NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee’s annual legislative session is underway in Nashville.

Prior to the start of the 113th General Assembly, WKRN News 2’s Chris O’Brien sat down with leaders on both sides of the aisle to talk about all the issues and what they might look like in bill form.

Separate interviews were conducted with Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland), Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Democratic House Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville).

Not every interviewee was asked about every subject, but there was considerable crossover with most of them.

Below you’ll find what lawmakers said ahead of the session when asked about their thoughts on education-related topics, including the state’s controversial third-grade retention law, which went into effect this year. 

Third-Grade Retention Law

Under the current language of the third-grade retention law, the state solely uses the TCAP to determine whether a student is proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) and reading. But now, that could change.

Currently, as the law stands, it’s up to the Department of Education to decide whether to pass a student to fourth grade, depending on their TCAP score.

Rep. David Hawk (R—Greeneville) has filed a bill that would move the authority to determine if a student can be promoted from the third or fourth grade from the state Department of Education to the local education agency (LEA).

Both Clemmons and Sexton from the House talked about the need to decrease the reliance on TCAP for analysis, and Johnson from the Senate agreed.

Sexton: “I don’t think you remove the accountability feature. When you don’t have students feeling like they could be held back, what’s the point of holding them accountable? If they’re not performing well, for the benefit of them, we need to look at holding them back, so that part still needs to be there.”

“What we need to change is we’re only using the TCAP test right now. So, you’re using one or two days to determine if they’re proficient or not. There’s tests throughout the year they take for reading and math and writing and so forth, where we can use those, in addition to the TCAP and get a broader picture. Use those tests to make those determinations, so I think, from that standpoint, we have to tweak it a little bit.”

Clemmons: “I was proudly one of the few people to vote against that law. I foresaw the real problems that were inherent in the language of that law, as did a few others in the Democratic Caucus. It either needs to be repealed or fundamentally amended. The educational disparities that will result from that bill are truly concerning. This law, incorrectly and unfairly, places all the emphasis on one standardized test to gauge a student’s progress and learning ability.”

“Improving literacy rates is a mutual aim of everyone up here, Republican, Democrat – all of us want to improve literacy rates. But there are better ways to do that than place all the emphasis on one standardized test.”

McNally: “I couldn’t really predict whether it’ll change or not, but I certainly support the law. If the individual can’t read or do third-grade math when they’re in the third grade, they don’t need to proceed onward because that’s social promotion. They get to the fourth grade and they’re not prepared, what do you do then? You move them on. You just keep moving them and they get to high school.”

“I remember my wife taught in Memphis for two years, she was at a junior high. The majority of her class at that time couldn’t read at a third-grade level, and she was teaching science, so you can imagine what kind of job she had in trying to teach them to read, as well as teach them the subject of science.”

Akbari: “We’ve heard a lot of complaints in our educators and our schools. I definitely want to take that input and, kind of, strengthen the law. At the end of the day, you want kids to be able to read, but you don’t want to unfairly hold them back or put some sort of pseudo-testing in place that doesn’t accurately reflect the child’s ability.”

Johnson: “I was very supportive of the bill that we passed. Let’s be very clear – it’s not just retention. We have appropriated money for intensive tutoring, summer school programs, all types of intervention to help these get where they need to be to advance. If you advance a child from third grade to fourth grade and they cannot read proficiently, you are setting them up to fail.”

“I have heard from a lot of constituents, I’ve heard from teachers and school board members with concerns about this, and I think we are open to the idea of providing additional resources if necessary, providing clarity. The objective of the legislation we passed is not to hold a bunch of third graders back, it was to recognize that they are struggling.”

“I’m not wed to any particular test or mechanism to determine whether or not that child can read proficiently. I just think that we need to be sure they can before they advance. We need to have an objective way or ways to determine whether this child is ready to advance to the third grade.”

Lamberth: “We’re not going backwards in education, we’re not going to go in reverse. We’re going to continue to move forward. Every single year, we look at the laws that were passed in previous legislatures to make sure that they’re being implemented properly.

“But what I’ll tell you is completely unacceptable. If a third grader can’t read then they’re not going to be able to succeed. We have to make sure that they can read. And not only that they can read, but that they love reading. Whatever we need to do to make sure that happens, that’s what we’re going to continue to do. But we’re not going to go in reverse.”

Charter Schools and the Charter School Commission

The debate over charter schools in Tennessee has been an ongoing one — with Hillsdale College-affiliated American Classical Education (ACE) being a major topic of discussion. In early 2022, Governor Bill Lee said he wanted to bring 50 Hillsdale charter schools to Tennessee.

A few months later, Hillsdale President Larry Arnn made comments about teachers, saying they are “trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”

Governor Lee then distanced himself from the organization, and three local school boards rejected an application for Hillsdale-backed charter schools in their counties.

But in December, the classical education group submitted five ‘letters of intent’ to apply for new charter schools in counties across Tennessee. Those counties are Montgomery, Rutherford, Madison, Maury and Robertson.

While ACE dominates the charter schools discussion in Tennessee, it’s not the only form of a charter school system.

Sexton: “I’ve always been in favor of charter schools. Now, what I will say is I’m in favor of charter schools in areas where the schools are underperforming or failing. I think parents need to have a choice, they give parents a choice.”

Outside of [Hillsdale-affiliated American Classical Education], classical education is something that should be discussed. It goes back to how you were taught 20, 30 years ago. As far as Hillsdale goes and what curriculum they use, that’s up for them to use. It’s their decision, parents can decide to send their kids there or not send their kids there.”

“One of the other things we need to look at for charter schools is charter schools for homeschoolers. Maybe there’s a possibility to work with the homeschoolers and charter schools and combine the two and allow them to have a hybrid program.”

Clemmons: “We have to return control to locally elected officials and our school systems across the state of Tennessee. The state does not know what’s best in every instance for our school systems. We need to restore local control of our public school systems across the state of Tennessee.”

“The charter schools and the state charter commission are a perfect example of how much this GOP supermajority and Governor Bill Lee have overstepped into local decision-making. We need to return those decisions to locally elected officials.”

Johnson: “I think relative to charter schools, the system we have in place is working. The most recent round of applications that were denied by the local LEAs, I believe there were 13 of them. The charter commission reviewed all 13 appeals and ultimately overrode the local government on three of those.”

“That tells me that they are doing their job. I think that’s a good system. The barrier is pretty high for that charter commission to override the decision of the local school decision, and it should be. We value our local school boards and our school districts, and they should be making the decisions that are best for our community.”

“But it’s our job at the state level to make sure these school districts are doing their job and providing the highest quality education they can for their kids.”