Governor Bill Lee gives his 5th State of the State Speech on Monday. He will certainly mention education. It is unclear how much he will speak on this critical subject. His focus will likely be on transportation and infrastructure.
School safety may be one focus area. School security will remain a persistent problem for policymakers. Tennessee has done a relatively good job in this area. But vigilance is always needed. We look forward to seeing how Governor Lee plans to keep school personnel and students safe. School safety is a community issue, and we need at least one SRO in every school in our state. We need to partner with community groups and access the $250 million mental health fund we have already created.
Probably the most talked about issue in education is the state’s 3rd Grade Retention law. The unskilled, uneducated, and illiterate face impossible odds in our world. Reading, Writing, and Basic Math are needed for survival.
We have several suggestions for Governor Lee. One is to revisit our standards. Simply put, we all know we have too many. Changes in the retention law are unlikely. However, around 15 bills have already been filed to address concerns in Tennessee’s education law. It is expected that the House Education Committee will review all legislation and create one bill of proposed changes.
The state needs to provide the necessary funding and support for K-2 students before even discussing student retention. Before determining interventions, we need to ensure that our K-2 students are on track earlier than third grade.
We must move summer school and enrichment back into kindergarten through third grade and expand tutoring. We need to give teachers more control over the classrooms to identify kids who are struggling and give students more support to be successful. We also know data must be tracked more effectively and be available to policymakers and stakeholders to judge the quality and reliability of any intervention.
The state needs to take a hard look at school readiness. Data by the Tennessee Comptroller shows that students who entered kindergarten at six or older scored about 10 percent higher on the third-grade English Language Arts test than their peers who started school at age five or under. That statistic is significant.
The Governor could highlight the very successful Grow Your Own model for strengthening the teacher pipeline. We must admit that fewer people are willing to be teachers. We must continue work to expand that number. The Governor and the Tennessee General Assembly must focus on legislation that helps recruit both new educators and retain existing educators. We need to look at the use of licensure exams and other barriers that limit educators.
As Chairman Mark White has suggested and we have advocated for, the state must consider paying for an education degree in return for teaching. For educators, retention is critical. We must look at strategies to keep veteran teachers, even beyond thirty years. That means we must continue to seek additional benefits, starting salaries, and salary increases to keep educators in the field.
We also must continue to address student discipline and excessive teacher workload. We should examine the burden on educators in the name of accountability and over-testing of students. We should focus on increased funding for out-of-pocket expenses by teachers and look to assist with childcare stipends for educators with young children. Job sharing for our educators is a valuable option that would benefit young mothers and retired educators alike. These are ideas the Governor could put forth in his speech and they would be well received by educators across the state.
A strong educational system is essential to the functioning of a democracy, and our future. An engaging and challenging education is the proven path to prosperity and a life-long love of learning. The most effective vision for K-12 education in Tennessee is one that embraces local control of education and listens to those educating our children and engages with parents and families. We look forward to seeing how many of these issues Governor Lee addresses in the state of the state.
JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee