Gov. Lee announces special legislative session to address 'urgent' education issues amid pandemic

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced he is calling the Tennessee General Assembly into special session on Jan. 19 to address what he says are "urgent issues" facing students and schools in the 2021-2022 school year.

"We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense disruption for Tennessee's students, educators, and districts, and the challenges they face must be addressed urgently," Lee said in a statement.

But the Republican governor said, "even before the virus hit, and despite years of improvement, too many of our state's students were still unable to read on grade level. I'm calling on the legislature to join us in addressing these serious issues so we can equip our hardworking educators and districts with the resources and supports they need to set our students on the path to success."

The session will address learning loss, funding, accountability, literacy and teacher pay.

Citing preliminary data that projects an estimated 50% drop in proficiency rates in third grade reading as well as a projected 65% drop in proficiency in math, Lee said the losses only exacerbate pre-pandemic issues where only a third of Tennessee third graders were reading on grade level.

Lee has previously voiced similar concerns, and there had been talk the governor had planned to call lawmakers into special session to focus on the issues. The new 112th General Assembly is already scheduled to convene on Jan. 12 for a one-week organizational session. The special session will occur during what was originally planned as a recess.

During a telephone conference call with a group of legislators, Lee said, "we've had a number of challenges across our state, but the education challenge has been most pronounced for us. We all know our students deserve to have a first-class education. And the challenges of COVID-19 have had an enormous impact."

State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a news release that "as we have heard from districts since March, students need their teachers and schools like never before. No child's future should suffer academically because of COVID-19.

"Not only as commissioner, but as a mother of two school-aged children, I am grateful for the bold solutions that our governor and legislature will provide for our students and schools across the state, and the department stands ready to work together to accomplish this mission-critical work," Schwinn added.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, said that besides posing a public health crisis and disrupting Tennessee's economy, the coronavirus has "also created enormous obstacles for our parents, teachers and students. Tennessee has made tremendous improvements in education over the last decade. The virus has begun to put all of that at risk."

McNally said it is "of paramount importance that we take steps to reverse the learning loss that has taken place and prevent any further erosion of our progress." Addressing the issues in a special session will provide focus "on the pressing needs of education in this state," the lieutenant governor said. "The Senate will work with the House and the Administration to address these issues in an expeditious and efficient manner to the benefit of our students and our teachers."

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said he backs Lee's call, noting the pandemic "has caused considerable disruption for our students, teachers and schools. Our goal is to make sure students are learning in the classroom, teachers have the resources they need, and our students have additional assistance in their educational journeys to improve their chances of success."

There is speculation in legislative circles that the governor may propose using some one-time school maintenance and upkeep formula money in the state's Basic Education Program funding formula to bump up teacher pay.

Schwinn's office is expected to release details soon on recommended actions.

In addition, the department plans to implement a new literacy program, "Reading 360," which will "leverage" one-time federal relief funding to support a "phonics-based approach" to literacy and, officials say, "will ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade."

During the 2020 special session, Schwinn's proposed phonics program contract generated skepticism and even suspicion from some conservative lawmakers.

The concerns over the pandemic's impact on students have been around for months. In September, Lee and Schwinn warned that Tennessee students who are already struggling in school had taken a major hit in terms of learning loss during the fall, with a traditional "summer slide" becoming a much steeper "COVID slide."

Lee said at the time an "alarm has been sounded." The Republican governor said data trends indicate "real challenges that have been experienced by students at all levels [and] learning loss, especially in the areas of reading and mathematics."

A week before that, seven Tennessee school superintendents told state lawmakers that the poorest-performing students were taking the hardest hit academically during the coronavirus pandemic.

Local education chiefs also voiced concerns in areas ranging from whether state accountability measures on student performance will be maintained during the COVID-19 era as well as enrollment drops and the efficacy of online learning. As many as half of Tennessee's 1 million public school students may be in a virtual education setting.

During the marathon state House Education Committee meeting in the fall, Bradley County Schools Director Dr. Linda Cash said the "most sobering" finding from benchmark testing done this year was that "the lowest percentile of our students, the students who were already low, dropped two grade levels."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.