Since when do we need a law allowing teachers remove disruptive students from a classroom?
This sounds nuts. But since there already is a federal law that prevents removing students with disabilities from classrooms, perhaps this may become just another way to let teachers railroad kids of color or with disabilities — or just youngsters they don't like — out of school.
And it's wrong. But this is Tennessee, so get ready for it.
A bill aimed at empowering Tennessee teachers to remove chronically disruptive students from their classrooms cleared our super-majority Republican Legislature on Thursday over objections that such exclusionary disciplinary practices ignore deeper problems.
The Senate's 25-8 vote sent the measure to Gov. Bill Lee's desk for his signature after an 81-15 vote in the House on Monday.
If the governor signs the measure as expected, the Teacher's Discipline Act will create "a uniform referral process" allowing teachers to petition to remove students who repeatedly or substantially interfere with classroom learning. The policy is championed by the Professional Educators of Tennessee, which says out-of-control behavior by some students is driving teachers out of the profession.
Opponents argue the bill, which may sound OK on a knee-jerk level, can take Tennessee backward. What's more, some have raised concerns that Black or disabled students could bear the brunt of the discipline, based on decades of research that schools disproportionately discipline students who are Black or have special needs.
We don't have to look far for proof of this.
In early 2019, Hamilton County Schools was one of 25 school districts flagged by the Tennessee Department of Education for disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities, especially Black students.
At the time, Black students made up 56.5% of the 2017-2018 suspensions of students with disabilities, though Black students overall made up only about 44% of the student population. White students with disabilities accounted for 36.5% of suspensions the same year, though they made up about 56% of the student population.
In recent years, the state increasingly has embraced restorative disciplinary approaches that deal with bad behavior without suspending offenders. The tactics also take into account adverse childhood experiences such as physical or mental abuse, neglect or household dysfunction, which can lead to disruptive behaviors.
"When a teacher faces a disciplinary issue like this, removing the unruly student from the classroom isn't the problem; the problem is getting that student the help they need so they can be reinstated into the classroom and achieve academically and behaviorally," said Sen. Page Walley, one of two Senate Republicans who voted against the bill.
Walley, a psychologist who is a former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, said the bigger issue is funding schools adequately to support student mental health and well-being. Currently, Tennessee does not provide enough money for districts to hire the nationally recommended numbers of school-based counselors, social workers and nurses.
Again our county has been a poster child for this. When the school board wanted to increase local funding that would increase the number of school counselors, social workers and teachers' aides, our Hamilton County Commission — like our state lawmakers — balked at the price tag, claiming teachers should teach. Well, yes. That was the point.
What's more, our commissioners left other reasonable interventions up to the city and civic leaders who took on our myriad school failures with Chattanooga 2.0. One of the primary findings of Chattanooga 2.0 was too many children in our school system were not ready to learn — even at a kindergarten level.
In the 2018-2019 school year, only one in four children under 5 were enrolled in an early learning program, yet 90% of brain development happens before kindergarten. With many of those students living in poverty, we were finding that only 40% of children arrived at kindergarten with the vocabulary and discipline to be equipped to be successful.
That has a lasting effect: In 2019, only 36% of Hamilton County schools students were proficient in reading by the third grade. And if students can't read well enough to do homework and learn on their own after that, then of course they may become discipline problems.
From there, the problem expands: Every student who is railroaded into alternative schools — or worse, drops out and does not graduate high school, costs our society an estimated $260,000 in lost earnings, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
With that understanding, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke — even though the city has no formal role in K-12 education — in 2017 created the Office of Early Learning to better prepare children before they started kindergarten. The following year, he set the goal of adding 1,000 early learning seats in the city.
Three hundred and sixty five seats were added within the first year of the office's creation, and 600 more seats were added in 2020, according to Chattanooga 2.0's 2021 report.
Perhaps if our lawmakers really want to help teachers, this is more the path they should take.