The Tennessee legislature was very active this past session and enacted a large number of new laws that began on July 1, 2021. Following are summaries of some of the new laws that now in effect:
Sales Tax Holiday: This law cuts $50 million in taxes by providing an additional sales tax holiday on the sale of food and food ingredients from July 30 to August 4, 2021. It also cuts the taxes on the retail sale of prepared food for restaurants during the same time period. This is in addition to Tennessee’s annual sales tax holiday which allows consumers to purchase clothing, school supplies and computers tax-free.
Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act: Among other measures in this comprehensive legislation addressing learning losses, this legislation strengthens the state’s 3rd grade reading retention policy by ensuring that students are on grade-level before being promoted to the 4th grade.
Teacher Pay/Rural Teachers: A bill was passed requiring the State Board of Education to increase the minimum salary on the state salary schedule by the same percentage as any increase in funds made to the instructional component of the Basic Education Program (BEP). By doing so, it will ensure that the lowest paid teachers within Tennessee will receive the raises.
Teacher Shortages: Legislation which will help address teacher shortages was passed by the General Assembly this year by simplifying the teacher licensure process. It provides aid to teachers who are moving into Tennessee to receive an appropriate teaching license, helping qualified teachers get into classrooms quicker.
Endorsement Pathways: A new law which seeks to increase retention of high-quality educators by providing an alternative endorsement pathway has passed the General Assembly. The measure provides additional flexibility at the local level. The Board of Education will create a process by which school districts may administer training programs for endorsements without having to enroll in higher education. Individuals will still be expected to pass an assessment to ensure they are qualified.
Textbook Transparency Act: The act ensures that all textbooks in the hands of Tennessee students are accessible to the public to view. It makes available online textbooks that are adopted by the state of Tennessee and used by public schools. Compared to the 90-day timeframe textbooks are currently required to be available to the public. This new statute requires publishers to make these materials available so long as they are actively being used in the classroom.
Students/Threat of Mass Violence: Legislation seeking to address mass violence on school property was approved before lawmakers adjourned the 2021 session. It creates a Class A misdemeanor offense for communicating a threat to commit an act of mass violence on school property or at a school-related activity and a Class B misdemeanor if a person with knowledge fails to report it. A sentencing court may require a person sentenced for either offense to pay restitution for the destruction of normal activities. It also allows a court to order a child held for threatening mass violence on a school to undergo a mental health evaluation.
Tennessee Accommodations for All Children Act: The act requires a public school to provide a reasonable accommodation to a student who has conveyed through a written request that they are unwilling or unable to use multi-occupancy restrooms or changing facilities designated for the person’s sex. The goal of the bill is to be respectful and protect every child’s right to privacy, as well as to remove any uncertainty about making accommodations for all children.
Safe Stars Act: This law creates standards and metrics for student athlete safety in a program that has been recognized as one of the most comprehensive health and safety programs in the United States for K-12 athletics.
Student’s Right to Know Act: This act requires the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) to publish a web-based dashboard for high school students considering their college and career options. It will give students more information regarding higher education cost options, in addition to expected wages in occupations they are considering.
HOPE Scholarship/Homeschoolers: Lawmakers also dealt with inequities in the HOPE Scholarship Grant for homeschool students. Under previous law, homeschool students could not qualify for HOPE Scholarships through their GPA score, unlike their public and accredited private school counterparts. Instead, they solely relied on their ACT scores for eligibility. The new law solves this discrepancy by extending aid to homeschool students who both complete six credit hours of dual-enrollment and maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in those courses. Additionally, the legislation removes the requirement that a student must have been enrolled in a home school for one year immediately preceding the completion of their high school level education.
Child Protection/Adoption/Health Check: Legislation was passed requiring adoptive parents receiving subsidies to annually provide the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) with medical or school enrollment records in order to ascertain a health check. This legislation comes after the horrific deaths of two Roane County children. Authorities believe the children were buried several years before discovery. The arrest warrant said the children were fed a “starvation diet of light bread and water” by their adoptive parents. They were also locked in a basement and caged in isolation. The adoptive parents continued receiving financial benefits for both children after their death. The new law also authorizes DCS to initiate a face-to-face visit if the adoptive parent fails to provide the documentation and foul play might be suspected.
High Quality Day Care: A new Tennessee Child Care Task Force has been formed as a result of legislation passed this year. The purpose is to develop a strategic plan to address the current challenges of providing and accessing high-quality affordable child care. The group will look at ways to build public and private partnerships to streamline coordination of state departments to find solutions to these challenges.
Child Care Quality Rating Improvement System: This law makes significant revisions to the Child Care Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS). This system provides the mechanisms for conducting quality assessment of child care providers, the child care report card system, and the child care rated licensing systems. It replaces the outdated Report Card system with a new assessment tool to weave quality indicators into the licensing rules so that it is a seamless system for parents and providers to navigate.
Evelyn’s Law: Under the new law, parents in Tennessee who do not report children missing to law enforcement within 24 hours could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. It is named after a Sullivan County 15-month-old who was found dead after her mother failed to report her missing to the authorities for months.
Eli’s Law: This measure allows the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) to investigate the birth of subsequent children born to parents who have had a previous child removed from their custody.
Severe Child Abuse/Exposure to Dangerous Drugs: This new law protects children from being exposed to dangerous illegal drugs. It expands the definition of “severe child abuse” to involve a child’s exposure to certain extremely dangerous or illegal drugs. It also provides an individual that knowingly allows a child to be in the presence of and have accessibility to such drugs as cocaine, methamphetamine or fentanyl will be guilty of severe child abuse. The measure was recommended by Dickson Youth Leadership.
Child Neglect and Endangerment: Similarly, a new law was passed which expands the definition of child neglect and endangerment to include the exposure of a child to methamphetamine or any other dangerous drug that are not Schedule VI. Schedule VI drugs are marijuana and its equivalents. Under the new law, offenders are subject to a Class A misdemeanor unless it is a child 8 years old or under, which would be a Class D felony.
Safe Home for Trafficked Children: A new law was approved to help prevent minors who are victims of human trafficking from being prosecuted for prostitution and ensure they are given the care they need to recover. It requires law enforcement officers to alert the Department of Children’s Services when they take a minor into custody on charges of prostitution so the child can appropriately be placed in a safe home. This helps ensure the child can receive any professional assistance they may need and can be removed from a life dictated by abusive traffickers.
Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking Victims/Self Defense: A new law was enacted to establish certain considerations regarding the use of force by victims of human trafficking. It authorizes victims to use force that could result in serious bodily injury or death, even if the victims are engaged in illegal activity or in a location they are not legally allowed to be, if they are in the situation as a result of their status as a human trafficking victim. Under the new law, the victim must prove in court they are a victim of human trafficking in order to use deadly force. Previously, Tennessee law allowed victims to respond in kind to a reasonable belief of a threat of death or serious bodily injury by using force as self-defense or defense of a third party. However, force was not lawful when used by persons engaged in criminal activity in a location they were not allowed to be or in a location that furthered criminal activity.
Continued next week