Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee spoke in Memphis on Saturday (Nov. 5) at Immaculate Conception Cathedral during the funeral service for long-serving State Rep. Barbara Cooper, a retired Memphis City Schools teacher revered as a tireless champion for Memphis students. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)
TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

So, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will remain the head of state government after overwhelmingly winning a second term Tuesday (Nov. 8).

Winning a second term was expected. The question was how big his margin of victory would be.

The trajectory he has established regarding the education of children attending public schools in our state will continue for the near future.

He promised to make education the “centerpiece” of his second term in office. But what does that look like going forward?

First, the pandemic and its lingering effects still are the most pressing issue facing K-12 educators in Tennessee and throughout the nation.

Educators are grappling with how best to recover from the learning loss experienced during one of the most devastating public health crises in modern history.

To address this formidable issue, Gov. Lee and his administration implemented various policy changes, programs, and strategies, such as summer learning camps and targeted interventions for literacy.

The latest test scores suggest that academic performance is returning to pre-pandemic levels in almost all school districts across the state, including Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

But adequately funding our schools will continue to be an issue for Lee’s administration.

Tennessee is home to one of the nation’s most poorly funded educational systems. Our state ranked 45th in the nation in per-pupil spending.

Even though our funding formula has been recently revised, the governor and General Assembly must continue tweaking the funding process to ensure school districts like ours have the necessary resources to keep our children safe, healthy, and well-educated.

Many in the legislature continue to feel our current system of funding schools needs to be overhauled and create one that takes into consideration the economies across various communities and the different resources necessary for each district to thrive.

I concur.

Last year, the governor made an election-year pledge to add one billion dollars to the state’s educational budget, but, of course, that promise failed to materialize.

We will see if he continues to pursue that pledge in his new term.

One of the most controversial decisions Lee’s administration made during his first term, regarding the education of our children, was his support for the new student retention law.

The new state law reads as follows, “A student in the third grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is determined to be proficient in English-Language Arts (ELA) based on the student’s achieving a performance level rating of ‘on-track’ or ‘mastered’ on the student’s most recent (TCAP) test.”

Keep in mind third grade is the year students are no longer “learning to read” but begin “reading to learn.”

Therefore, if students are not reading on grade level by the time they reach the third grade, they will struggle to understand more than half of the curriculum taught to them during their remaining years in school.

The governor’s solution? Keep them in third grade until they learn to read.

There is no conclusive evidence that grade retention significantly improves third graders’ academic performance.

In fact, grade retention in early elementary school has a plethora of adverse effects associated with it.

For example, grade retention is commonly associated with poor social adjustment, negative attitudes toward school, disruptive behavior, and low school attendance.

In 2019, only 22.8 percent of district third graders performed at the proficient or higher level in reading. In the 2021-2022 school year, only 23.5 percent performed at that level.

This new law could have a devastating effect on our school system at so many levels.

Being retained is a stronger predictor of delinquency than socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. It also is reported to be a strong predictor of drug and alcohol use and teenage pregnancy.

Instead of retaining those students, why not provide a remedial reading period at the next grade level along with the other support strategies already in place?

Finally, I am sure Gov. Lee will continue to tweak his voucher program during this next term. The Education Savings Accounts was a significant win for his administration.

I suspect going forward he will want to expand the program to cities other than Nashville and Memphis.

While I always support expanding one’s options when searching for high-quality educational opportunities for children and families, I am not a fan of using public education dollars to support privately run K-12 schools.

Since taking office, Gov. Lee’s administration has been extremely busy reshaping Tennessee’s educational landscape. He has managed to make some significant changes in the last three years.

I am sure he will continue to aggressively pursue his agenda during his new term in office.

(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)