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Tennessee Bill on AI in Schools: A Hint of What's to Come?

Sen. Joey Hensley said his legislation allows public K-12 districts and universities to make their own choices regarding if and how artificial intelligence should be used for learning, pending state approval.

While several state education departments have published general guidance on classroom use of artificial intelligence that can be adapted or referenced at the local level, Tennessee has gone a step further and is poised to ratify a law requiring school districts to implement their own AI policies before the next academic year.

Tennessee Senate Bill 1711 overwhelmingly passed through both houses in the Tennessee General Assembly in February and was sent to Gov. Bill Lee on Feb. 28. It sets a July 1 deadline for public school and charter school boards to establish an AI use policy and submit it to the state Department of Education for authorization in time for the start of the 2024-2025 academic year. It also requires public colleges and universities to submit their own AI policies to the state Board of Regents by July 1, 2025.

Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) said the goal of this legislation is to keep AI-related decisions at the local level. And while districts can restrict or outright prohibit AI use in schools, he said those who choose to allow tools like ChatGPT should create a policy that’s consistent between teachers and subject areas while providing some guardrails against plagiarism.

“It doesn’t tell them what to do, it just tells them what they need to do to deal with it,” Hensley said. “The state Department of Education is involved because the districts can’t just have a policy that allows AI to write all of their [students'] papers.”

He said he expects Gov. Lee to sign the bill into law in the coming weeks.

If that happens, Tennessee will join a growing list of states that have taken action on AI use in the classroom. In January, state education departments in North Carolina, Washington and West Virginia published guidance, following similar actions their counterparts in California and Oregon took in 2023.

Also in January, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order outlining general guidelines for AI use in education with a pledge to develop best practices and identify ways individual districts can implement their own policies. Similarly, a bill introduced in the Kentucky state Legislature in January calls for statewide recommendations regarding AI use in classroom instruction, district administration and academic standards, with a professional development program for educators in place before the next school year. But that legislation hasn’t made it out of committees yet, according to the Kentucky General Assembly website.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a research organization at Arizona State University, published a report last year that noted most U.S. states had yet to outline a plan for AI use in public education. On March 5, CRPE released an update noting which few states have since taken action. It concludes that plans for managing the responsible use of AI in schools are ambiguous and underdeveloped.

“Signs point to inconsistency and fragmentation,” the report is titled, indicating that the guidance varies across state lines.

“Given that the U.S. Department of Education may wait until as late as the end of 2024 to release more resources, signs point to a potentially decentralized and fragmented set of approaches to AI," the CRPE report says. "Meanwhile, districts continue to ask for more help. Given the rapid evolution, widespread adoption and often difficult-to-detect nature of AI, decentralization might be the most sensible approach to regulation."

The report compares the recent guidance provided in North Carolina and West Virginia, noting that both emphasize a need for “safe use” policies and acknowledge the massive potential AI brings to classroom learning.

But when it comes to guarding against plagiarism, North Carolina recommends a scale of acceptable AI use where teachers should rethink what constitutes cheating and “adapt their teaching assignments and expectations to this new reality.” West Virginia’s guidance, the report says, takes a much more punitive tone: “Teachers must be clear about when and how AI tools may be used to complete assignments and restructure assignments to reduce opportunities for plagiarism by requiring personal context, original arguments or original data collection.”

While states are establishing early guidelines for responsible AI use in theory, individual school districts, the report says, will need to take the lead on shaping policy and practices.

“Districts will still need to undertake the time-consuming task of determining which policies should change and the language to use,” the report says.
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.