NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A special session on education in the Tennessee legislature began Tuesday with Governor Bill Lee addressing lawmakers.

The governor had two main points: he said schools that are still closed for in-person learning need to open immediately and he asked lawmakers to allocate funding to help students recover from significant learning loss.

“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 in his address to the General Assembly. “Kids do better in school, we know that, parents know that, and that’s why I’m so proud of our districts that have kids in school. And to those that remain closed, I would offer this simple encouragement– follow the science.”

Last year, fourth graders in Tennessee ranked 30th in the country for reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That gap has grown significantly this year after most schools were shut down for the pandemic, and as many students remain on a virtual learning schedule.

Reports indicate we could see a 50% drop in reading and a 65% drop in math for third graders heading into fourth grade next year, according to the governor.

“In the long-term, those learning losses mean higher incarceration rates and poverty as adults,” he said.

Governor Lee’s proposals include:

  • A third-grade reading gate, which would mean struggling students are held back in the third grade if they’re not ready to move forward
  • Full-time tutoring, after school and summer learning camps, to get students up to speed
  • Using TCAP testing to track student progress, but the test results will not​ be tied to teacher evaluations
  • Using phonics as the primary form of reading instruction for K through 12 students
  • Pay raises for teachers

“Big challenges require decisive action, which is why we have agreed to meet this week in an extraordinary session. We cannot wait because our students cannot wait,” Lee told the General Assembly.

Some lawmakers say the governor’s proposal is addressing the same issues the state had before the pandemic began and there is not enough funding to tackle the even greater issues now.

“The cleverest ideas aren’t gonna make any difference if we’re not actually supporting our schools in implementation,” District 21 Senator Jeff Yarbro told News 2 after the address. “Right now we spend less on education in Tennessee than almost every state in the country and if you don’t address that issue, you’re building this reform on quicksand.”

Yarbro has also proposed his own bill that would put more funding into the Basic Education Formula for each school to have at least one nurse, one counselor, and staff more teachers.

As for pay raises, the governor has proposed a four percent increase to “the salary component of our funding formula.”

That funding formula is the Basic Education Formula.

The Tennessee Education Association released a statement Friday saying this is nowhere near enough for the amount of extra time and work teachers have put in to teach virtually this year. According to the TEA, the increase will only give each teacher about $570 dollars when they’ve worked an amount closer to $5,700.

News 2 asked Governor Lee about this concern after the address.

“In spite of the economic downturn, we felt it important to provide pay increase to teachers,” Lee said. “The legislature will determine what our final amounts are.”

Teacher pay raises were in the budget in June, but were eliminated due to the “economic crisis,” Lee said.

The TEA estimates that raise was $117 million to salaries and this raise now would be $43 million.

“What has been initially proposed does not do that. Appropriating $200 million — just a fifth of the surplus revenue collected since June – would be more appropriate and still be affordable. A more significant investment will go a long way in recognizing the extraordinary effort of our state’s educators,” TEA President Beth Brown said in a statement.

Yarbro told News 2 he agreed.

“The governor is calling a special session, but is really not putting his money where his mouth is,” Yarbro said.

On January 11, the state reported $715 million dollars in surplus revenue for the five-month of the fiscal year 2020-2021. That’s 3.38% growth.

Overall, the governor’s legislation proposals focus heavily on K through third grades.

When asked how we can help struggling high schoolers who have not been able to teach themselves difficult subjects online, Lee said the best way to help them is to get them back in a classroom with a teacher.

Tennessee’s biggest districts in Nashville and Memphis are still virtual. Lee said these districts need to go back to in person because big cities often have the most low income students, adding those students struggle the most in a virtual learning environment.

News 2 asked Metro Nashville Public Schools their take on the governor’s address to districts that are still closed.

Superintendent Adrienne Battle responded in a statement saying:

“Just this school year, we welcomed Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn to Metro Schools and Julia Green Elementary, where they talked with staff and the students who were there for in-person instruction. So he knows that MNPS was and is working to offer in-person instruction to students who chose it.

The most significant actions Governor Lee could take to encourage in-person instruction would be to implement a statewide mask mandate and increase the vaccine supply to Davidson County. The guidance and scientific advice that came from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and many of our hard-working Tennessee doctors was clear that something so minor as a statewide mask mandate could make a significant difference.

While students may currently be attending school virtually, learning continues to take place. We are committed to providing students with an in-person learning experience when it is safe to do so and look forward to Governor Lee taking any steps to help move our state towards being a place where staff, parents, and students feel safe.”

Adrienne Battle, Superintendent MNPS

The special session on education will continue Wednesday with lawmakers discussing the specific bills at hand.

News 2 digs deeper into how schools are moving forward safely for the new academic year. See how other districts around Middle Tennessee are handling everything from classroom concerns to the future of sports in our special series. Click here to see more.