Written by Curtis Johnson
Tennessee State Representative
Nashville, TN – The first session of the 110th Tennessee General Assembly adjourned on May 10th, 2017, after passing major legislation that will benefit Tennesseans for generations to come. This is Part 7 of a 12 Part report.
This includes a measure making Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college; a new law rebuilding a safe and reliable transportation network, while reallocating revenues to maximize taxpayers’ return on that investment; and a bill which provides a responsible path to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation, and education.
Action in the General Assembly also included passage of a balanced budget which takes on no new debt, as well as legislation protecting the elderly, enhancing the state’s robust job growth, cracking down on crime, and boosting efforts as the fastest improving state in the nation in K-12 student achievement. Following is a report on key legislation passed this year.
Education / Programs & Curriculum / Other
Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act
Legislation to enact the Tennessee High-Quality Charter Schools Act advanced to passage. The new statute aims to improve the quality of charter schools that are authorized in the state by enhancing the relationship between charter authorizers and charter schools, increasing accountability and aligning charter practices in Tennessee with national best practices. Strong authorizing practices, oversight, and accountability will ensure districts are only authorizing schools with a strong potential for success and will ensure underperforming schools are promptly closed.
Middle College Scholarship Program
A new law was approved this year creating a Middle College Scholarship Program to help students who are earning a Middle College degree. Middle College is a public community college program that, in partnership with the LEA, permits high school students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree during their junior and senior years.
Although the program facilitates a seamless transition to post-secondary education, due to the requirement that recipients have a high school degree, the students are not eligible for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship.
The legislation calls for a grant of $600 per semester, or $1,200 per year, to offset the cost of tuition and books during the two-year program. It also expands eligibility for the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship to students who complete Middle College.
Middle College students are among the most sought-after students in the nation by four-year colleges and universities and typically achieve 100 percent proficiency on high school benchmark exams. On average, 90 percent of Middle College graduates transfer to a four-year college or university.
Local Education Agencies (LEAs)
Legislation was passed requiring LEAs to offer at least four early post-secondary credit courses to students with the goal of encouraging them to partner with others or institutions of higher learning. This provides students a chance to take more advanced classes and prepare for their future. These courses can be provided through traditional classroom setting, online, blended learning, or other appropriate methods.
Students who earn a 19 or above on the ACT (or equivalent SAT score) and a capstone industry certification will be recognized as a Tennessee Tri-Star Scholar upon graduation under a new law enacted this year. It encourages more students to take the ACT or SAT tests, hopefully leading to a greater number of students pursuing higher education degrees or post-secondary certifications.
Celebrate Freedom Week / History
The General Assembly approved legislation designating the week of September 17th as “Celebrate Freedom Week” in Tennessee public schools. The timing coincides with Constitution Day, which is also known as Citizenship Day, commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17th, 1787.
The purpose is to educate students in grade K-12 about the sacrifices made for freedom in the founding of this country and the values upon which it was founded. This initiative emphasizes the teaching of the country’s origins with an emphasis on the founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence.
The Tennessee Department of Education will provide LEAs with online resources and materials for instructional use during Celebrate Freedom Week. The local schools then have latitude in how they want to teach it.
House Bill 287 / Status: PC 279 / Effective Date: For the purpose of promulgating rules, this act shall take effect upon becoming a law on May 4th, 2017. For all other purposes, this act shall take effect July 1st, 2018,
General Assembly Pages
A bill passed this year requiring a school to count a child who serves as a page in the General Assembly as present for attendance, in the same manner as an educational field trip, due to the educational experience. Pages, whose duties consist of anything from making copies, running errands within the Capitol building, to distributing legislative information to members of the General Assembly, get a unique front-row view of the lawmaking process.
American Sign Language (ASL)
Legislation received final approval during the first half of the 110th General Assembly that requires the State Board of Education to adopt a policy allowing ASL courses to satisfy the foreign language credits. State law is already supposed to encourage Tennessee schools to offer courses in ASL and to accept them as satisfying a foreign language requirement.
However, there has not been any movement to comply with the 1990 law. This new statute seeks to help the more than 500,000 Tennesseans who are deaf or hard of hearing and who use ASL as their primary form of communication.
