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Tennessee already underfunds education. Crowe's double-talk will make it worse

Dr. Bill Smith, Community Voices • Jan 19, 2020 at 6:00 AM

In their appraisals of educational quality, politicians, pundits, and journalists typically point to comprehensive test score summaries and then offer the sweeping pronouncement that America’s public schools are failing and thus need to be overhauled. They miss a central point. As educational scholar Jack Schneider has noted, “Most (American schools) are as good as schools anywhere else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.”

Schneider is right. Inequality is — and always has been — the greatest challenge facing American education, and his use of the word “embrace” provides the perfect framework for understanding why we have failed to address this ethical tragedy.

Last April, Rep. Matthew Hill explained his vote to enact a voucher program in Memphis and Nashville by saying, “I wanted to make sure we had a piece of legislation that helped the children in the failing schools, but held my schools and my teachers harmless.” Hill clearly wanted voters in his district to know that he embraces their children, even as he renounced his embrace of poor, urban students in Memphis and Nashville.

A Dec. 30 article in the Johnson City Press (“Capital Ideas”) reported that Sen. Rusty Crowe and his legislative colleagues will soon be “readdressing” that voucher program.

There are three ways the General Assembly can readdress the voucher law: tweak some of the details, repeal it or extend its reach. I’m betting they’ll choose the last approach. The passage of the voucher bill was the culmination of years of Republican efforts to enact a profiteering scheme most citizens oppose. Tennessee Republicans cracked open the door last April, and now they’d like to barge through.

Crowe also said he and his colleagues will be working to help “failing schools get better,” repeating the mantra Gov. Bill Lee and other Republicans consistently employed in their promotion of the voucher bill last spring. When today’s Republicans talk about “failing schools,” you can be sure they’re pushing public school privatization — and nothing else.

The Press article also noted that Crowe and other Northeast Tennessee legislators “are determined to see local school districts do not lose Basic Education Program money as a result of vouchers.” That’s political double-talk. Crowe, a 28-year veteran of the General Assembly and member of the Senate Education Committee, and his colleagues have grotesquely underfunded the BEP in recent years, and the money diverted to vouchers will exacerbate this shortcoming. Tennessee is 45th nationally in per-pupil funding and well below the Southeastern average. Expanding the voucher program will compromise funding for public education even more, and local schools will surely feel the impact.

Tennessee Republicans have tied themselves in a knot trying to convince voters their schools will not be hurt by vouchers. The effects may be indirect, but they will be real nonetheless. In a May 1 article, The Tennesseean reported that last year’s voucher law could cost $330 million by 2024, money that could be used instead to improve education across the state. Further, if we’ve learned anything over the years about school funding and the achievement gap, it’s that the children who most need our embrace are the ones who suffer most when educational funding is inadequate.

The Dec. 30 Press article contained another set of statements by Crowe that really left me puzzled. He said Tennessee lawmakers will “put a huge focus” on addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences and will emphasize “programs that address academic, physical, and mental health needs of students with ACEs.” He also called attention to the relationship between health care needs and educational success, and noted that children born during the opioid epidemic are now entering kindergarten and first grade.

Here’s why that’s so puzzling to me. For decades, Republicans have rejected the fact that there’s a relationship between the conditions of children’s lives and their academic success. Is our Republican-controlled state government now going to reverse course and address the broad range of problems that affect children’s school performance, or are they just going to address the impact of opioids?

To be fair, the article I’m dissecting here did not say if Crowe expressed concern about children other than those who have suffered the effects of the opioid epidemic. Maybe he did, and there just wasn’t room to include that information.

I’m glad Tennessee legislators are considering programs to address the problems faced by children with ACEs. I’d be ecstatic if I thought they were also preparing to address the major challenges faced by children in what they call “failing schools.” However, their willingness to inflict on those poor, urban schools a hoax (vouchers) they said they wouldn’t impose on their own communities says otherwise. Moreover, if they choose to enact measures that assist only the children affected by opioids, I’ll leave it to readers to decide why their embrace doesn’t extend beyond that one demographic.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and a public school advocate.


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