Tennessee education commissioner to launch early literacy program

State Education Priorities

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Calling it a top priority, Tennessee’s education commissioner says she plans to launch a new statewide early literacy program.

It's designed to tackle a problem that has plagued our schools for years.

To get a head start on the new year, the Tennessee House of Representatives, for the first time, is holding budget hearings before their session starts in January.

On Monday, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn presented her department's budget and a new early literacy program she's starting.

"We need every single child to read on grade level, and that's actually our moonshot goal. That's what we need to be true,” said Schwinn.

Despite recent progress, Schwinn says the latest figures show only about a third of Tennessee fourth graders can read at grade level. Less than a third, 27 percent, of students entering high school can read at grade level -- statistics that surprised lawmakers.

"It's absolutely ridiculous. It's unacceptable on every single level by any metric. That can't continue,” said Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland.

Schwinn says the problems need to be addressed much sooner.

"I would say that the majority of our children start kindergarten, they do not know their letter grades and letter sounds; many of them do not recognize their name in print, basically early kindergarten expectations that we would have,” said Schwinn.

Schwinn is asking lawmakers for $15 million to get the program started. Districts will be given grants to help buy materials and other resources for their students.

To develop the plan, Schwinn says the education department looked at what worked in other states, like Mississippi.

"First and foremost, they had a massive, comprehensive statewide program,” said Schwinn.

The early literacy program is part of a long-term plan called “Best for All” that she unveiled earlier this month that lays out priorities for students, teachers and district leaders.

Schwinn is also asking for an additional $15 million for the state’s voucher program to help offset the costs of students leaving school districts.

The voucher law is not set to take effect until next year. Earlier this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said the law won’t go into effect if the state isn’t ready.

He added that he will know by early 2020 when to begin implementing the voucher program.

Copyright 2019 WMC. All rights reserved.