Lee signs $110M Tennessee education package

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has signed into law a $110 million package of bills aimed at addressing pandemic-related learning loss and low student literacy rates and ensuring teachers and districts are not punished based on standardized testing results this year.

In a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol on Wednesday afternoon, Lee signed into law four bills passed by the General Assembly during a four-day special session last month.

“Our decisive action to intervene on behalf of Tennessee students will equip them for success, educating our kids better in the future than before the pandemic,” Lee said in a statement.

The new laws include a requirement that school districts use phonics-based methods to teach reading in kindergarten through third grade. Kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers will be required to take a course in phonics-based instruction and receive other support. Pre-kindergarten through third-grade students also will be required to take a reading screener.

Phonics-based instruction also will be supported by a $100 million literacy initiative announced in January by the Tennessee Department of Education. It will provide resources, training and support networks for teachers and families.

Lawmakers also approved a bill to address Tennessee’s low literacy rates. Before pandemic-related school closures last spring, only 37% of Tennessee third-graders were reading on grade level.

In response, school districts will be required to establish a summer school program for 2021 and 2022, as well as after-school programing throughout the summer, and a four week back-to-school learning camp. A statewide tutoring corps also will be established to provide after-school help to students in need.

Districts will be required to conduct standardized testing this spring to measure the learning accomplished during the pandemic-ridden year. Teachers and school districts will not face accountability measures based on students’ test results.

The package includes $43 million for teacher pay, intended to be used for teacher salary increases.

“I thank Speaker [Cameron Sexton], [Lt. Gov. Randy McNally], and members of the General Assembly for their partnership,” Lee said in a tweet. “These bold interventions will make all the difference in the lives of Tennessee students and families.”

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