(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 27, 2014 — The State Senate approved a wide range of legislation this week, including several key bills aimed at improving education in Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Education and Commerce and Labor Committees have completed their business, joining three other standing Senate Committees which had already closed for the 2014 legislative session. This means that action will shift from committees to the Senate floor during the remaining weeks of the 108th General Assembly, as only the Senate Finance, Government Operations, Judiciary and State and Local Government Committees remain open.
Choice and Opportunity Scholarships — Among key education bills passed this week was the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” This legislation, proposed by Governor Bill Haslam, provides opportunity scholarships for up to 5,000 students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent in academic achievement.
In 2012, a Task Force recommended the scholarships, which are similar to vouchers, be offered to low income students, especially those who are assigned to low-performing public schools. These scholarships can be used in private or religious schools which meet academic requirements set by the state’s Department of Education. The bill stalled last year regarding whether the scholarships should be limited to the lowest five percent of the state’s schools or there should be broader distribution.
As amended, Senate Bill 196 gives priority to students deemed eligible under the original bill proposed last year, with the same accountability measures in place. The schools are required to administer a nationally-normed, end-of-year test to scholarship students. If caps are not met by the priority groups, students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent would be eligible for a scholarship to fill the remaining slots. The number of slots would be expanded to 7,500 in the second year and 10,000 in the third, until it reaches a maximum of 20,000 in year four and thereafter.
Waivers / Traditional Public Schools — State Senators gave final approval to legislation on Monday that would provide traditional public schools with the same flexibility as charter schools with regard to requesting waivers from the commissioner of the state’s Department of Education. Senate Bill 2392 provides the commissioner can grant a waiver as long as it does not interfere with teachers’ due process rights, salaries, benefits or licensure.
Currently, local education agencies (LEA) may apply for a waiver from the State Board of Education’s rules and regulations; however, the commissioner cannot waive certain regulatory or statutory requirements. Senate Bill 2392 authorizes the commissioner to waive any state statute that inhibits the LEA’s ability to meet its goals or comply with its mission to improve student outcomes. The legislation follows passage of the Performing School Districts Flexibility Act in 2013, which gives leeway to school districts who qualify as “high performing school districts.” To qualify, however, districts must meet a majority of requirements that include a 90 percent or above graduation rate, 21 or higher average ACT score, and high or seriously improved TCAP performance. This bill applies the same flexibility to schools across the board as long as the commissioner agrees.
Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act — The Senate gave final approval and sent to the Governor the “Religious Viewpoints and Anti-Discrimination Act” to help ensure our students have the right to voluntarily express a religious viewpoint while attending a K-12 public school. Senate Bill 1793 provides much needed guidance for school officials who have sometimes felt compelled to squash a student’s voluntary religious expression for fear of lawsuits on subjects that are otherwise deemed permissible by the school.
Earlier this year, Tennessee made national news when a 10-year-old student was asked to write about whom she idolized and she chose to write about God. The teacher rejected the student’s chosen subject matter and asked her to redo the assignment. The girl then chose to write about pop singer Michael Jackson, which was then approved by the teacher.
This bill puts a student’s faith-based expressions on a level playing field with secular or other viewpoints in accordance with the First Amendment, which is protected by U.S. Supreme Court rulings. It helps to guarantee that students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.
School officials would be prohibited from discriminating against the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints at “limited public forum” functions in which students are given an opportunity to speak, as long as they can maintain order and it is not disrupting scheduled instructional time. In addition, students may participate in prayer groups, religious clubs, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after the school day “to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other non-curricular activities.” This includes the annual “meet you at the pole” prayer event which is popular in many Tennessee schools.
School Buses — Two bills which extend the use of school buses, as long as they meet additional inspection requirements, have been approved by the Senate Finance Committee. Currently, school buses in Tennessee are allowed to operate up to 15 years with a 200,000 mile limit, whichever comes first, if they pass additional inspections.
Senate Bill 1966 authorizes the use of conventional and Class D school buses until they have reached their 18th year of service. The Commissioner of Safety, through the inspection process, may approve the use of buses for additional years of service beyond the 18th year, if the bus has less than 200,000 recorded miles. The legislation requires school buses which are 16 to 18 years old to be inspected twice annually. It also allows a bus that reaches the 200,000 mile mark during the academic year to be kept in service until the end of the academic year.
The legislation prohibits a bus that is more than 15 years old and purchased from an out-of-state entity from being used, unless it has been in service in Tennessee for at least two years. All buses that have been in service for 15 years or less shall be inspected once annually under the proposal. The bill funds four additional Department of Safety positions this year and two next year to inspect the buses to ensure student safety.
In addition, the Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 1605 to allow school buses to be kept in service with unlimited mileage until they reach their 20th year of service. This legislation requires buses between the age of 15 and 20 years to be inspected twice annually with annual inspections for those 14 years and under. The bill requires all school bus owners to maintain a record of safety and bus maintenance and adds new positions to help ensure inspections are conducted properly by the Department of Safety. It encourages local education agencies to perform oil and coolant analysis and make full use of federal funding to retrofit buses to improve in-cabin air quality and lower emissions.
Other key education bills advancing this week include:
• Senate Bill 2338 which allows a majority of parents in a school performing in lowest five percent to trigger one of three school restructuring models. The models include transformational, which forces the school district to hire a new principal; turnaround, which requires a new principal and replacement of at least 50 percent of the staff; and, public charter school conversion, which calls for parents to identify the sponsor of a proposed charter school. These three options are already available for use by the Commissioner of Education to restructure schools in the lowest five percent under the Race to the Top law. The bill received approval by the Senate Education Committee;
• Senate Bill 417 which prohibits a director of schools from suspending a teacher who is under investigation for more than 90 days, except in criminal investigation cases, a Department of Children’s Services investigation or an internal investigation by a local education agency which might warrant his or her dismissal. State Senators approved the bill on final consideration;
• Senate Bill 2246 which encourages schools to schedule any building maintenance involving harmful substances at a time when students and teachers will not be at school to limit students’ exposure;
• Senate Bill 2115 which permits students who are U.S. Citizens and residents of Tennessee to receive in-state tuition regardless of their parent’s citizenship status. The legislation permits students to receive in-state tuition as long as they are U.S. citizens, have resided in Tennessee for at least one year and graduated from a Category 1, 2 or 3 public or private secondary school in the state. The bill follows the policy set by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that “all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the U.S. and the state wherein they reside.” The bill was approved by the full Senate; and
• Senate Bill 2006 which allows a school system to track specific needs of students of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and children, particularly when their parents deploy. It allows the school system to add a special identifier in the current database that the student is the dependent of a military person in the effort to help meet the student’s education needs. The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee.