Capitol Report From State Rep. Greg Vital For March 1

  • Friday, March 1, 2024

House advances school choice, bolsters public education

Plan gives families the power to use their tax dollars to choose the best school that meets the needs of their child

House Republicans this week unveiled a sweeping proposal to improve education in Tennessee by expanding school choice opportunities for families and strengthening existing public schools statewide.

House Bill 1183, as amended, represents the culmination of months of diligent work by the chairs of the House education committees to ensure the needs of every student are met. The legislation advanced out of the K-12 Subcommittee on Tuesday after more than two hours of discussion.

“We have been listening to our teachers, our superintendents and our students all across the state,” said State Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who is guiding passage of the bill. “This legislation before us is an opportunity to rethink education in our state.”

The proposal would establish the Education Freedom Scholarships Act (EFSA), giving parents the power to use their tax dollars to choose the best school that meets the needs of their child.

A total of 20,000 scholarships would be available to families for the 2024-25 school year. Priority would be given to students who are currently eligible for an Education Savings Account followed by those from households at or below 400 percent and 500 percent of the federal poverty level respectively. Recipients must be U.S. citizens and not enrolled in a homeschool program.

Growth of the EFSA program would be limited to 20 percent of the number of scholarships awarded during the previous year. The Department of Education would also be required to submit an annual report on the utilization of the scholarships.

“We’ve put caps on the growth of this to make sure that if it grows, it grows sensibly (and) it grows in a way that the General Assembly can afford as it moves forward,” said State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka. “It is driven by usage.”

Additional funding, more flexibility for public schools

Tennessee public schools will also benefit from House Bill 1183 through additional funding, reductions in testing and evaluations along with increased flexibility in various other areas.

“The bulk of this bill is what we’re trying to do for our public schools, because 90 percent of our children go to public schools,” White said. “We are trying to build up what our public schools are doing.”

The General Assembly in 2022 approved the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act, which overhauled the way the state funds education to prioritize the individual needs of students. The proposed base funding for each public school student in Tennessee for the 2024-25 school year is $7,075.

With House Bill 1183, the weighted allocation per student in small districts would increase by 3 percent while the amount for each student in sparse districts would increase by 1 percent. There would also be $75 in additional funding per student to address local school infrastructure needs.

Additionally, the state would increase its health care plan contribution for districts from 45 percent to 60 percent. This would amount to an estimated $160 million in additional funding during the first year for districts to use at their discretion. The legislation would also reduce the number of K-12 standardized tests annually and align them more to federal requirements, adding approximately 300 hours of instructional time back into the classroom.

“Time is the most valuable asset for our teachers,” Cepicky said. “If we can put more time into the classroom and still be able to gather the data we need to make sure our students are progressing, we all win.”

Higher-performing teachers would be evaluated less frequently and license recertifications would occur every eight years instead of every five years under the proposal. Districts would also have increased flexibility regarding promoting students in grades 4 through 8.

Other highlights of the legislation include:

· Protecting public school scores from being affected by late-transferring students

· Flexibility for districts to choose either a traditional 180-day school year or equivalent hours-based schedule

· Increasing district improvement plan submissions to every three years

· Preventing athletic recruiting by aligning with current TSSAA policies regarding transfer eligibility

· Dissolving the Achievement School District in 2026

House Bill 1183 is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 6.

Hunger-free campus grants proposed for higher education institutions

Legislation that would help combat hunger at universities and community colleges across the state is moving through the House this week.

House Bill 1914, introduced by State Rep. Michael Hale, R-Smithville, would create a hunger-free campus grant program to help higher education institutions provide food to their students.

Eligible schools must have an established food pantry for students or partner with a community food pantry that is accessible to students. They must also form a “Hunger Task Force” that includes at least two students who will examine the need and best practices for food insecurity on campus.

A report by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission showed that campus administrators estimate 30 percent of students experience food insecurity.

“Our goal is to make food insecurity a thing of the past. While this is not the end-all solution, it is a step in the right direction,” Hale said.

When a campus is awarded grant funds, they must develop a student meal credit donation program, allocate funding for a meal voucher program or provide financial assistance to its food pantry or partner pantry. They must also raise awareness of community and campus resources for students facing food insecurity.

Schools will have to submit an annual report to the Education Administration Committee outlining its efforts to address food insecurity, demographics and best practices implemented.

House Bill 1914 advanced out of the Higher Education Subcommittee this week and is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on March 6.

House advances Print Disability Absentee Voting Act

A bill to make voting more accessible for visually impaired Tennesseans advanced out of the Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee this week.

House Bill 2293, also known as the Print Disability Absentee Voting Act, creates a process for an accessible electronically-delivered ballot to be delivered to Tennesseans with a print disability that impairs their ability to read, write and use printed materials.

“Voting shouldn’t be a burden on any citizen with a disability,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Elaine Davis, R-Knoxville. "This legislation preserves election integrity while providing an accessible ballot for blind Tennesseans to securely and privately cast their ballots."

The legislation would allow residents who are visually impaired to request an electronically-delivered ballot online through the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website. The use of electronic or digital signatures would not be permitted.

House Bill 2293 is scheduled to be heard in the Local Government Committee on March 5. If approved, the new law would take effect Aug. 2.

Resolution urges state cooperation to fight human trafficking

A resolution urging interstate cooperation to fight human trafficking was unanimously approved by the House chamber this week.

House Joint Resolution 798, sponsored by State Rep. Jake McCalmon, R-Franklin, encourages Gov. Bill Lee to work with necessary law enforcement agencies and neighboring states to identify and prosecute individuals and organizations engaged in child and human trafficking.

"The Biden administration has enabled criminals to enslave and exploit children by refusing to secure our border,” McCalmon said. “Tennessee Republicans will work together with our neighboring states to prevent further victimization. Through cooperation and communication, the evil individuals supporting and facilitating human trafficking can be stopped.”

There were 518 reports of minor sex trafficking in the state of Tennessee as of Nov. 5, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

House approves bill to increase private school safety

The House of Representatives on Monday passed legislation aimed at increasing safety at more private schools in Tennessee.

House Bill 1631, sponsored by State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, allows a private school with students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade to adopt a handgun carry policy for its campus.

“All of our children in public school or private school deserve to be protected,” Bulso said Monday. “The most dangerous place to be in Tennessee, or any other state in this country, is in a gun free zone, and… if private schools want to have an armed response at the school to protect children, they should have that ability.”

Existing state law only allows K-12 private schools to establish a handgun carry policy. The companion version of House Bill 1631 is still advancing through the Senate.

Bill would improve school traffic safety statewide

The House this week advanced legislation to improve traffic safety at schools in Tennessee.

House Bill 1623, sponsored by State Rep. Michael Hale, R-Smithville, would allow cities and counties to hire employees or appoint volunteers to direct traffic on public roads within a school zone.

Existing school traffic safety regulations are “kind of like the Wild West,” said Hale, who added the proposed legislation would bring more uniformity statewide.

Anyone who served as a traffic director would be required to undergo training and use the appropriate safety apparel and equipment. The legislation would apply at schools only during the times necessary for picking up and dropping off students.

Drivers who disobeyed traffic warnings within the marked school zone could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $50.

House Bill 1623 is scheduled to be heard in the Transportation Committee on March 5.

Legislation makes hospital records more accessible for families

The Tennessee House of Representatives last week passed legislation to make hospital records more accessible to a patient’s immediate family members in certain circumstances.

House Bill 1639, filed by State Rep. Jerome Moon, R-Maryville, ensures that if a patient dies without an authorized representative, their surviving spouse, child or parent can obtain their medical records from a hospital or other licensed health care facility in the state without the need for legal intervention.

“Medical emergencies often occur unexpectedly, leaving patients with little or no time to prepare,” Moon said. “Grieving families should not have to worry about dealing with additional government bureaucracy in order to obtain the medical records of their loved one. This legislation ensures these documents can be provided in certain cases without the need for potentially costly legal proceedings. I appreciate my colleagues in the House for their support of this bill.”

A deceased patient’s hospital records currently by law can only be provided to their authorized representative who has been named by a court. The companion version of House Bill 1639 is still advancing through the Senate. If approved, the new law would take effect July 1.

Blockchain Basics Act creates framework for mining

The Business and Utilities Subcommittee this week advanced legislation to address blockchain mining in Tennessee.

House Bill 2309, also known as the Blockchain Basics Act, would allow digital asset mining businesses to operate in areas zoned for industrial use. The legislation also ensures individuals can engage in the practice at their home if operated in compliance with certain regulations.

A blockchain is a system that records cryptocurrency transactions and tracks assets. Digital asset mining involves using a computer for the purpose of securing a blockchain network and generating a controllable electronic record producing digital assets.

“Digital asset mining is a big business in Tennessee,” said bill sponsor State Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville. “We must create a regulatory framework that helps the mining process thrive while also protecting surrounding communities from excessive noise and other serious issues. This is proactive legislation that will welcome the digital asset industry to Tennessee with proper guardrails.”

Local governments would still be allowed to set requirements in industrial areas, including noise regulations. However, they could not ban digital asset mining, change the zoning of existing mining facilities or set noise limits specific to digital asset mining. House Bill 2309 is scheduled to be heard in the Commerce Committee on March 5.

