This OpEd also appeared in The Tennessean on March 19, 2021

Rushed legislation fails to allocate resources based on factual data focusing on students who truly struggle to read on grade level.

Many politicians over the last several years have used the phrase “never let a crisis go to waste” in their push for various initiatives. This year Tennessee politicians have overstated a learning crisis in order to pass laws that will disrupt the lives of Tennessee families and place even more burdens on local taxpayers.

During the January 2021 special session of the Tennessee General Assembly, the legislature rushed through several bills without adequate input from educators and school administrators.

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn led a majority of the General Assembly to believe that most students in Tennessee demonstrated minimal literacy knowledge and skills, and as a result, key bills were passed using misleading statistics. The Commissioner created the perception of a crisis to push through questionable policy and programs that will enrich preferred education vendors, but disrupt the lives of many students and families.

Misleading statistics

One law passed during special session, the Tennessee Literacy Success Act, which has garnered criticism from literacy experts, includes these two statistics that were repeated several times as the bill made its way through the legislature:

In 2019, Tennessee’s third-grade English language arts proficiency rate was 36.9%.

In 2019, Tennessee’s eighth-grade English language arts proficiency rate was 27.1%.

It is likely that most legislators reading or hearing those statistics would do some quick math and assume that around 63% of third-graders and 73% of eighth-graders are reading below grade level in Tennessee.

In fact, according to the state’s 2019 TNReady data, less than 20% (19.65%) of students in grades three through eight are reading below grade level. The commissioner’s proficiency percentages strategically did not include the 45.5% of students in those grades who score in a grading category known as “approaching.” A student in this category is not reading below grade level. 

These same misleading statistics were also used to pass a bill that will require school districts across the state to retain or “hold back” an expected 60% of third-graders starting in 2023.

Not only will the costs of this change be astronomical to taxpayers, but the unnecessary retention will also be extremely damaging to the students who are held back.

Summer school and after-school programs

Starting this summer, all 147 Tennessee school districts will be required to provide summer school classes and after-school programs for students not reading at the level the state has determined is required to advance to the next grade.

Thousands of students could be required to attend summer school and an after-school program for seven and half hours Monday through Friday for six weeks. If you were planning a vacation for your family or a summer camp for your child, you might want to wait to see how your student performs on this year’s TNReady exam. If they don’t do well, they could be sitting in a classroom all day, five days a week for most of the summer.

These new laws will also saddle local taxpayers with the responsibility of funding new mandates, because the state has not appropriated enough money to pay for the ongoing costs of the programs and policies pushed through by Schwinn. The state has allocated only $67 million for these programs, and school districts around the state are beginning to realize that this is not nearly enough to cover the cost of these new summer programs. The money runs out after this summer, but the programs must continue afterward. Guess who pays for almost all of the cost of these new programs starting next year? Local taxpayers.

Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Schwinn has used statistics to paint a picture of a situation that is not nearly as dire as she led the General Assembly to believe. 

Tennessee cannot afford to delve into lies when it comes to flunking over half of our third-graders and costing our school districts millions in yet another underfunded and unproven state mandate. Resources must be allocated based on factual data focusing on students who truly struggle to read on grade level.

Please call or write your state legislators and demand honesty in legislation. If lawmakers truly want to help Tennessee’s schoolchildren, then they will implement a fully funded literacy program that targets struggling students and provides proven results. Our students deserve nothing less.

The Tennessee Public Education Coalition is a statewide grassroots organization of teachers, parents and community members advocating for better public education in Tennessee.

Knoxville: Tanya Coats, Lance McCold, Jennifer Owen

Nashville: Amy Frogge, Jill Speering

Franklin: Brad Fiscus, Dr. Tammy Lipsey

Dickson: Larry Proffitt

Johnson City: Paula Treece

Chattanooga: Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd III

Memphis: Charles Everett, Jerri Green

Germantown: Terri Harris

Hendersonville: Sibyl Reagan

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