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Maury Co. legislators talk education goals and more in post-COVID Tennessee
Daily Herald - 5/1/2021
May 1—The annual State Eggs & Issues breakfast is a time when state leaders discuss the major projects and bills currently being decided within the state legislature.
This year's event, presented by the Maury Chamber & Economic Alliance, along with Columbia Breakfast Rotary, was no different.
Friday's panel consisted of Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, and Reps. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, and Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, returning to address the Columbia crowd.
Topics ranged from the legislature's stance on COVID-related mandates, education and judicial reform, as well as ways Republicans and Democrats can work better together.
Now that Tennessee is more than a year out from the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the first topic addressed was "where are we now?"
Hensley said though there have been many discussions about whether to issue a statewide mandate for masks or COVID vaccination requirements, Gov. Bill Lee does not intend to ever pass one, he said. Instead, state leaders have left the decision to local mayors, as well as individuals.
This includes legislation approved this past week aimed to prevent the government from mandating vaccination passports.
"We're getting to a point where many people are getting vaccinated, and we've already passed legislation that would prevent government from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine. We are leaving that up to the individuals," Hensley said. "We have more vaccines available now than there are people wanting to get them, and so if anyone wants one they are certainly available."
Moderator Wes Bryant followed up the question by asking Hensley, who is a licensed physician, if getting the vaccine is something he would encourage the public to do, as well as wearing masks.
"Certainly I would encourage people who are at risk to get the vaccine, but we are leaving that up to the individual. Vaccines are beneficial, and all vaccines have risks and side effects," Hensley said.
"You have to weigh the risk of side effects with the benefits, but certainly the people at risk need to get the vaccine, but for others it's up to the individual, which is the way it should be. We have personal liberties in this country, and people should be able to decide for themselves."
As a member of the state's House Education Committee, one of Cepicky's biggest passions in his role has been to assess and reform the state's education system.
This often means pinpointing where it has gone wrong and why certain statistics don't seem to add up, regarding graduation rates and job readiness.
Much of the improvement, he said, needs to start in the early stages of K-3 learning.
"When this all started, 37% of our third graders read on grade level, 27% of our eighth graders read on grade level, and we had the highest remediation course work at our colleges, yet we graduated 93% of our seniors," Cepicky said. "We have a problem, and we're going to fix it. I promise you, we will be No. 1 in education, and we're going to do everything possible."
He added that when looking at the long-term effects of learning loss, the state spent nearly $130 million to bring back summer school programs for K-3 students, as well as bringing back phonics education to help kids learn to read. This not only gives the students more time for tutoring, but is an opportunity to put extra money in the teachers' pockets, he explained.
"Children that are not on grade level will be attending summer school this year, and we are paying the teachers $1,000 a week to do that. They can also earn supplemental income on top of that where they can be a tutor for one hour a day, four days a week," Cepicky said. "Some districts are paying $500 a week for those tutors, so the teacher can make $1,500 a week over the summer for six weeks to help our kids get to where we need them to be."
There are also plans to take the education committee to Miami later this year, which Cepicky said is the No. 1 large metropolitan school system in the country. This includes ACT and SAT scores, math skills, graduation rates, etc.
"Think of the challenges they face with English language learners," he said. "They are at a very high level, and what we want to do in education is bring that level of success to Nashville, to Memphis, to the ones that are falling behind the most and have the biggest impact on our educational system for jobs moving forward."
Cepicky also cited the recent $4.2 billion federal bill, which was approved in April to fund schools, as another giant step in bringing the state's education up to the level it should be.
"Hopefully by next year with the $4.2 billion the federal government has sent to our schools overall, that we will be able to move this needle in a very quick way so when people start talking about Tennessee, the low taxes, how it's a great place to live, that it also has the best educational system in the country," Cepicky said. "That's what we are shooting for."
One of Curcio's biggest platforms is judicial and workforce reform, not only creating new jobs to address growth, but also decreasing recidivism rates among criminal offenders.
This is an area in which COVID had a reasonable impact, particularly in presenting new opportunities, such as how keeping low-level and nonviolent offenders out of jail often lead to better results.
"It created these interesting studies, because as we look at our pre-trial population ... a lot of those folks can't make bail or bond and wind up sitting in our county jails for six to nine months or a year," Curcio said. "When COVID hit, there was an order sent out by the Supreme Court of Tennessee asking county jails to reduce their populations as quickly as possible. Within about 60 days, they did just that and let go of a lot of folks who committed nonviolent crimes, or were picked up for petty crimes or were awaiting a hearing for something like a technical violation."
The move created unique data in regards to how people act when supervised within the community, rather than incarcerated in a jail facility. According to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data, which Curcio said was "ramped up" at the time," releasing the inmates had almost zero impact on public safety.
"Now, you can certainly say, 'Well, the bad guys were staying home to try and keep from getting sick just like everybody else was.' I think there is certainly a grain of truth to that, but what we also found out was that community supervision for low-level nonviolent folks works even better than this intense supervision," he said. "We've formed a task force with some of the best practices, which says you take a low-level offender and give him a very high level of supervision, of course you get worse outcomes. Anyone who has raised kids knows this."
Friday's panel concluded with the topic of bipartisanism, particularly how state leaders are addressing ways to improve it in the State Capitol.
While there are at times discourse among the differing party lines, all three leaders agreed that "it's not as bad compared to what it's like in Washington."
The greater disagreements, Cepicky said, often stem from bills related to social issues.
"Social issues and social beliefs, that's where the two parties split dramatically right now, and I think you are going to see that for a while," he said. "I think we need to continue focusing on building those relationships across the aisle, and have those conversations about social issues. Sometimes we can find common ground, and sometimes we can't."
Hensley added that part of the low level of party-affiliated issues is because Tennessee is by and large a "red" state. Most of the big decisions, he said, don't necessarily come down to party politics, but what's best for Tennessee.
"We try to work with people and try to do what's best for Tennessee. I represent everybody in my six counties whether they are Democrat or Republican. It doesn't matter to me, because when we are elected we represent everybody in the state. We are Republicans because of our values, our conservative values mainly. And like Scott said, most of our issues with the other party is on social issues, and we have seen a lot of social issues this year, which we need to address those things."
In 2019, Curcio along with with Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Shelby County, co-founded the Tennessee Future Caucus, which Curcio said was born out of the idea of working together despite differing values and political beliefs, particularly among young politicians.
"We can talk all day long about what we disagree about, and there is plenty to talk about, or we can focus on the things we do agree on. What Sen. Akbari and I do every year is we sit down with members of our caucus, and they are both Republicans and Democrats, and we say, 'What are the pieces of legislation we can champion together?" Curcio said.
"Those are things like our criminal justice reform bills, the expungement bill that we passed and was signed by the governor expanding our expungement statute in Tennessee. Those came out of conversations with the Future Caucus. There are discussions about medical cannabis and what we can do there to move the needle, and other similar issues.
"We really try to pinpoint specific pieces of legislation, and then try to run with them each year, and I will say most of them do wind up crossing the finish line."
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