Tennessee seeks to salvage literacy initiative during budget crisis — and use coronavirus relief money to pay for it

A switch to phonics-based reading instruction is the aim of legislation that has resurfaced in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Three months after Gov. Bill Lee tabled his comprehensive literacy initiative because of an impending budget crisis, a revised reading proposal has resurfaced and is advancing in the Tennessee General Assembly.

But legislators’ expectations to use federal coronavirus relief funding to cover next year’s $36.5 million cost is at odds with the state education department’s plans for that one-time money. And it’s uncertain whether relief funds at the governor’s disposal are available, given all of the needs spurred by the pandemic.

How to pay for the switch to phonics-based reading instruction appears to be all that stands in the way of changing how Tennessee’s youngest students learn to decode words on a page, based on decades of research.

“We’re on the precipice of something really, really big in Tennessee,” said Rep. Scott Cepicky, who has helped to craft the legislation. It’s modeled on changes that helped Mississippi become the nation’s only state to post significant reading gains on the latest national test known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The House Education Committee voted 18-6 to approve a scaled-down literacy bill on Thursday, including a switch to phonics-based reading standards. The initiative would train current and future teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade on that approach and require participating districts to screen their youngest students for reading development. 

The proposal aims to attack Tennessee’s stubbornly low reading rate and would prohibit third-graders from being promoted if they can’t read and haven’t received extra local instruction and support beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

No committee members questioned the goal of improving literacy, but several challenged the timing. The legislature must make deep budget cuts over the next month to offset plummeting revenues and a shortfall estimated at between $500 million and $1.7 billion.

“It feels like my employer just gave me a pink slip, and I went out and bought a new car,” said Rep. Jason Hodges, a Clarksville Democrat, of GOP efforts to jumpstart the initiative.

But Chairman Mark White and Cepicky said the money could come from several pots of federal funding coming to Tennessee.

“In crisis, there’s opportunity,” said Cepicky, a Republican from Columbia. “The CARES Act gives us some flexibility here.”

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But on Friday, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn presented her department’s spending plan for $26 million approved last week by the U.S. Department of Education under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Half of the department’s allocation would pay for technology to support remote learning statewide. The rest would go toward a variety of needs such as competitive grants to help school districts innovate, a remote learning partnership with PBS television, support for student mental health needs and students with disabilities, and leadership development in a fast-changing teaching and learning environment.

“The U.S. Department of Education said the fund is for the state agency and the local education agencies to provide emergency relief to address the impact that COVID-19 has had on our districts,” Schwinn told the state Board of Education in her presentation.

“Certainly, we will continue to watch and see what the legislature ends up approving” on literacy, she added.

Most of the first-year cost of the Tennessee Literacy Success Act would pay for training for K-5 teachers on the new reading approach. It also would cover the cost of developing a test to screen students on their progress. Another $4 million would be needed annually to continue the program.

Local districts would share a cost as well, at a time when local budgets are under significant stress. Fiscal experts estimate a statewide local cost of $24 million in the first year and $14.2 million annually afterward to pay for aligned textbooks and instructional materials and ongoing coaching and support.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, said his school district is already slashing its budget while trying to invest in technology and distance learning. He questioned whether federal coronavirus relief can be used “like it’s Monopoly money.”

But White argued that reading is foundational to learning and should be prioritized, even amid a pandemic.

“I can’t recall how many times in this committee we’ve [asked] why do only 34% of our kids read on grade level by third grade. This is an honest attempt to try to start addressing that,” said the Memphis Republican, adding that the governor supports the revised measure.

After COVID-19 hit shuttered schools nationwide, a survey of district leaders across Tennessee identified technology and internet access for students as the most significant challenges they face in a new learning and teaching environment. Only 10 out of the state’s 147 districts reported having a computer for each student to take home, with 80% needing better internet access for their students.

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The survey — which helped guide the education department’s plan for its CARES spending — showed other district priorities are finding ways to serve special populations like English language learners and students with disabilities; providing mental health services for students; and giving their teachers and leaders professional development for remote instruction.

The literacy bill now awaits a recommendation from the House Government Operations Committee before heading to the chamber’s finance panel. That’s where its fiscal note will be scrutinized as the legislature also figures out where to cut the state’s $39 billion budget.

“I don’t want people to get bogged down on the money,” Cepicky said later. “That’s the job of finance. Our job is to pass legislation to help students be the best they can, and I believe we’ve done that.”

A spokesman for Lee said the governor supports the bill but did not answer whether he would use discretionary CARES funding to pay for it.

“We know that literacy is foundational to a child’s education, and we will continue to engage with the legislature in pursuing solutions that will dramatically raise literacy outcomes for Tennessee children,” said press secretary Gillum Ferguson.

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