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Education legislation: Pre-K through 2nd grade testing, school funding and retention elections

Zach Vance • Apr 2, 2019 at 7:52 PM

The House Education Administration Committee heard three education-related bills, all carried by Northeast Tennessee lawmakers, but just one of those proposals advanced to the full House Education Committee.

Sponsored by state Rep. Micah Van Huss, House Bill 0038, was approved by a 6-1 committee vote. Chairman Mark White cast the sole vote against the proposal.

Van Huss was not in Nashville for the committee hearing, but a cosponsor of the bill, Rep. Scott Cepicky, presented on his behalf.

In summary, the bill would prevent the state from mandating any testing, assessments or portfolios for pre-kindergarten through second grade.

Instead, pre-K through second-grade teachers would be evaluated by a peer group, consisting of at least three teachers from the same school. The peer group members would be selected by the director of schools and supervised by the school principal.

The director of schools would have the ability to develop the evaluation guidelines, but those guidelines must be applied uniformly throughout the school system.

“From the time I’ve been in Nashville, my teachers (in my district) have again and again and again said they’re tired of having to train for a test. They just want to be able to teach again,” Van Huss told the Johnson City Press following the committee hearing.

Aleah Guthrie, director of policy for the Tennessee Department of Education, expressed several concerns to the committee about Van Huss’ proposal.

She said using the peer evaluation model, specifically for pre-kindergarten teachers, might not be feasible in small schools.

“That can be problematic if you’re limiting it to three teachers who are employed in the same school. You may not have three teachers employed in the same school who teach the same subject as you. It’s a limitation that not every school could meet,” Guthrie said.

“Current law says you cannot mandate a test prior to third grade. So we don’t mandate the second grade assessment. We do not mandate the pre-K (and kindergarten) portfolio. Those are optional if you participate in the (Voluntary Pre-K) grant, and we have about 100 districts who use the second-grade assessment, but it is optional. 

“The way this bill changes that section is to say, ‘the state shall not administer assessment prior to third grade.’ ... So districts who want to have voluntary pre-kindergarten, they want to know how their students are doing in pre-K and K, first grade and second grade, they wouldn’t be able (to).”

Rep. Ryan Williams questioned Cepicky about how Van Huss’ bill differed from at least four other bills that also dealt with lower-grade testing requirements, specifically portfolio assessments for pre-kindergarten.

“From speaking with Rep. Van Huss, I think this bill deals with the administration of how we’re going to look at these grade levels,” Cepicky said.

“Most of the other (bills) are talking about giving an ‘either or’ or eliminating it totally. This one is providing an administrative level to how we’re going to evaluate our teachers.”

Another proposal sponsored by Van Huss, on behalf of Sen. Dolores Gresham, was taken “off notice,” meaning it will no longer be heard by the committee unless the sponsor re-calendars it. Since Tuesday was the last calendar for House committees, the bill will likely not be revived this legislative session.

That bill, House Bill 0301, would have permitted school systems to hold a retention election for its director of schools. If a majority of the electorate opposed retaining the director of schools, the school board would not be allowed to extend their contract.

Van Huss told the Press he opted to take the bill off notice due to a lack of progress in the Senate.

The third proposal, carried by state Rep. Matthew Hill, was also removed by the committee’s calendar.

House Bill 1252 would have required all school funds, including cash, collected by a county for education-related capital projects be split among education systems based on average daily attendance.

“It was made very clear to me that there was not support for it in the Senate, and you can’t really do it if you don’t have support in the Senate,” Hill said.

However, the Jonesborough lawmaker said House leadership had been supportive of the effort.

That bill was directed at specifically solving an issue between Washington County Schools and Johnson City Schools.

Currently, Washington County has employed a “capital projects fund” that builds up cash to fund a portion of its school projects. By doing this, even though most city taxpayers pay county taxes, Washington County is not required to split its school funding with the city, as would be required if the county funded the whole project by taking on debt.

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