Proposed Tennessee house bill threatens urban district funding

Superintendent+Joris+Ray+speaks+out+against+proposed+legislation+and+threats+of+defunding+from+the+state+capitol%2C+creating+the+%2523Don%E2%80%99tHurtMyChildren+movement+on+social+media.+Ray+and+other+administrators+have+worked+tirelessly+in+the+pandemic+to+provide+resources+and+equitable+learning+to+the+greater+Memphis+area.+

Screencapture, SCS Youtube

Superintendent Joris Ray speaks out against proposed legislation and threats of defunding from the state capitol, creating the %23Don’tHurtMyChildren movement on social media. Ray and other administrators have worked tirelessly in the pandemic to provide resources and equitable learning to the greater Memphis area.

By Emlyn Polatty, White Station High School

On Jan. 19, 2021, Tennessee legislators made a bold move with the introduction of House Bill 7021, which seeks to resume fully in-person learning within 100 days, despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state. If passed, the bill will target urban districts in Tennessee, namely Nashville Metropolitan Schools and Shelby County Schools (SCS), with threats of withdrawing vital state funds should the mandate be disregarded. 

For many SCS teachers, this bill comes as a slap in the face in midst of an already challenging worldwide pandemic. Germantown High School chemistry teacher Arthur Scott was among those who spoke out against the proposed bill.

“Initially, [I felt] anger that you would even threaten the least of these, SCS and Metro Nashville Schools, where most of the kids are, well, without. That bothered me tremendously,” Scott said. “Right now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. There’s so much more we need to be concentrating on.”

Though the bill has been tabled due to its controversy, social studies teacher Erika Sugarmon expects it to return in later sessions with a bit of a face lift. Sugarmon, who has previously run for local office, holds concerns for her students in the wake of this bill.

“I asked my students if they would come back in person and how they felt about it. Out of all of my classes, nine students said they would come back in person,” Sugarmon said. “They’re afraid. They’re saying that, you know, right now is not a good time because Tennessee is one of the top states with COVID-19.”

Responses amongst parents and students have been mixed with some believing that returning to in-person learning truly is the best option. Superintendent Joris Ray was quick to respond to state legislators, reaffirming SCS’s commitment to fully-virtual learning for the 2020-2021 school year. 

“School is in session and has been in session since August. Our students are engaged in synchronous, live lessons every day. So when you call for getting ‘back to school’ you denigrate the incredible heart work of teachers across my district —- and across the state — who have moved heaven and earth to teach virtually to keep from hurting children,” Ray said in his Jan. 22 statement.

Due to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s comparatively small actions against the spread of COVID-19, some are skeptical about his push to return to in-person instruction. Teachers such as Sugarmon are taken aback at the threat to defund districts when they most need support. 

“First of all, we’re a state that does not mandate masks. We have not even had opportunity to have widespread vaccinations. Teachers on the second prong, if you will, and a lot of teachers it seems like don’t have access…” Sugarmon said. “You’re steadily taking money away, but you’re not putting safety features in for people on the front line. Your teachers, your administrators, as well as the students.”

While legislators in Nashville may have good intentions at heart, the disconnect between the capitol and the classrooms is evident. Scott, who joined other educators in starting a protest movement on social media, wants to bridge this gap.

“Governor Lee, come into my class,” Scott said. “I’d be glad to invite you. We’re not in a school, but we’re in school. We’re in school from 8-3 every day. It’s just off a computer…Come into our class and see what’s actually going on.”

This story was originally published on The Scroll on February 21, 2021.