BY: AMY NOLAN
Bills that sought to curtail accountability measures in Tennessee’s public schools died during the recent legislative session, although when problems arose with the state’s student assessment, TNReady, legislators quickly acted to ensure students and teachers were held harmless before they headed home to campaign.
A bill passed on the final day of the legislative session in late April allows students, teachers and local school systems to ignore poor TNReady scores when calculating grades or preparing evaluations. Local education agencies, like Knox County Schools, were also given the option to determine how much to consider TNReady scores if they were positive, within a range of 0 to 15 percent. Knox County Schools has since approved counting the test results – if positive – as 5 percent of students’ grades.
The legislation was among several bills that dealt with standardized tests for K-12 students, prompting Gov. Bill Haslam to warn earlier in the year about rolling back reforms that contributed to Tennessee’s gains in public education. The resulting legislation had little impact on future assessments, although lawmakers have made clear their frustration with online test-taking, which was disrupted by several factors including a dump truck severing a fiber line.
Bills concerning student assessments were among 104 bills traveling in the Legislature that the Knoxville Chamber followed this year.
Two bills passed that are designed to link students with careers in skilled trades. Retiring Rep. Harry Brooks successfully sought to expand class sizes for Career and Technical Education by school systems operating career academies. Another bill creates a tax credit for employers hiring work-based learning students and shields them from liability with the exception of workers’ compensation in doing so.
Sen. Richard Briggs and Rep. Eddie Smith passed legislation that will allow students obtaining an associate’s degree program at Knoxville College to be eligible for Tennessee Promise scholarship funds. The measure is part of a larger effort to resurrect the historically black college that includes selling part of its property to the city, which plans to build a new police and fire headquarters and tear down the college’s vacant dormitories. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission voted in mid-May to allow Knoxville College to begin offering a Liberal Studies Associate of Arts degree, a two-year general studies associate’s degree.
On another topic, legislators appear to have finally reached a compromise in a battle that pitted short-term rental company AirBnB and its hosts against local government and neighborhoods who have sought to place more restrictions on where such properties can operate. The compromise shields current owners of short-term rentals from being outlawed by local government until the property is sold, transferred, ceases being used as a short-term rental unit for a period of 30 months or has violated local law three or more separate times. The law also allows local governments to issue – and suspend – permits for short-term rental units.
Another battle between business and local government also ended up in a compromise both sides say they can live with for now. The Competitive Wireless Broadband Investment, Deployment and Safety of 2018, pushed by telecommunications companies, is intended to promote the deployment of small cell technology to facilitate 5G wireless services by creating a statewide regulatory framework. The new law creates minimum standards for local governments to create siting requirements for small wireless facilities, and effectively prohibits local governments from imposing stricter requirements than state law. It also creates a maximum annual rental fee that local governments may charge for allowing equipment to be attached to its buildings, water towers, traffic signals, light poles, etc.
Initiatives in two areas on Gov. Haslam’s agenda – reforming how opioids are prescribed and tracked and streamlining the University of Tennessee’s governance – passed, albeit with some revisions from what his administration initially proposed.
Rep. Bill Dunn played a leading role in getting the administration bills related to opioid abuse through the House. One bill created incentives for offenders to complete substance use treatment while incarcerated and updated the schedule of controlled substances to better track, monitor and penalize the use and unlawful distribution of opioids. The other limited the duration and dosage of opioid prescriptions for new patients.
Finally, the University of Tennessee became the focus of legislators’ ire as media attention and a Facebook post by the Rev. Franklin Graham chided the state for the student-sponsored Sex Week on UT’s Knoxville campus.
Legislators passed the Governor’s UT FOCUS Act, which reduced the size of the Board of Trustees from 27 members to 12, and then refused to approve nominations of any current trustees.
Legislators also looked ahead to future governance of UT – knowing UT President Joe DiPietro will likely retire in 2019 – by changing the selection process for a new president by requiring the search committee to select up to three finalists versus mandating three finalists. Proponents of the measure hope it will allow trustees to recruit a high-performing leader for the post.