Tennessee considers new commission to help education rebound from the coronavirus

Rep. Bill Dunn
Rep. Bill Dunn is carrying legislation that would create a nine-member Commission on Education Recovery and Innovation in response to the coronavirus. The Knoxville Republican and speaker pro tempore introduced the proposal on Tuesday. (Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat)

Tennessee legislative leaders want to create an education commission to develop recovery plans from the coronavirus in the face of learning setbacks for school children, disruptions to university life, and the likelihood of more school closures next year.

The nine-member commission would report its findings to the legislature by January 1. The body also would generate subsequent plans to help the state navigate the public health emergency in both K-12 and higher education, as well as a blueprint for delivering high-quality education the next time an emergency prompts a prolonged shutdown of schools

Gov. Bill Lee, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton would appoint three members each to the new Commission on Education Recovery and Innovation. 

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville and Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville, breezed through a House education subcommittee on Tuesday and appears to be on the fast track for the governor’s signature.

Introduced on lawmakers’ first day back to the Capitol since their emergency recess in March, the bill marks the legislature’s first proactive measure to guide changes since the pandemic and deadly spring tornadoes wreaked havoc to Tennessee schools. 

In parts of Tennessee, school buildings have been closed for almost a third of the school year due to the coronavirus, bad weather, and the flu.

The legislation acknowledges that catching students up will require expertise, aggressive planning, and political will and could take years. It also follows a playbook used by states like New York and Michigan that have named special panels to reimagine education or reopen schools.

“This would allow our leadership to come up with the best team to look at what has happened, what it has done to us, and then in the future how best to address it,” Dunn told the House K-12 subcommittee.

Later, the Knoxville Republican said expertise is needed because “we’re dealing with something we’ve never dealt with before. We need a commission that can focus on the big picture and report back to us.”

Among likely major topics would be technology and internet needs for remote learning and how to address learning loss. “This should be a student-centered endeavor,” Dunn said.

Dunn didn’t have a timetable to launch but expects the commission would begin work quickly after being assembled.

“Everybody recognizes we’ve got to have a group like this,” he said. 

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White endorsed the body as a way to “make sure we don’t stumble” during a critical time.

“We’ve come so far in Tennessee in education, and then we’re hit with this COVID-19,” the Memphis Republican told the subcommittee, citing challenges with virtual education and gaps in access to digital devices and Wi-Fi.

“We need some help. I think this will be a good body that we can use,” White said.

In a related development, Commissioner Penny Schwinn announced leadership changes Tuesday designed to help the state education department respond better to challenges presented by COVID-19.  

 Effective June 1, Sam Pearcy will move from chief operating officer to deputy commissioner of operations; Chief of Districts and Schools Eve Carney will oversee special student populations; Chief of College, Career, and Technical Education Jean Luna will lead the state’s whole child initiative; and communications chief Chelsea Crawford will become chief of staff, replacing Rebeccah Shah, who is returning with her family to Texas.

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