Roy Exum: Our ‘Disconnected Youth’

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The fact that three of Tennessee’s four largest cities have just been named among “The Fifty Worst American Cities to Live” is disheartening and reflects badly on our state and local leaders. The website 24/7 Wall Street just deemed Detroit as the No. 1 worst in the nation but Memphis was No. 5, Knoxville was No. 23 and Chattanooga was No. 30, yet there is something that is even worse.

A major study found that Memphis now has the highest average of “disconnected youth” than anywhere else in the United States. The 24/7 Wall Street figures indicate Knoxville and Chattanooga can’t be far behind. When you hear the term, “disconnected youth,” it refers to those between the ages of 16 and 24 who are not in school and don’t have jobs.

That Memphis is the No. 1 city in the nation is a direct reflection of the fact the Memphis schools are easily among the worst in the country and lends further credence to the belief the state of Tennessee has loused up the school district instead of helping it. A number of poorly-performing schools were taken over by the state’s Achievement School District over five years ago and a Vanderbilt study shows there has been little, if any, improvement.

The initial battle cry was that the state-operated school district would take schools in the bottom five percent and move each into the top 25 percent in five years’ time. Well, the last bell has just sounded and the experiment was a total bust.  Test scores mean nothing. Forget test scores … we are talking instead about “disconnected youth.”

Candice McQueen, the Commissioner of Education for Governor Bill Haslam, is receiving a lion’s share of criticism for the Memphis failure and she has just slashed ASD jobs and sized down the state’s efforts, to the gasps of parents. There are 14 new applications for charter schools in Memphis … the state of Tennessee’s Department of Education is one of them. Are you waking up and smelling the coffee?

McQueen is now pressing Hamilton County as hard as she can with five of our inner city schools as ransom. She will soon take them over in a despicable way where a “partnership,” which is anything but, will create a new appointed (not elected) school board and have its own superintendent. For months it has been rumored among the select that the partnership ‘super’ will be Kirk Kelly, just voted out of HCDE leadership when Bryan Johnson was chosen over him last Thursday.

There is certainly no reason to believe anything was ‘pre-arranged,’ like at a funeral, but the fact that School Board Chairman Steve Highlander, an ardent and longtime Kelly supporter, was the deciding vote for Johnson will make you itch if, indeed, Kelly is “appointed” to the partnership as expected. Again, I am sure there is nothing to base any conspiracy theory on because transparency is a virtuous goal of the school board as well as the Tennessee Department of Education.

Before the exhaustive search, McQueen boldly threatened the Hamilton County School Board with her singular power to place the five purloined Hamilton County Schools in the state’s questionable Achievement School District. She offered the Partnership as an option, giving a Power Point presentation that assured the school board, the County Commission, the state legislature, the state’s elected officials in Washington and Donald Trump’s entire cabinet that  not a one would have a say-so nor any control whatsoever of the so-called partnership.

“And, no,” she stated emphatically, “No is not an option,” this after I had suggested McQueen be told “we will not take part” by the “owners” of the schools and the children.

There are an estimated 2,600 children at the five schools who will be affected by the state grab and it is hoped the new superintendent – Johnson – can beg more time. The problem is McQueen has all of the Achievement School District people hired and she just instituted her ‘charter schools’  division, naming an executive director and holding a workshop where a multi-page document was revealed for state charter schools..

McQueen has promised to provide $1 million in state money (taxpayer) for “planning” the partnership for the 2018-19 school year and then another half-million (taxpayer) for the first year of operation. But McQueen will be gone. Her term ends when Haslam leaves office next year. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger spoke with McQueen last week but called the conversation “confidential.”

Coppinger, who is running for re-election, just increased money for public education by 1.9 percent in the FY2018 budget and there has not been a tax increase for education in 12 years. If re-elected, Coppinger will have to fund the “partnership” after McQueen departs, using taxpayer money.

There is a very real and viable belief that if the partnership in Hamilton County follows the easily-predicted path of the Achievement School District, the number of “disconnected youth” in the Chattanooga area will become the standard measure by which state-administered education is deemed a success. Trust me, the expense to experiment is absolutely too great.

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