With a new governor, a new education commissioner, and new lawmakers steering school policy, 2019 could be a big year for education in the Tennessee statehouse.
Exactly what’s coming isn’t yet clear, although recent hires by gov.-elect Bill Lee offer some possible clues. The newly elected lawmakers haven’t yet been sworn in, and a new education commissioner still hasn’t been named.
Still, we know that some issues will be on the table when the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 8. Here’s what we’ll be looking out for. As always, let us know what you think we should be watching at email@example.com
1. New governor and legislature take charge
Lee will take office on Jan. 19. He’s taking the reins from Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican who once said he most wanted to be remembered for what he did to improve education. Haslam led the state for eight years, the maximum allowed.
Lee has promised “fresh ideas” but offered few specifics about his education plans, though it’s clear that he’s pro-voucher and open to making changes on testing. You can read his ideas in his own words here.
In the coming weeks, Lee is expected to appoint an education commissioner, which will offer big insights into the direction he wants to take the state’s schools. His priorities for his first proposed state budget also will be telling — for instance, if he includes more money for school safety as Haslam did last year, or seeks to increase teacher pay or beef up career and technical education, two priorities discussed on the campaign trail.
Lee will need support from the legislature to make many changes. How readily that might come is not yet clear: At least a fourth of the General Assembly’s members will be new to Capitol Hill.
Among those who did not seek reelection were the leaders of three of four House education panels — all East Tennessee Republicans who have wielded considerable power in controlling the flow of bills in their committees or subcommittee. Their successors will be chosen by the new House speaker, likely to be Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin who has the blessing of the majority caucus. The speaker also will decide if he wants to keep or change the current two-committee structure for education to handle the large volume of bills focused on education.
2. The voucher debate continues, with powerful new allies
Tennessee lawmakers have toyed for years with the idea of starting a school voucher program, which would allow families to use taxpayer money for private school tuition or services. But while such a program came close to passing in 2016, an unlikely coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have consistently fended off such legislation. (One exception: A voucher program for some students with disabilities launched in 2017).
One question now is how the makeup of the new legislature will play out on vouchers or bills for voucher-like programs like tuition tax credits.
Another question is how and when Lee, who campaigned actively for more school options for Tennessee families, will push the issue. Will he try to get a voucher program approved, or will he hold off until later in his administration when he’s got his first budget and legislative session under his belt? Either way, he has several of the state’s strongest voucher advocates in his corner, having hired the former Tennessee director of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children as his policy director and the former leader of another pro-voucher group as his legislative director.
3. Another year of TNReady, with changes looming
After three years of struggles, Tennessee’s embattled state test, TNReady, will be back this spring for most students. A new round of testing will start in the shadow of a recent state audit of the testing program and 1,700 pages of mostly negative feedback from teachers about its administration.
The audit was released as Tennessee prepares to invite more companies to submit proposals to take over TNReady testing beginning this fall. That request for proposals, which initially was to be released in late 2018, is now set for early 2019 and will include requirements for both online and paper testing.
Tennessee’s most recent testing woes – namely computer glitches – have largely been blamed on testing company Questar. But the audit also criticized the education department for inadequate oversight of the program and said the push to switch to online testing “may have been overly ambitious.”
Also at issue is whether Lee’s administration will move to further reduce testing that was central to Tennessee’s accountability system under Haslam’s administration. The education department already dropped two end-of-course exams for high schoolers this school year in its most significant reduction of state testing in recent years.
4. State funding lawsuit could see its day in court
One looming issue will advance first outside of the legislature. A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is closer to trial than it has ever been, with a tentative start date set for April in Davidson County Chancery Court. If successful, the lawsuit could ultimately force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which already is almost at $5 billion out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.
The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation in 2017.
So, as lawmakers look to draft a new budget this year with the possibility of more money for teacher pay, they’ll keep an eye on the bigger question of whether state funding for schools is adequate. That’s a different question from two earlier cases that ended up at the Tennessee Supreme Court and led to smaller and rural school systems receiving a greater share of school funding than they previously were getting.