Tennessee Businesses Against Trafficking program launches

Members of the Tennessee General Assembly this week joined Secretary of State Tre Hargett and community advocates for the launch of a new initiative to combat human trafficking statewide.

Created through the passage of legislation in 2023, Tennessee Businesses Against Trafficking engages corporations and private entities in voluntary efforts to identify, prevent and combat human trafficking in communities across the state. Participants will be able to identify the warning signs of trafficking and assist in the reporting of suspected criminal activity to the authorities.

“Through Tennessee Businesses Against Trafficking, businesses will be effective partners in the ongoing fight against trafficking crimes,” said State Rep. Debra Moody, R-Covington. “While we have made considerable progress in Tennessee, we must all continue to do our part and stand with victims, survivors and their families.”

Participating businesses will adopt a zero-tolerance policy and participate in training, public awareness and education campaigns. They will also encourage employees to participate and share best practices that effectively combat human trafficking with the Secretary of State’s office.

Human trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal industry in the United States, only behind drug trafficking, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. There have been cases of human trafficking crimes reported in all 95 Tennessee counties. Additional information about Tennessee Businesses Against Trafficking, including how to join the program, can be found online at tbat.tnsos.gov.

Briefly…

School firearm safety: The House chamber on Thursday passed legislation to expand firearm safety education in Tennessee public schools. House Bill 2882, sponsored by State Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, would provide students with age and grade appropriate instruction on firearm safety as part of the existing safety training currently offered in public schools. The curriculum would include safe storage information, how to identify a firearm, the safety risks associated with them and to notify an adult if one is found. The legislation would prohibit the use live firearms and ammunition as part of the curriculum. Instruction would also be required to remain neutral on political and gun-related issues. The companion version of House Bill 2282 is still advancing through the Senate.

Political flags in the classroom: The House chamber on Monday approved legislation to ensure Tennessee students are not indoctrinated by political flags in the classroom. House Bill 1605, sponsored by State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, would prohibit certain flags from being displayed in public schools while allowing flags with local, state, national, world and historical significance. The companion version of the bill is still advancing through the Senate.

Animal abuse: The General Assembly this week passed legislation to allow veterinarians to report suspected animal cruelty in Tennessee. House Bill 2079, sponsored by State Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, ensures veterinarians can testify in judicial proceedings regarding an animal’s care without violating veterinarian-client-patient confidentiality. It also provides immunity from any breach of confidentiality if they are acting in good faith reporting the suspected abuse. The bill now heads to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to be signed into law.

Maternity care access: The Insurance Subcommittee this week advanced legislation that to increase support for expectant mothers in rural areas. House Bill 2461, sponsored by State Rep. Elaine Davis, R-Knoxville, will allow TennCare to reimburse patients for remote ultrasound and fetal nonstress tests in residences and other off-site locations. House Bill 2461 is scheduled to be heard in the Insurance Committee on March 5.

United Nations: The Public Service Committee this week advanced a resolution urging the United States to withdraw from the United Nations. House Joint Resolution 849, sponsored by State Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, highlights the discrepancies between the U.N.’s agenda and what the policy goals of the U.S. should be, in addition to the disproportionately large American contribution to the organization. The resolution urges Congress and the president to instead strengthen relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. House Joint Resolution 849 is scheduled to be heard in the State Government Committee on March 6.

Child abuse: The Criminal Justice Subcommittee this week passed legislation to increase the punishment for child abuse in Tennessee. House Bill 1905, sponsored by State Rep. Jake McCalmon, R-Franklin, would make it a Class E felony to knowingly treat a child under 18 in a way that causes them to be injured. The legislation is scheduled to be heard in the Criminal Justice Committee on March 5.

Misdemeanor sentencingHouse Bill 1920, filed by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, would extend the percentage of a misdemeanor sentence that a court may require a defendant to serve from 70 percent to 100 percent. As it stands, the maximum percentage is 75 percent time served, and this bill would give local judges flexibility, allowing them to make the best decision for the defendant and their communities. House Bill 1920 is scheduled to be heard by the Criminal Justice Committee on March 5.

Expulsions: The House chamber this week approved House Bill 2716, filed by State Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, which would prevent a member of the General Assembly from being reappointed to their seat if they were expelled. It would not prevent the expelled member from being reelected. Two separate proposed amendments to the state constitution have also been filed regarding expulsions. House Joint Resolution 706 by State Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville, would prevent a member from returning to the General Assembly for four years if they were expelled. It is scheduled to be heard in the Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee on March 6. House Joint Resolution 797 by State Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, would prevent an expelled member from ever being reelected, reappointed or employed by the General Assembly. It is scheduled to be heard in the State Government Committee on March 6.

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