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Legislative Agenda

2021 Legislative Agenda

Each year from January through May or so, when the Tennessee General Assembly holds its legislative session, TQEE advocates for a set of policy proposals that support one or more of our 4 core priorities: Engaged & Empowered Parents, Quality Affordable Child Care, Excellent Early Grades Teaching, and Strong Accountability Systems.

The legislation we support, if enacted, would move the ball down the field toward our #1 goal that all Tennessee’s student are proficient in reading and math by 3rd grade. The items below are part of our 2021 legislative agenda.

This year our agenda is in part immediately responsive to the learning, economic and health crises presented by COVID-19, and in part looking ahead to build back better as the state emerges from the pandemic later this year.

School Nurses  SB0581 (Crowe) / HB0537 (Hawk)

Chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma and seizure disorders can affect children’s academic performance. TDOE reported that in the 2019 school year, 221,501 Tennessee students had a chronic health condition, an increase of 100% from 2005. School nurses can provide direct care to these students and help them learn to manage their own care and mitigate the impact of their conditions on their learning.  Nurses also help students stay in school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, chronic absenteeism — which has a profoundly negative effect on student achievement — is closely correlated with ongoing and/or unmet health care needs. TDOE reported in 2019 there were more than 5 million student visits to a school nurse, and 87% of those resulted in the student returning to class instead of being sent home.  At the same time, school nurses can detect illness early, prevent its spread, and identify students at risk, while also advocating for the well-being of the entire community.

The current ratio of nurses to students is 1:3000 in Tennessee. Over the past 17 years, the state’s BEP Review Committee has recommended 14 times that the statelower the ratio of students to nurses in the funding formula including the last 4 years with a specific recommendation to lower the ratio to one nurse per 750 students. The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that school districts provide full-time school nurses in every school building. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, schools should have one nurse for every 750 students. The state cost for that is estimated at $42 million annually; but the return on investment is clear.  TQEE strongly supports lowering the ratio of elementary school nurses to 1:750 based on national best practice standards and Tennessee’s BEP review committee recommendations.

Child Care Strategic Plan Task Force.  SB0677 (Massey) / HB0598 (Hazlewood)

Underspent federal TANF funds are not the only opportunity to meet the needs of struggling families in Tennessee. The state has also forfeited more than $200 million in federal Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) money over recent years.

A TQEE report series: Want to Grow Tennessee’s Economy? Fix the Child Care Crisis provides insights into a dysfunctional child care system that is not meeting the needs of Tennessee parents and children and, as a result, creating an adverse economic impact of $1.34 billion annually in lost earnings and revenue.  Tennessee working parents are hit hard – losing an estimated $850 million in earnings each year. An overwhelming 98 percent of Tennessee parents of children under age 5 said that inadequate child care hurt their work productivity or limited career opportunities.  And our businesses are negatively impacted too – losing $270 million annually. The issue has been compounded by COVID-19, with many child care operations closing their doors, in some cases for good.

Given the substantial underspending of federal TANF and CCDF funds, the extent and complexity of the child care system problems, it would be prudent for the Governor and the General Assembly to initiate a strategic approach to setting goals for and investing in innovative solutions to increase the number of high-quality, affordable child care slots. TQEE supports a task force of key state commissioners, legislators, business leaders and child care providers to develop a strategic child care plan tied to the state’s economic growth goals, with solutions that leverage child care as a critical tool for developing both the workforce of today and workforce of tomorrow.

Tennessee Opportunity Act.  SB0144 (Watson) / HB0137 (Hawk)

The now $732+ million unspent temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) surplus, and $191 million in annual ongoing TANF funds, offers a unique opportunity to reduce child poverty rate and promote family self-sufficiency.  This measure would establish a reasonable reserve, while ensuring federal TANF funds aren’t unnecessarily stockpiled as they have been. It also ensures each county receives annual ongoing TANF funding proportional to its share of children in poverty, and carves out $300 million from the surplus for communities to create and implement strategic plans to reduce child poverty and promote economic self sufficiency through 2-generation approaches.

There are three major guiding principles we recommend for ensuring highest and best use of TANF and other underutilized federal funding streams such as CCDF toward greater economic participation and growth for Tennessee.

  • Approach investments as an economic growth strategy. There’s significant evidence that increases in income, particularly for low-income families, are good for the economy. More income leads to more consumer spending which is a key driver of economic growth, tax revenues and job creation. Strategies should be highly strategic, should engage the business sector, and should be tied to specific goals for ROI.
  • Invest in the early years. There is a substantial and ever-growing body of evidence, from neuroscience and child development (Shonkoff 2006), as well as from long-term evaluation studies (Duncan 1997), that “success builds upon success,” and the start children receive in life sets them on a pathway to achievement both in and out of school (Schorr 2007). Assessing this literature, Nobel Laureate in Economics James Heckman points out: “The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families. Starting at age three or four is too little too late, as it fails to recognize that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. Efforts should focus on the first years for the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. The best investment is in quality early childhood development from birth to five for disadvantaged children and their families.” And clearly, with roughly 2/3rds of Tennessee’s 3rd graders not proficient in reading or math, we need greater focus on the years prior.
  • Use “2 Generation” approaches. A critical factor in the success of children is the well-being of their families. Research indicates the benefits and positive outcomes of strategies which intentionally and simultaneously support children and the adults in their lives together. Child and parent focused approaches might include, for example, a combination of workforce programs, high quality child care, food and nutrition, family literacy, parenting skills and healthcare and mental health care. A cost-effective, high impact initiative will intentionally prioritize resources to support children, siblings and parents from the same at-risk families.

TQEE strongly supports passage of this bill.

Governor Lee’s Literacy and Learning Loss Bill Package | SB7001/HB7003, SB7002/HB7004, SB7003/HB7002

It’s widely acknowledged that 3rd grade is a critical K-12 benchmark; and yet only one-third of Tennessee 3rd graders are proficient in reading. If a student is not proficient by third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school and 60% less likely to pursue a post-secondary degree. As Tennessee data demonstrates, once students fall behind in third grade, they tend to stay behind, or fall further, in subsequent years. Low proficiency in third grade is a clear indication that the quality of children’s learning experiences leading up to 3rd grade requires significant improvements.

TQEE supported the passage Governor Lee’s package of literacy bills during the special legislative session on education.   The bills establish a new phonics-based reading program to help boost literacy rates, allocate resources for tutoring, summer and afterschool programs to accelerate learning and address learning loss due to the pandemic, and ensure standardized tests are administered to ensure visibility into student progress while “holding harmless” educators, schools and students for test outcomes. Read more here.

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