House Bill 462 / Status: PC 270 / Effective Date: For the purpose of promulgating rules, this act shall take effect upon becoming law on May 4th, 2017. For all other purposes, this act shall take effect July 1st, 2017.
Physical Activity / Recess
Legislation was enacted in 2017 that clarifies Tennessee’s law regarding school recess requirements, requiring a minimum of 130 minutes of physical activity each school week for elementary school students and 90 minutes for middle and high school students.
The new statute provides that physical activity must be at least 15 minutes to qualify as recess to ensure a benefit to the student. It also ensures that recess does not replace current PE programs.
The House of Representatives and Senate voted this year to modernize the Uniform Athlete Agents Act for the ever-evolving sport commercial marketplace and the increasing improper activity between athlete agents and student athletes. An athlete agent’s recruitment of student athletes, while they are still enrolled in an academic institution, may cause substantial eligibility or other problems for both the student athlete and the academic institution.
The new law protects the interest of student athletes, academic institutions, and athlete agents by regulating the activities of the agents.
It expands the definition of “athlete agent” to ensure all who are compensated are included; provides reciprocal and interstate compact registration; provides a central location where an athlete agent credentials can be reviewed; enhances agency contract requirements; adds notification requirements mandating an athlete agent to notify the education institution before making contact with the student; and, gives student athletes the right to sue an athlete agent for damages.
Career Technical Education
Finally, the General Assembly approved a bill to administratively attach the Council for Career and Technical Education to the Tennessee Board of Regents rather than to the Department of Education. The legislation also adds two members from the General Assembly to make Career Technical Education more effective.
House Bill 1412 / Status: PC 433 / Effective Date: For the purpose of promulgating rules, this act shall take effect upon becoming a law, the public welfare requiring it. For all other purposes, this act shall take effect July 1st, 2017.
Some of the most significant legislation approved by the General Assembly in 2017 was in higher education, including a key bill to give eligible citizens tuition-free access to community college. The legislation advances the state’s “Drive to 55” initiative to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
The major legislation approved this year follows passage of the Tennessee Promise program in 2014, the nation’s first scholarship and mentorship program that provides high school graduates last-dollar scholarships to attend two years of community or technical college free of tuition and fees.
The 2017-2018 budget increases funding for Higher Education by $149.2 million and appropriates total funding at $4.4 billion. It establishes Reconnect Grants for Adults and tuition funding for Guardsmen through the Support Training and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen (STRONG) Act. It provides $10 million for need-based aid and supports numerous capital projects.
Capital projects include $126 million for a University of Tennessee at Knoxville Engineering Building, $65 million for a new classroom building at University of Tennessee at Martin, $25.8 million for the Motlow State Rutherford Campus, $23 million for the East Tennessee State University Lamb Hall renovation, $12 million for the Walters State Sevier County Campus, $44 million for the University of Memphis’ Music Center, and $79 million for Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) statewide.
Among the top bills of the 2017 session was legislation to make Tennessee the first state in the nation to offer all adults without a degree tuition-free access to community college. The Tennessee Reconnect Act establishes a last-dollar scholarship for adults to attend a community college tuition-free by expanding a grant program launched in 2015 that especially aims to attract approximately 900,000 Tennesseans who have earned some college credit but no degree.
Adults without a certificate can already attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) tuition-free under the current Reconnect program. This new law expands that program’s access to community colleges and relieves some of the previous requirements to receive assistance. The Reconnect expansion will be funded out of lottery reserves at no cost to taxpayers.
To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, a student must be 25 years of age, a Tennessee resident for at least one year preceding the date of application and does not already have an associate or bachelor’s degree. Other requirements include completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application where the applicant is deemed an independent student.
In order to maintain the Tennessee Reconnect grant, the student must enroll in classes leading to an associate’s degree or certificate continuously and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. The program will begin with the fall semester of the 2018-19 school year.
Likewise, the General Assembly passed the STRONG (Support, Training, and Renewing Opportunity for National Guardsmen) Act this year which creates a pilot program to provide eligible members of the Tennessee National Guard tuition. It provides funding toward a first-time bachelor degree through a tuition reimbursement program for those who protect and serve our state and country. It also provides consistency for recruiting, increasing competitiveness with surrounding states.
