (Intervening to Stop Learning Loss–SB 7002) passes. A companion bill (Building Better Readers with Phonics – SB 7003) also will require instruction in phonics to students in kindergarten through third grade.

Remedial help is proposed in Lee’s SB 7002 which adds new programs to help students falling behind including after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps and summer learning camps, beginning in summer 2021.

Lee also wants an immediate budget bump for teacher pay of 2% overall retroactive to January with a built-in budget line of 4% for teacher pay in July. The Education Committee that met following Lee’s address quizzed Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and determined that teacher pay could actually be less than those percentages because the total pay figure is distributed both to teachers who are budgeted as part of the Basic Education Program funding formula and to other teachers and aides who fall outside of the formal budget.

The Democratic caucus press release criticized the funding formulas as “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.”