Marta W. Aldrich, Chalkbeat
Representatives on the floor of the Tennessee House


Where Tennessee lawmakers landed on vouchers, guns, AI, and other education issues in 2024


Tennessee’s legislature is done for the year after a session marked by political infighting over private school vouchers and emotional debates about whether teachers and staff should be able to carry a gun in public schools.

The statewide voucher proposal fizzled after the Senate and House couldn’t agree on the specifics. Gov. Bill Lee quickly pledged to come back next year with another plan.

The bill to arm some school employees easily passed, defying dramatic protests at the state Capitol, a year after a Nashville school shooting in which three children, three adults, and the intruder were killed.

“This was a session of good, bad, and ugly,” Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari said after the legislature adjourned on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, some really really bad bills ended up passing,” the Memphis Democrat added.

Republican leaders hailed the four-month session as a success.

“We accomplished things that will benefit the people of this state,” the governor told reporters minutes after the gavel fell.

He cited the passage of a “historically important budget” that includes a consolation prize of $144 million for his Education Freedom Scholarship Act, in case it passes in future years. The failed voucher proposal seeks to give taxpayer money to any family who wants to send their children to private schools, regardless of their income.

“That shows a clear intent that we believe in this concept and that we expect that to get done next year,” Lee said.

By the end of the week, the governor had signed the bill to let some school employees carry guns, which took effect immediately.

The new law marks the biggest expansion of gun access in Tennessee since the killings at The Covenant School. Last year, the legislature appropriated $140 million to help place an armed officer in every public school, but many districts, especially in rural areas, haven’t been able to hire an officer for every campus.

“Districts have the option to choose,” Lee said earlier, arguing that some school systems need to let some employees carry a concealed handgun.

Legislation at the intersection of schools and guns

Lawmakers sorted through some 230-plus education bills filed in time for this year’s session — about 300 if you count those left over from last year in the two-year General Assembly. They ultimately passed about 70 that directly affect K-12 education.

For the second straight year, they made tweaks to a 2021 reading and retention law to address what many called unintended effects for students in grades three and four. Under a compromise approved on the last day of session, parents and educators of fourth graders will now have input on whether their students get held back because of low reading scores on state tests.

The legislature rejected tighter gun laws sought by Democrats and gun control advocates, and continued instead to pass legislation aimed at fortifying campuses. Among the initiatives: new school fire alarm protocols to take into account active-shooter situations; a pilot program to give teachers wearable alarms; increased safety training for school bus drivers; and guidelines to digitize school maps so first responders can access school layouts quickly in an emergency.

A rare bipartisan bill increases the penalty for anyone who threatens to commit an act of mass violence on school property or at a school-related activity.

Another measure, which Lee has signed into law, requires public schools to teach children age-appropriate firearms safety concepts as early as pre-kindergarten. The video-based training is to begin in the 2025-26 school year and, among other things, will instruct students who find a firearm that they shouldn’t touch it and should notify an adult immediately. The bill bars parents from opting their children out of the training.

So-called culture war issues played prominently again

One new law requires public school students to watch a video on fetal development produced by an anti-abortion group, or something comparable. Another measure will require public school employees to out transgender students to their parents. But a bill designed to ban LGBTQ+ flags in schools failed in the Senate amid concerns of a legal challenge based on First Amendment rights.

Tennessee’s age-appropriate materials law, championed by Lee in 2022 to cull certain titles from school libraries, now includes a definition of “suitable” materials for certain ages and maturity levels. And if a local school board doesn’t address a book complaint within 60 days, the complainant can now take the issue straight to the state textbook commission.

Another GOP bill that passed seeks to make sure that material related to “sexual activity” is excluded from the state’s mandatory family life curriculum for students in kindergarten through the fifth grade.

Meanwhile, legislation sponsored by Democrats directs the state education department to develop a program that public schools can use to teach students the skills of nonviolent conflict resolution.

Social media and technology also were on the minds of lawmakers.

They signed off on legislation requiring minors to have parental consent to create social media accounts.

In addition, school districts, charter schools, and higher-education institutions must develop and implement their own policies on the use of artificial intelligence in the classroom, if they haven’t already done so. Those policies could include restricting or outright prohibiting the use of AI.

Amid that discussion, one bill requires that Tennessee history be taught in fifth grade. Having that issue codified in state law settles, for now, a debate that erupts whenever the state revises its academic standards for social studies.

Memphis was the focus of more legislation

Rep. Mark White and Sen. Brent Taylor, both Memphis Republicans, drafted several proposals aimed at education in their community.

The legislature passed one bill allowing the University of Memphis to create its own K-12 school district and expand its innovative University Schools model beyond campus borders. University officials said they’ll launch the district this fall, even as they’re still in talks with Memphis-Shelby County Schools about their contract that runs through fall 2026.

Another proposal — giving the governor the power to appoint up to six new members to the board of Memphis-Shelby County Schools — was never heard in committees after White agreed to hold off and work with the existing board and the district’s new superintendent, Marie Feagins, on an improvement plan.

A Democratic-sponsored proposal to end the Tennessee Achievement School District, the state’s sputtering takeover and turnaround initiative, passed out of the Senate but not the House. Rep. Antonio Parkinson, the sponsor there, pulled the legislation on the last day of session when White sought to amend the bill. Still, the ASD continues to shrink on its own as its 10-year contracts with charter operators end.

An effort to expand a separate pilot school turnaround project — which started in 2021 in Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga — failed to clear budget committees.

Lawmakers passed House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s charter school proposal to create new alternative education options for Tennessee’s at-risk youth. The plan opens the door to residential charter schools, a concern of disability advocates who warned against any measure that could lead to the institutionalization of youth or commingling distinct student populations facing varying issues such as substance abuse, juvenile crime, chronic absenteeism, and teen pregnancy.

Sexton trumpeted his and other charter school legislation headed to the governor’s desk. One bill rewrites state law governing vacant and underutilized public school properties to give charter operators the “right of first refusal” to purchase those public assets.

“This session did more than it’s ever done in our history to continue to put (charter schools) on a path to give parents the choice and alternative to traditional schools,” Sexton said.

A tighter budget meant fewer education initiatives

Passing a budget for state government is the legislature’s only required constitutional duty, and the task was more challenging this year as tax revenues flattened and federal COVID relief funding ended.

Still, Republican lawmakers approved a $1.9 billion package of tax cuts and refunds to corporations and businesses.

They ultimately approved a nearly $53 billion spending plan that allocates an additional $126 million to raise the annual minimum salary for public school teachers from $42,000 to $44,500. The goal is to get to $50,000 by the 2026-27 school year.

Also included is $8 million to hire more school-based behavioral health specialists amid record reports of students experiencing stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. Another $15 million in non-recurring funds will help charter school operators pay for school facilities and maintenance.

But the legislature killed efforts to hire more school-based nurses and counselors, reimburse teachers for some of their child care expenses, and provide free feminine hygiene products in high schools, as well as separate proposals by a Democrat and a Republican to make school meals free for all students. It also said no to a bill to use tax revenue from Tennessee’s growing sports betting industry to offer child care scholarships to low- and middle-income families.

When the 114th General Assembly convenes next year, it will look somewhat different after this year’s elections. All seats of the 99-member House of Representatives and half of the Senate’s 33 seats will be on the ballot.


This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.