As a last-dollar reimbursement, the amount of state tuition reimbursement is offset by any other funds received. To be eligible, the individual must be currently serving with the Tennessee National Guard in good standing, have applied for federal tuition assistance, and be admitted to any Tennessee public community college, public university, or private college or university which is regionally accredited. The student must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0.
All but four states nationwide, and all states adjacent to Tennessee, already offer 100% state tuition assistance for those who are serving in the Guard. In addition to strengthening the Tennessee National Guard, the STRONG Act will strengthen Tennessee’s workforce and economy and contribute to the “Drive to 55.”
Veterans / Making Military Training Count in Higher Education
In addition to making it easier for veterans to determine how their military training can count as credit in Tennessee’s colleges and universities, legislation passed this year grants in-state tuition to anyone currently living in Tennessee who is using VA educational benefits, regardless of their official home of record.
That change brings Tennessee into compliance with new provisions in the GI Bill, ensuring that about 13,000 Tennessee service members, veterans, and their dependents continue to receive education benefits under the federal program.
The legislation also updates and enhances Tennessee’s Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Act which encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials. That law created a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority.
The new statute also calls on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to select representatives of various state colleges and universities by December 2018 to work collaboratively in adopting policies for Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) for veterans. Currently, PLA credit can vary significantly from one institution to the next. The group will identify and develop uniform methods to assess and maximize academic credit for veterans based on the experience, education, and training obtained during their military service.
THEC will then create and maintain a web-based dashboard designed to assist veterans in assessing what credits they are eligible for at each of Tennessee’s institutions of higher education. A veteran or service member will be able to click on the specific military occupational specialty he or she possesses and instantly see what academic credit they qualify for at each of Tennessee’s public institutions
Approximately 27.7% of Tennessee’s Veterans have some college or an associate’s degree, while 24.3% have a bachelor’s degree. Like the STRONG Act, the VETS bill works in conjunction with the state’s “Drive to 55” initiative to get 55% of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025, prioritizing veterans in that goal.
FOCUS ACT / Appointments
Senate Joint Resolutions 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34 passed this year confirming appointments to several of the state’s university boards. The appointments follow the passage of the Focus on College and University Success (FOCUS) Act last year granting four-year state universities additional autonomy to empower each institution to be successful in improving student outcomes.
Now that they are appointed, the new boards will have the authority to appoint campus presidents, manage university budgets, set tuition, and guide other operational tasks of the universities they oversee.
Campus Free Speech Protection Act
Legislation seeking to protect free speech and open inquiry on Tennessee’s college campuses was unanimously approved this year. The Campus Free Speech Protection Act seeks to protect First Amendment rights and values on Tennessee campuses. It requires Tennessee public institutions of higher learning to embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty, regardless of political or religious affiliations.
It also requires the governing bodies of Tennessee’s colleges and universities to adopt a policy that affirms the principles of free speech, which are the public policy of this state. Included in that policy is an affirmation that “students have a fundamental constitutional right of free speech,” and that “an institution shall be committed to giving students the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn, and discuss any issue.”
LEAP / Education
A new law passed this year includes “work-based learning experiences” in the curriculum for work-based learning under the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP). The legislation aims to meet necessary skill standards of industries in Tennessee as part of the LEAP program.
The LEAP program not only makes sure the state education programs are providing a more relevant educational experience, but aligns them with the private sector as well, so that students can work, learn, and earn simultaneously. The LEAP program has engaged almost 20,000 students since it was passed in 2013.
Smoking on College Campuses
A new law passed this year authorizes the state university board of each public institution of higher education in Tennessee to adopt policies regulating smoking on property owned or operated by the institution. This applies to any area on campus that is not already prohibited by law.
Immunizations / Tennessee Colleges and Universities
Finally, legislation has been approved which grants the governing boards of each public institution of higher learning, in consultation with the Department of Health, the authority to promulgate rules regarding immunization requirements for students enrolled in their institutions. It gives public higher education institutions the flexibility to set commonsense regulations.