Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: Education-Related Legislation

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   111th General Assembly – 2020 Session Education related Legislation

   As schools across the state plan to tackle the challenges of the new school year and begin to re-open, it is important to look at legislation that was passed this year involving education. Tennessee continued its efforts to prioritize education and pass important bills that benefit students across the entire state. Below is a continued list of some of the key pieces of legislation that was passed into law during the 111th General Assembly.

   Commission created to study impact of COVID-19, natural disasters on students — Legislation that I co-sponsored passed this year that examines the short- and long-term systemic efforts that the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters of 2020 have had on the state’s educational systems. The Tennessee Commission of Education Recovery and Innovation is charged with making recommendations to the General Assembly, the State Board of Education, the Department of Education, and the state’s institutions of higher education on strategies to close educational gaps resulting from school closures. They will also recommend ways to modernize the state’s educational structure from kindergarten to career in order to create more flexibility in the delivery of education to students. The commissions’ recommendations will be due not later than January 1, 2022.

  New law ensures transparency in proposed textbooks and instructional materials – State lawmakers approved a measure this year making changes to the state’s Textbook Commission, including a provision to increase transparency in proposed textbooks and instructional materials.  The new law requires publishers make all textbooks and instructional materials proposed for adoption available for inspection by Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and the public online at a central location on the state textbook depository website. The legislation also ensures that the Textbook Commission is independent from the Department of Education in its duties and that all members are vested with the responsibility to appoint the advisory panel of experts who review the materials and make recommendations. In addition, it addresses requests made by LEAs for textbook waivers and sets criteria regarding their approval or denial.

  Truancy Intervention Plan law amended – Legislation was approved to streamline the process to admit a truant student back into school if the student’s parent or guardian is unwilling to cooperate with the school system. Previously, when a student has five or more unexcused absences the school system must place a student in a truancy intervention plan. The plan requires school districts to go through a three-tiered process in order to get a student back in school. The new law passed by the General Assembly this year specifies that if a parent is unwilling to cooperate in a truancy intervention plan under tier one, which is classified as three unexcused absences, the school may refer the student to the juvenile court without having to complete the lengthy three tiered process to reinstate that student in their school.

   New law promotes greater financial stability in budgeting for local boards of education – The General Assembly approved legislation designed to promote financial stability and accuracy for counties setting their budget revenue estimates for their Local Education Agencies (LEAs). In some cases in Tennessee, school boards have used different local revenue estimates than those provided by the county commission to set their budgets. At the recommendation of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office, the new law clarifies that the county legislative body has the duty to make revenue estimates to determine the level of revenue necessary for the county department of education to meet local match and maintenance of effort requirements. The law further clarifies that the LEA shall prepare its budget according to the revenue estimates and determinations made by the county commission. These changes will help county governments and school boards work together regarding fair revenue estimates and budgets.

   Legislation allows students to attend release time courses – Legislation was passed this year amending current law to require a public school, upon request of the parent or the legal guardian, to excuse a student to attend a release timed course for religious moral instruction for up to one hour per day per week. The principal of the public school would determine the classes from which the student may be excused in order to participate in the released timed course, and the student would not be allowed to miss any course that would be subject to an end-of-course examination or other any other state examination. No public funds will be expended to implement or maintain this instructional schedule or to provide necessary transportation.  

  New law to implement statewide child abuse reporting policies in schools approved –Legislation to implement statewide child abuse reporting policies in schools has passed the General Assembly. The new law seeks to bring school district reporting policies in compliance with state law. Under current reporting practices, children are being made to recount their stories two to three times before being brought to a trained official to do the interview. The new standard of reporting will require teachers and school personnel to report suspected abuse or neglect first to the Department of Children’s Services and law enforcement before contacting their supervisor.